Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Well I've Never Been to Haiti, But I Kinda Like the Voodoo

By Cornelia

Crazy busy week again, so I am doing another repostos refritos number here, something I wrote about rum and voodoo on several years ago:

Barbancourt four-year-old Rum has so many uses it reminds me of the old Saturday Night Live routine about the miracle product Sparkle. Like Sparkle, this Barbancourt spirit is so multi-faceted that "it's a floor's a dessert topping!"

Okay, I lied. Barbancourt is a really lousy floorwax. Other than that, though, it's a pretty damn good all-around liquor. For sipping straight, the older rums in this line are much preferable, but those are so good that using them in mixed drinks or cooking is a travesty.

The four-year-old Barbancourt is still a bit rough to drink neat, though you will get a brief hit of vanilla and gorgeously rounded spice before the discord and alcohol take over your mouth. When mixed, however, this elixir imbues even the simplest cocktail with an unbelievably mellow and buttery warmth. Its callow youth means you don't have to feel guilty about allowing it to frolic with tonic or cavort with Co' Cola, and I guarantee you you'll never taste a superior Cuba Libre. This stuff is to Bacardi what freshly squeezed blood-orange juice is to Tang.

For cooking, too, the youngest Barbancourt has no equal. One of the finest desserts I have ever eaten was a dense chocolate torte topped with unsweetened cream that had been flavored with a shot of this stuff and then whipped. This summer, I look forward to making a batch of Barbancourt-raisin ice cream. I fully expect it to rock my dinner guests' worlds.

My first exposure to this rum, however, was not as any form of food or drink, but in a New York Times Home and Garden section article about the resurgence of Vodou as a religious practice in upscale Harlem. A bottle of Barbancourt was prominently featured in an impeccably arranged altar offering, as a gift to the Loa and the ancestors from whom the woman who designed it desired favor.

Barbancourt is, of course, the most famous rum of Haiti, and as such has played a great part in the island nation's economic and indeed spiritual history. I will attempt to translate from the French the Barbancourt website's historical information on both rum production in general and the house of Barbancourt in particular.

Sugar cane was introduced to the Antilles from the Azores after 1493, the year of Columbus' second voyage to the New World. By 1518, there were 40 sugar cane plantations operating on the island of Santo Domingo, which is today divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It quickly became apparent that rum production was a profitable corollary to the business of sugar production. In the 16th and 17th centuries, rum was known to the French by several names: eau de vie, clairin, taffia, ratafia, and guildive. It was not until the end of the 18th century that the drink came to be known as "rum," or "rhum" to the French, in order to make clear its English pronunciation.

The first rums were produced from sugar by-products, and were harsh tasting with "une forte odeur." In an example of the sort of arrogance that led to the only successful slave uprising in this hemisphere, this liquor was named "rum des negres" by the French and given to the slaves working in the canefields and sugar mills. Eventually, the production of a more mellow and sweet tasting liquor was perfected, incorporating only molasses and the juice pressed from sugar cane. It was this rum which became so popular in France, and indeed all of Europe, that in 1763 the King of France issued an ordinance constraining production and limiting the amount of rum which could be imported to that country, in order to protect the native wine industry.

The House of Barbancourt was founded in 1862 in the heart of Port-au-Prince. Run today by the sugarers Jean Gardere and Company, this rum is still pot-stilled from fresh cane juice. Barbancourt is thus what is known as an "agricultural" rum, as opposed to the more common industrial rums, which are molasses-based. This rum is produced exclusively from cane grown in the fields of Plaine du Cul-de-Sac. According to the Barbancourt website, "It is common belief that this cane is evocative of its genuine soil, the terroir. A unique wild yeast, originating from this area, probably exists, which proliferates on the cane stalks, thus producing these peculiar esters, taste and aroma of Barbancourt brands, during the fermentation process."

Once this cane has been harvested, it must be crushed and processed quickly, before the cane begins to dry out, allowing the sugars to deteriorate. The cane is cut into small pieces, to ensure proper sugar extraction, before it is sent to the three sets of mills needed to begin rum production. After the first milling, water is added to the cane so that the last of the sugars can be extracted, but the juice is never diluted to less than 14 degrees Brix, at which optimum fermentation occurs.

This juice, called Vesou, is filtered again and mixed with a proprietary yeast before being stocked in vats. After 72 hours, the juice has fermented into a sugar cane wine, known as wort. In the second step, the wort is distilled to remove unpleasantly flavored alcohols, and then aged in oak casks in a manner similar to that employed in cognac production.

This is the technical side of Barbancourt, but it has insinuated itself into the culture of Haiti in remarkable ways, particularly as something of a sacrament in the rites of Vodou, the Haitian hybrid of Roman Catholicism and African animist religions known more widely as "voodoo."

