Cachoeira is a small, historical, inland city in the state of Bahia, Brazil, located about a ten-minute drive from the Adventist College where I spent the last six months serving as a volunteer teacher and missionary. Working with a full schedule throughout the week, I enjoyed escaping to this little town on various Saturday evenings to explore and embrace the culture of the baianos. During one of my visits there, my friend Sanzia urged me to try out a traditional street food known as the “acarajé”: a small, round fritter ball made from black-eyed beans, deep fried in palm (dendé) oil. It is split and served with various fillings which usually include a seafood stew called vatapá, salt fish, or shrimp, with some onions and added spices.
So we walked around the city, surveyed the streets, and finally found a tia (auntie), a lady at a stand with her pots and pans, dressed in her typical dress and headscarf, showing off her culinary skills by arranging all her ingredients to fry the perfect acarajé on the spot, preparing to serve us this delicacy as fresh as possible, and sizzling hot.
After waiting for about five minutes, we received our acarajés. Then, I tasted it.
It was love at first bite.
My tastebuds were rejoicing, my stomach was in full delight as I savored every bit of this amazing Brazilian fritter, and both Sanzia and I could not resist the temptation. We went on to order two more!
“You must be careful with the shrimps,” said Sanzia as we waited for the new batch. She explained to me that sometimes the fritter ball is made with the shrimp already inserted into the mass itself, a “no-no” for Adventists (Lev. 11:9–12). Due to this, before buying the acarajé, she usually asks the seller if they are shrimp-free. I came to understand later that many Adventists even prefer to not take the risk and abstain from eating acarajés altogether.
My love for acarajé, however, would not be denied. A few weeks later, I was invited by my friend Carol to the city of Jequié, another inland city, a four hour drive from Cachoeira. As the sun was setting on Saturday, Carol tapped me on the shoulder with a smile and said, “Guess what we are eating tonight? Acarajé!” My bowels moved within me. I was ready to see if the food in that region would deliver the same magical sensation I had experienced before. I could already imagine myself standing on the street, receiving the steaming hot fritter straight from the pot and leading it up to my mouth, delighting in the food of angels.
Thus, I asked Carol if we were going to the town square, to which she replied,“No, we don’t usually eat acarajé on the street.” “Oh, right, the shrimps,” I responded, to which she said, “Well, yes, but we purchase them at a restaurant of a friend of ours. She is an evangelical and does not offer the food to the gods.” I chuckled a bit and replied, “The gods?”—She looked at me and enquired, “Why are you laughing. Oh wait, you didn’t know? The acarajé is a dish that is offered to one of the gods belonging to the Candomblé religion, so of course, because of our beliefs, we avoid buying them from the street vendors. We only eat them at specific locations.”
Although I had known about Candomblé, I was unaware of its connection to this dish, and as I listened, I shook my head in agreement. In my mind, however, I screamed, “Street food, bought from the street, always tastes better!” Being a theologian, my brain began to draw upon the biblical texts, and I began to list a few verses in my mind in order to present my case later. I wanted to mention how Paul talks about the food offered to idols, and how it should make no difference for us as believers (1 Corinthians 8:1–13). I wanted to lead my blind friends out from their darkness into a new and marvelous theological light. As my thoughts raced within my head, Carol’s father, overhearing the conversation, approached me and said, “Do you know why my name is Cosme? My family, especially my mother, was heavily involved in this afro-religion called Candomblé. So much so, that when my twin brother and I were born, my mother decided to call me Cosme, and my brother, Damien, in honor of the two twin orixás (twin gods representing duality) of that religion. We were heavily influenced by our mothers devotion to this religious practice.”
Then it dawned on me. Although I did not express my thoughts verbally, I had been completely intolerant towards this family and their worldview. Later, I sat back and reflected upon the situation more calmly. As I meditated that night, three lessons came forward which also challenged my spiritual growth:
- I needed to be more empathetic. Being right is not always the goal.
In wanting to prove a point, I had started to formulate my defense to show the freedom we had in eating the acarajé without carrying the guilt of idol worship, but had not taken into consideration the negative connotations that this family had created for years in connection to this dish, the memories of idol worship in their own homes and the battle with demonic spirits. I had attempted to “demythologize” the experience of my friends, which, for them, was a real spiritual warfare that had been battled in their home for a long period of time. I wanted to show them the light with my “progressive” theology, but I was blind to their experience and completely neglected the importance of their own spiritual journey. I needed to step into their shoes and see what they were seeing. Empathy places us in a position of tolerance, and helps us to avoid hurting others.
2. I was reminded that eating is also “doing” theology.
As Christians, we must be aware that what we eat, how we eat, and who we eat with also expresses our beliefs. In the book of Daniel, we see that the young Hebrew prince decides to reject King Nebuchadnezzar’s meal (Daniel 1:8), not only for health reasons, but because he knew that the food was also offered to the gods. Daniel also recognized that Nebuchadnezzar desired to portray himself as the ultimate provider and sustainer of the men in captivity, seeing that the meat-based meal required hunting, and thus, accepting Nebuchadnezzar’s meal was a sign of worship towards him and his gods for providing the game. So, by purposing in his heart not to defile himself, Daniel requests a different and more natural, plant-based meal, produced by the soil, showing that he could fully trust in God’s provision as the Creator, Daniel’s main source of health and strength and his sole object of loyalty and worship. Sometimes we, like Daniel, must stop to ponder, “What does our eating habits say about our relationship with God?”
3. Life choices are not always presented to us in black and white.
What we consider to be “right” in one context can be “wrong” in another and can even become a hindrance to someone else’s faith in another setting (1 Corinthians 8:9). Therefore, the Bible does not always point out the right answer for every specific circumstance, but places upon us the responsibility to analyze and decide the best action for each situation. Critical contextualization, thus, is not just about studying culture and finding biblical foundations for our practices, but it also emphasizes the need to be connected to God and to be guided by the Holy Spirit who gives us wisdom (James 1:5) when faced with the grey areas of life.
My love for acarajé has not died, but who knew that a simple dish could change my mindset so drastically. At least I can jokingly say that I ate “like a god.”
Daniel Duffis Jr. recently returned from serving as a volunteer English teacher at Northeast Brazil College in Brazil. This entry was originally posted on his blog.