Customs, Food Culture

Day of the Living

Lechon to Celebrates the Day of Living

November dawns in Cuzco as clouds boil up on the mountains and roll over the Huatanay Valley in which the city lies nestled. Not only is this the time of clouds and rain, it is also a month which begins with feasting. Last night the city celebrated the international holiday of Halloween and the national response of the Day of Creole Song, but today begins with the celebration of the Day of the Living and finishes tomorrow with the Day of the Dead.

The pairing of things is not unusual. You can see it on many plates where there are twin carbohydrates, potatoes and rice for example.

Today as family after family gets together to recognize their living they will eat with another dualism, roast pork with two tamales, one sweet and the other salty. The pork, called lechón, goes through a dual process of preparation. Once marinated in seasoning it rests in the sun to let the sky and air do their transformation. Then it goes into an oven as if entering a womb or going underground like potatoes from which it comes out steaming, succulent, and flavorful.

Lechon and Tamales for Sale
Lechon and Tamales for Sale

The tamales that are eaten with it are not only delicious, with their delicate white corn dough and well seasoned filling, they too carry meaning. They are reminiscent of the ears of corn, long and cylindrical–although tamales are much smaller, which grow upright from the earth reaching for the sun.

Of course right now in Cuzco both potatoes and corn are small. Indeed they are sprouts daily growing in the moisture of fresh rain and the intermittent sun that pokes through the clouds occasionally. In a few months both potatoes and corn will be tall and fat.

But in the meantime their growth is matched in this feast with the celebration of the living and the movement of life on its way.

Bread Babies
Bread Babies

The tamale is also a combination with its inedible husk that like a weaving covers the steaming white dough which itself covers the filling inside. An image of worlds with an external wrapping like the sky, a moist yet solid surface like that on which we walk, and inside a place of germination where small things lay hidden.

Today bread babies, pan wawas or t’anta wawas, will appear. Made from risen dough they are decorated and reminiscent of the babies that traditionally once born were (and many times still are) wrapped in a faja, a woven belt, before being placed in a llijlla or quepirina, a colorful carrying cloth.

Interestingly these babies of bread are similar to the mummies that the great Guaman Poma said on this date were brought out and into the city to be feted. The mummies too were wrapped in cloth in a bundle, though carried on a litter according to Guaman Poma’s image.

Huaman poma
Guaman Poma

Sabine MacCormack says Guaman Poma was changing things by bringing the dead onto this date. She says he was fitting indigenous custom to Catholic norms since November is when Catholics celebrate the dead all over the world.

But today’s pairing of living and dead has a lot of meaning since the dead are understood by many, if not most, Cuzqueños to journey back into the world and babies, like potatoes or corn ears, to come from that same world within. In the case of potatoes they come out wrapped still in clinging earth, the corn is wrapped in its husk, and babies are wrapped in cloth.

Furthermore, the dead are associated with rain which is also understood to come from high mountains, from the land, and through the sky, before falling to earth as nourishing moisture.

Selling the Lechon
Selling the Lechon

Today is a time when the living first consolidate their relationships with each other through sharing a very meaningful meal in order to receive the dead tomorrow and feast them with food and song.

In some parts of the Andes, as Gary Urton notes, this can be a time of ritual battles. But that tension between life and death, wet and dry, the sky and the earth, or this world and both the world within or the world above, is both recognized and calmed in the sharing of meaningful food.

holy Week Sweets
Holy Week Sweets for Today
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