The Dead Still Crave Dessert

Appetites are eternal in the Afro-Cuban Lukumí religious tradition.

by Kinitra Brooks

Ancestors always eat first. So I cut a big slice of sour cream poundcake and place it on the altar dedicated to my grandmother.

As a Lukumí initiate, my paramount religious obligations are feeding the ancestors and making offerings to the orisha, powerful deities who guide our lives through prayer and divination. In this Afro-Cuban religious tradition, you also feed and venerate egun. These spirits of the departed may be related by blood or religious lineage.

Lukumí goes by many names: Many call it santería, others la regla de osha, translated as the right or rule of the orisha. And all rituals have rules, whatever faith you follow.

In Lukumí (a word associated with Yoruba-speaking people kidnapped from West Africa and enslaved in Cuba), you must have a bóveda espiritual, or an altar to the dead, at home. The bóveda fuses Catholic religiosity with West African ancestor worship. A traditional bóveda is a table, covered in a white cloth (lace, if you’re feeling fancy). I set my table with multiple clear glasses of water—usually seven, God’s number—in a V formation. The glass at the point of the V contains a rosary and sits in front of a crucifix.

Bóveda offerings usually consist of flowers, candles, and photos or keepsakes of the dead you choose to honor in your spiritual pantheon. I pour two fingers of Crown Royal in a glass for a certain female relative who was known to enjoy a sip in life. The dead still hunger. Their descendants’ reverence quenches their thirst for life.

In my spiritual tradition, we often make a plate for the ancestors and leave it in the place specifically dedicated to them in the home. Some folks have a bóveda; others have a consecrated clay roof tile and a stick that sits in a small corner of their home or outside on the porch. We usually feed the ancestors at a big, celebratory meal, be it for a religious ceremony or a family holiday.

Pop culture presents the living dead as malevolent zombies who stalk and devour humans. Bóvedas present an older, healthful alternative. Descendants bless the dead with remembrance and offerings of sustenance. In return, the egun and orisha give guidance and protection. Connecting to the elders and the passed-on has strengthened black folks through the oppressions of enslavement and Jim Crow. Death is only a transition, never an end.

My grandmother’s altar sits apart from my more traditional bóvedas because Maw Maw wants what she wants and knows how she wants it. Always was a little finicky up until she died. A medium told me she “doesn’t want all that Catholic shit.” Still a dyed-in-the-wool Missionary Baptist even after becoming an ancestor!

So her bóveda, in the telephone cubby of my old home, is painted white and contains one glass of water, one white candle, and purple flowers. No rosary. No crucifix. But I did have a beautiful piece of lavender and gray cloth, her favorite colors. I sprayed it with Bijan, one of her favorite perfumes.

The Africaneity runs deep in our cultural roots and will show up whether we call out the name Jesus, Allah, Damballah and/or Oludumare.

This is tending to the dead: the weekly, sometimes daily, act of caring for loved ones’ altars to deepen your relationship.

Many Christians, particularly Catholics, tend to their dead by keeping bóvedas in their homes. Many black folks keep bóvedas and don’t even recognize it.

That group of black-and-white pictures framed on your grandmother’s mantle sitting on top of a lace doily? Bóveda.

That trio of pictures hanging on your aunt’s wall that features Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., and the family patriarch who passed on? Bóveda.

The Africaneity runs deep in our cultural roots and will show up whether we call out the name Jesus, Allah, Damballah and/or Oludumare. The boundaries of black forms of worship are flexible, at best, and sometimes near indistinguishable from each other.

I continue to identify as a Christian, and my ancestors are intercessors who strengthen my relationship to God. My ancestors comprise the “cloud of witnesses” referred to in Hebrews 12:1. As a staunch Baptist, my grandmother didn’t come easily to this type of spiritual practice. But she sees the benefit in the depths of communication and connection we have established.

I reconnect with Maw Maw as I refill her water glass each Monday because the water must be “living.” Every three days, as I recite the Lord’s Prayer, I replace and light her white candle. We discuss which flowers she wants from Trader Joe’s because she doesn’t always want purple flowers. Every once in a while, she allows the more traditional white, though she never lets me place my favorite color, yellow, on her altar.

When you reestablish the bond with an ancestor, you don’t need a medium to tell you what that person wants. You become attuned and accustomed to their voice in your spirit, their smell when they visit you, the shift in energy as they enter the room.

You can also set boundaries. I have made it clear that the moment I wake up and see somebody sitting on my bed, I’m leaving this entire process of discovery to become an evangelical Christian. I don’t want to see them. But hearing, feeling, and especially smelling them is just fine.

Tending to ancestors doesn’t always have to be a long, drawn-out conversation. That ain’t tending. It’s the “Good morning,” the “How y’all doing today?” This eventually turns into, “What y’all feel like eatin’?”

Rarely is the meal anything more than a good helping of the rich foods in which their descendants partake. I have eaten fried chicken after Sunday church service, and I have eaten fried chicken after a matanza—an animal sacrifice to the orisha. The experiences are the same. And they are both damn good.

But as I mentioned before, my grandmother likes to be…different.

“I want some cake.” I heard—no, felt—this request as sure I can hear my sister talking on the phone.

Excuse me? Um, Ma’am, didn’t I just put a praline on your altar the other day? My grandmother was a diabetic who was forever sneaking sweets. Nothing has changed now that she is an ancestor. As our spiritual relationship became stronger, I would leave sugary sweets—mostly cookies and cakes—on her altar so she could engage in the forbidden from the beyond.

I buy vanilla cupcakes from my favorite bakery with a sweet—but not too sweet—buttercream and leave one on her altar.

Don’t take this feeding too literally. You don’t come back a few days later to find crumbs or a bite taken out of the cupcake. The energy is what’s most important. It is the time taken out of your day to cater to their wishes. It is the love and generosity behind the gift of food.

“That cake you left was good, but it wasn’t what I wanted. I want some homemade poundcake. I want you to make it for me.”

My grandmother was a diabetic who was forever sneaking sweets. Nothing has changed now that she is an ancestor.

Now, Ma’am. You’re getting too particular. I don’t mean to complain, because there’s a beauty and intimacy in cooking for those who loved you dearly and have passed on.

But first of all: Why weren’t these detailed requests made before I went and bought four cupcakes, adding three of them to my already generous hips?

I could easily get her a slice of poundcake, but the homemade part presented a bit of a conundrum. Homemade? By me? I can cook my patootie off. I can smother the hell out of a chicken leg. My okra with shrimp and sausage in stewed tomatoes perfects any hot summer night. But I can be hit or miss when it comes to baking.

The poundcake had to be good because both my grandmother and I would enjoy it. Yet it couldn’t be so darn good that I would inhale it like those cupcakes. I finally decided to make a sour cream poundcake drizzled with a lemon glaze. I combined two recipes, slowly incorporating the milk and lemon zest into the powdered sugar for the glaze. Then I candied the half-moon lemon slices and twisted them on top of the glaze as decoration.

And it was good.

At least, that was my opinion. After making her demands known, Maw Maw didn’t say a word. But I expect to hear from her later.

Kinitra Brooks, a New Orleans native crowned to Ellegüá, teaches literary studies at Michigan State University, where she holds the Audrey and John Leslie Endowed Chair.

Miniature bóveda installation by Angela Renee Chase

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