A thousand kilos of curry

The annual feast of St. Joseph in Kanamally is a century-old tradition that sees the entire village come together to prepare a meal for over one lakh people

March 18, 2015 06:01 pm | Updated March 19, 2015 03:11 pm IST - Kochi

BLESSED FOOD The origin of the feast is associated with a legend and preparations involve the entire village folk. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

BLESSED FOOD The origin of the feast is associated with a legend and preparations involve the entire village folk. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Year after year, for the last 110 years, all roads, from far and wide, wind their way to Kannamaly on March 19. On this day the scenic village, hemmed in by backwaters on the east and the sea on the west, finds itself in the throes of a celebration that is both spiritual and communal. The annual feast of St. Joseph held at the village church, St. Antony’s, feeds on the day almost a lakh and fifty thousand, with a meal, a sadya , prepared by the village community and volunteers who come from different parts of the State to participate in the activity.

The origins of this communal cooking and feasting began in 1905 when the area was supposedly hit by a tsunami. It led to water logging and a subsequent cholera epidemic. Parish priest Fr. Joseph Kadanattuthara says that stories of the time are about rotting dead bodies lying around and of the hungry and the sick in each household.

It was then that a group of doomed men came to the church to prepare for impending death. The priest is said to have placated them informing that the next day was the death anniversary of Joseph, father of Jesus, and they should prepare for death for the next day. He cooked a sparse meal and shared it with the group, asking them to offer some to the dying in their homes. This food is supposed to have cured them all. From that day, March 19, 1905 the feast of St Joseph began.

In the early days the villagers cooked food at home and brought it to the church for sharing. This grew into communal cooking over the years with people joining from different places as volunteers. Many partake in chopping of vegetables, grinding spices, cleaning the premises, arranging firewood, making pickles and winding up after the feast. “There are people who grow vegetables to be used for this feast; a family brings 2,000 kilos of yam every year,” says Fr. Joseph adding that they plant yam only for this occasion. “Similarly people bring coconuts, rice and other provisions.”

The meal that consists of ulli curry, two vegetables, sambar and rice is prepared on firewood in very big vessels. Members of the 1,500 families that form the congregation of the church help in the preparations that begin a month before.

Provisions like sacks of rice, sugar for payasam , mounds of vegetables, oil, ghee and such begin to be stocked in the school in the church yard. Closer to the date women from nearby houses begin arriving to chop and prepare.

A day before, the fires are lit and cooking is done all night long. Maria Xavier, 50, a former teacher who now runs a ladies store says that the preparations for this large scale cooking are planned and undertaken by the ‘kalavara’ committee.

It begins on March 12 with women peeling up to 1,000 kilos of onions and storing them to be used in the curries. Nearly 500 kilos of bitter gourd and 800 kilos of mangoes are peeled, cut and stored.

Two days later the only work in the ad-hoc kitchen is grating and grinding coconut- thenga peera- and roasting it with chopped shallots, vazhathu. The next day the onion curry, and mango pickle are made and stored. On March 16 bitter gourd is cut and prepared. The following day is a No Work Day. On the night before the feast the fires are lit and rice is prepared in almost 20 vessels. The main mixed curry too is prepared. Cooking is halted at eight in the morning.

“As soon as the morning mass is over, at eight, the meals are served,” says Jaison Ezhuthaikkal, event coordinator, who has put up a 1, 20,000 sq ft canopy to accommodate the diners.

“In the olden days people sat on the floor and ate on banana leaves but now with increasing numbers arriving arrangements have changed. The ela sadya has given way in the last two years to a buffet,” says Maria. A relatively new addition is bottled payasam, sold at Rs. 50. This is done by a group from Tripunithura.

Antony Peko, 78, is a known name in the area. He heads a team of 10 assistants to cook, having mastered the art from his father. Sisters Barbara and Baby Pullamaserry, in their 70s, too have been associated with the food preparations for the last many decades.

Thettamma is another respected cook known for her skill at cooking huge quantities. Tom Edward whose family has been associated with the activity since its inception and is a patron of the church, remembers a year when it poured heavily, but the area around the church, where the feast was being cooked, served and savoured remained dry. Another hearsay story is of rice remaining fresh in a pit where it was buried as leftover.

“It is generally believed that the meal is blessed and that is the reason that draws people in hordes from distant places. It’s faith that brings them,” says Maria whose house becomes an open house. Last year she had 45 people staying at her house, not all known to her. Her neighbours too open their homes to strangers. “Balconies and verandas of every house in this area hosts visitors who come in groups. This is tradition,” she affirms.

In its century-old history food has never run short. It is cooked manually right through the day and night. By early evening if the curries begin to get over, fresh parippu curry is prepared. This goes on late into midnight, “by which time everyone is tired.”

“But we wake up fresh next morning satisfied that so many people ate a blessed meal,” says Maria.

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