Calling out to the birds

The leaves are continuing to fall, the pumpkins are still around, and the thoughts are moving slowly from Halloween that just went by to Thanksgiving day that is fast approaching. Halloween is celebrated as the Day of the Dead, and Thanksgiving reflects on what we are thankful for. But, how do people remember the dead? Recently, I read a blog post by a food historian and scholar about dining with the dead1, and upon writing a comment, I started to think about my own experiences.

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Yellow lentils

I can remember the images and sounds from as far back as my earliest memories of childhood. It was either during the death anniversary of a person, or during a gathering of family and friends when everybody spoke fondly of the dead, mostly the recently deceased but also ancestors from a distant generation. Sometimes it was just a regular day with some family, and my grandmother would still encourage the practice during lunch. Regardless of how elaborate the meal was, on a plate or leaf, we would add small amounts of food and leave it out in the open courtyard of the house. We would then call out to the birds. I remember being shy initially but as I heard the uninhibited voices of family calling out together, and encouraging me to think of my ancestors as I call out, I would slowly join in.

One of the staples that we would feed the birds was a simple combination of yellow lentils and rice with a drizzle of ghee on top.

 

Here’s a method to make yellow lentils:

Yellow lentils (called toor dhal in an Indian store) - fresher batches of lentils cook faster. Presoaking in water also facilitates cooking.

Garlic

Ghee (clarified butter) or butter

Turmeric (optional)

Salt to taste

Seasoning ingredients:

Asafoetida (optional)

Curry leaves (optional)

Cumin seeds (optional)

Mustard seeds (optional)

Boil the lentils with enough water, a few cloves of crushed garlic, and an optional pinch of turmeric until soft and tender. If a pressure cooker is used the lentils and water are used in the proportion one to three, and cooked till soft. Using a blender or just the back of a spoon some of the cooked lentils can be blended to a smooth consistency before mixing with the rest. Just before serving, heat butter or ghee in a small pan, add the optional seasoning ingredients, and when they start to splutter and let out their aroma, add the hot mixture to the lentils. Mix, and serve as soup or with rice, finished with a drizzle of ghee on the top.

 

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Paruppu sadam or yellow lentils cooked south Indian style

 

The relationship between food and the dead is expressed in many ways across different cultures1,2. Sometimes it is seen just after a death, and sometimes during the anniversary of the dead; sometimes it occurs as a picnic by the burial site, and sometimes at home during a casual family dinner; sometimes it feels heavy, and sometimes it feels lighter with the benefit of time; and, sometimes, as it was for me growing-up, it was experienced when I called out to the birds, a form of communication regardless of what it might really mean, with the people I never met, or recall meeting, yet those whose personalities were alive through the stories and the food associations. In this sense, yellow lentils with rice or parupppu sadam as it is called in tamil, is food for me in more ways than one.

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References:

  1. Dining with the Dead, blog post by Rachel Laudan
  2. Food: The History of Taste edited by Paul Freedman

6 thoughts on “Calling out to the birds

  1. nirmala

    The blog pulled a string in my heart. It made me recall the practice at home. It was a ritual followed everyday particularly when my parents were around. Just before we sat down for a meal mostly lunch or during festivals when food was offered to Gods, we the children of the household were assigned the task of taking the freshly cooked food to the terrace and I distinctly recollect calling out 'Ka Ka 'to the crows and how they would swoop down on the food. It seemed an achievement when the birds came to feed on the food on hearing our calling. How simple things brought joy.It brought back memories of the excitement with which we would run down to announce that the birds have eaten. Food would be then served to the family.
    Never questioned the reason behind this exercise for a long time but we too were told about the belief much later when my parents felt we could understand that it was a belief that our ancestors who passed on were the birds.. It was also brought to our notice by my mother how selfless these birds were. They called out to their friends and feasted on the food together without thinking of having it all or hoarding it for better days.I recollect how intelligent the birds were. I wondered if they kept track of the feeding time as they would be there the moment the food was taken up. I also remember telling my mother that I recognised some of the regulars who although were similar had certain traits which caught our attention and made them distinct. There was an unexplained bond that existed.

    I am tempted to restart this practice.

    Yellow lentil is the first lentil fed to a child when we start feeding them solid food. Well cooked rice is mixed with boiled yellow lentils, salt and ghee and fed in this instance without the seasoning. To my knowledge 'chorootal' feeding rice for the first time to the child is a ritual celebrated with family either at home or at times in temple.

    Thank you for kindling my memories about my loving parents.and making me smile as I read the blog

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Thank you very much for taking the time to write a detailed and thoughtful response.

      Calling out to the birds to eat as a symbol of calling out to the dead clearly seems to have been practiced by quite a few people in Chennai from what I can recall. So it was very nice to read your experiences.

      Now that you mention it, I too remember people trying to recognize the regulars among the birds that came to feed.

      Thank you for sharing.

      Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear José,

      The yellow lentils I refer to are also called as pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan). Please let me know if you can't find it.

      Hope you've been well.

      Reply
  2. Jose

    Dear Bala,
    This is what we call feijão-gandú (guandú beans). It is used in some regional dishes in Brazil.
    Let´s thank Linnaeus for helping us identifying this plant.
    Big hug.

    Reply
    1. Bala

      Dear José,

      It is so nice to know of the Brazilian regional association with these lentils. You're right, thanks to Linnaeus.

      Big hug to you too

      Reply

I look forward to reading your thoughts...