Bottles of Barbancourt are routinely incorporated into the Mange loa, or "feeding the gods," the most frequently performed ritual in vodou. Food and drink offerings are placed on an altar, to nourish and fortify these divine spirits, the vodouin equivalent of saints. The Mange loa is performed to allow a devotee to make contact with a particular loa. Each of these beings has favorite foods and totems, but all are partial to Barbancourt, which is poured three times on the ground for the loa's delectation.

In the vodou tradition, anyone may construct an altar, also known as a kay myste (from the French caille des mysteres, or "house of mysteries.")

In Haiti, a kay myste is usually a small house, usually no more than ten by fourteen feet in area, which contain individual altars dedicated to the particular loa the owner of the kay myste serves. Traditionally, these altars are constructed on a dirt floor, though it is not necessary to do so.

In the United States, a kay myste may consist of a small area in your bedroom or living room, although Haitians avoid sleeping in the same room with objects consecrated to the lwa, especially with a member of the opposite sex. It is acceptable to do so during initiation, but sex is strictly prohibited during those rites. The area can be screened off, or can take up an entire room if you have the space do to so.

To set up a basic altar indoors, without a dirt floor, you must first obtain a white cloth. This should be washed in water, mixed with with some of your first urine of the morning (vinegar can be substituted for the urine of the squeamish). The cloth should then be air-dried, preferably outdoors in the sun. The table on which the altar is to be constructed is covered with this cloth, which should then be sprinkled with a favorite perfume or Florida Water.

Next, gather four small stones near your house, and clean them by scouring with salt and water, rinsing well. Place one stone at each corner of your altar. Choose a glass or crystal vessel and clean it well--this can be a wineglass, cut glass bowl, or other container, but not anything made of metal or earthenware. Fill this with water, and place it at the center of your altar. This ritual vessel should be baptised by adding three splashes of anisette or white rum as you bless the water and vessel by splashing it with a basil sprig. While doing this, you should give the vessel a name. My favorite online Mambo, the vodou priestess Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen, recommends "almost anything appropriate, fanciful, and positive--'Water of Life,' 'Gurgle Mama Brings Spirit,' or whatever!" According to traditional vodou beliefs, you have now created "a powerful passageway for spiritual energy."

Partially fill glass candleholder with some earth from near your house and a few grains of salt. Then take a white candle, and with pure vegetable oil rub the candle from its center up to the top and then from its center down to the base. As you oil the candle, direct your energy into your hands and pray for spiritual awareness. When you have done so, insert the candle firmly into the candleholder and then place it in front of the vessel of water. Do not light the candle at this time.

Now the altar is ready for objects defining the divine principles you wish to serve. An ancestor shrine boasts images of deceased ancestors (never anyone still alive). An altar to Ogoun should include a machete and a red kerchief, while Erzulie Freda's shrine should be filled flowers and jewelry, and so on.

According to Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen:

Now that you have constructed a basic altar, you are ready for the first step in Vodou practice - reverence for your ancestors. However you have built your altar, remember always that it is a door between the world of human beings and the world of the ancestors and the lwa. Let it get dusty, let the water become murky and stale, use it as a convenient resting place for housekeys and pencils. ignore it, and you will find yourself tired, drained, unlucky, and uninspired. Treat it with respect, keep it immaculately clean, visit it often, and you will be rewarded with energy, spiritual growth, personal victories, and remarkable coincidences.

Your ancestors love you. They will come and visit you, accept your offerings, and point you on the way. They will instruct you, protect you, fight for you, and heal you. They will bring you messages through your intuition and your dreams.
Obtain a picture of a deceased relative of yours whose love for you is beyond question.

If you have no deceased relatives whom you can remember well, either by blood or by adoption, you can choose an image of a person who represents to you ancestral wisdom and love, and give that person a name. You may also obtain images of ancestors of all branches of the human race.
Place these images behind the vessel of water on you altar, either propped up on picture stands or attached to the wall behind your altar. This wall can also be draped in white cloth and images pinned or tacked to it.

Arrange the images until their grouping seems right to you. You may choose to work with one image or many.

Sit in front of your altar. You may ring a small bell or shake a ceremonial rattle to signal the start of your meditiation. Light the white candle on your altar, and if possible light some coconut or vanilla incense. Tie your head with a white cloth if you wish. Gaze into the water in the central chalice.

Relax and do any meditation exercises you are familiar with. Deep breathing, counting backwards from ten to zero, or opening the chakras all work fine. Think about your chosen ancestor. If possible, recollect scenes from the past in which you appear with that ancestor.

Feel the love between you which connects you. imagine that love beaming from your heart as a ray of light, passing through the water and to the ancestor's image. Call the name of your ancestor out loud, repeatedly. Tell the ancestor that you love him/her, and that you want to work together with him/her. It is a basic tenet of Vodou that the living and the dead work together to help each other.
When you feel the ancestors' presence, tip a little water three times on the floor to welcome them.

Do this meditation often, until it is a comfortable routine. Within a week or two, you should make an ancestral feast to offer to your ancestors.
This feast should include foods that were favored by your ancestors in life, with the exception that the food should not be salted.

"Generic" ancestor offerings include grilled corn, grilled peanuts, fresh coconut, and white foods like rice pudding, milk, and flour dumplings.
Place each type of food in a bowl, and place a white candle in the middle of the food. Liquid offerings can be placed in glasses and the candle put in a holder next to the glass. Touch each plate or bowl to your forehead, heart, and pubic area, and then breathe on the food.

Talk to your ancestors, remind them that they were once part of the world of the living, and that you will one day come to join them. Ask them to drive away all evil, such as poverty, illness, unemployment, fatigue, discord, sadness. Ask them to bring to you all that is good, including love, money, work, health, joy, friendship, laughter.

Light the candles, put the food on the altar, and leave the room. When the candles have finished burning, and preferably the following morning, take the food and throw it away at the foot of a large tree. If that is not possible, put it in a garbage bag and dispose of it separately from other garbage. Wash the plates, bowls, and glasses, scrub them with salt, and put them away. Do not use them for ordinary meals.

And, of course, don't forget the Barbancourt, if you really want to suck up to the dead. For more information on vodou history and practice, as well as descriptions of the many loas, I check out the further writings of Bon Mambo Racine Sans Bout Sa Te La Daginen. She sounds pretty trippy.

If you'd really like to throw yourself whole hog into vodou practice, though, you can join in the annual pilgrimage to Saut d'Eau in Haiti. This is recommended by the book 100 Things To Do Before You Die as one of life's peak travel experiences, which recommends companies running tours to the festival in Haiti. According to the author:
During these two days at Saut d'Eau, Voudou coexists very naturally with Christianity. Among the pilgrims to the Virgin are thousands of Voudou practitioners who trek over 2 miles to the Saut d'Eau waterfall, an oasis of freshness that is the home of loa Erzulie.

The waterfall descends over 100 feet, among vines, shallow pools, and mossy ledges. Hundreds of Voudouists strip and bathe nude under the waterfall to purify themselves, and many shake and cry when they become possessed by Erzulie.

Erzulie Freda

One thing that makes the Saut d'Eau rites so special is that the biggest Voudou personalities and most loyal devotees in Haiti congregate there for these two days. This fosters a carnival-like atmosphere with many Voudou camps. All around, people consult with houngan priests, Voudou drums beat incessantly, and sacrifices of chickens and oxen are made to Erzulie. With its mixture of the Virgin, the Goddess of Love, and earthly influences, Saut d'Eau is a bazaar of blessed celebration and sensory overload. As they say in Haitian Creole, "Bondye Bon," or God is good!"
While I find all this fascinating, I am in no great hurry to vacation in Haiti, I must admit, and have yet to set up a vodou altar in my house--especially since the kids would be sure to slime it with peanut butter and cream cheese at the first opportunity, and I don't want to get those loas worked up. So my indulgence in Barbancourt is limited to utilizing it as your basic alcoholic beverage, and is likely to remain so, at least in the short term.

I prefer it mixed with tonic and a slice of lime, or in orange juice on the rocks.
Bondye bon, et la Rhum Barbancourt aussi! Now that I've revealed the abysmal level of my French, I will go pour myself some Barbancourt and toast you all.

If you were going to construct a vodou altar, whose pictures would you put in it? What other objects? What's the name of your loa?


  1. Wow, Cornelia, this is fascinating! Have you read MR CLARINET, which is set in Haiti? Fantastic debut novel. Oh, and I've dribbled over the keyboard at the thought of that rum and that torte . . .

  2. Hey there, Shaz...

    I find I was a lot more long-winded back when I was writing for Eeps, but oh yes, the rum and the torte were pretty great.

    I would love to read MR CLARINET, and will look out for a copy the next time I'm in a bookstore...

  3. Who knew?


    There ya' go.

  4. For some reason I am finding myself suddenly thirsty...

  5. Eeps pieces were always long because words are cheap. It's brevity that costs money.

    Long strange trip. Not quite long enough, yet, but still....

  6. Hey you, we got Nick Stone (author of Mr.Clarinet) in later in the summer. But I would put pictures of you and Martha in my altar, in tribute, of course.

  7. Hi Nick/Cornelia,
    I'm just a beekeeper now, here in Hawaii, trying to get in touch ...
    remember the good old days at SLC when we could only afford to drink the cheap stuff? Check your email for a message.
    Aloha Diana

  8. It's always nice to see people interested in "alternative" religions - but I have to tell ya, if you're ever interested in learning more about vodou/vodun or however you want to spell it, you'd be far better off consulting with real priests and priestesses instead of quacks. Not that she doesn't know anything - but the real deals - in terms of sincerity and clean purpose, which does result in a purer power - aren't out on the internet posting their stuff out there for the entire world to see, and they don't allow you to register ONLINE for initiation either. (Not that you'd go for that, given your understandable reluctance to vacation in Haiti!)