In the Ifá religion, food acts as spiritual medicine, an offering to deities, and a conduit for community bonding.
“Aboru aboye abosise,” I greet the two Babalawos waddling past me with a weathered container full of piping-hot jollof rice between them. “Agbo ato,” the priests grunt, passing through the doorway and placing the container on the crowded kitchen table. The red-hued rice’s peppery aroma floods my nostrils and sends a rumble through my stomach. I busy myself transporting palm oil and pounded yam between the kitchen and shrine room, ignoring the internal countdown until I can savor a large bowl of fluffy rice.
Jollof rice is the mother of jambalaya, a red rice dish essential to my Creole heritage. In my four years of practicing Ifá, I connected with the culinary relatives of many dishes from my Gulf Coast-influenced upbringing. The African ancestral wisdom tradition, dating back at least 5,000 years, originated from the Yoruba ethnic group of West Africa; it centers on the oral transmission of knowledge about nature, mythology, and history to support spiritual transformation for practitioners. In this increasingly chaotic world, the intentional way of life required by ancient traditions like Ifá offers support for the weary in modern times and a roadmap revealing the link between familiar foodways.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
In Ifá, and many African Traditional Religions such as Bukongo, Vodun, and Serer, food serves as spiritual medicine, an offering to divinities, and a conduit for community bonding. As an Iyanifa, I learned that ethically butchering and preparing a chicken or goat is just as important for a priestess as memorizing thousands of scriptures. Cooking large pots full of stew for drum feasts and making fresh popcorn for the spirits that sit on my living room floor renders the overwhelming magic of the tradition real.
According to recent Pew studies, Black millennials are the most religious among their peers, yet, compared to older generations, the least connected to historically Black churches. They found Black adults view cultural origins and a strong connection to familial roots as central to their identity more than peers of other races. The enthusiastic response to culture-shifting media like Beyoncé’s Black Is King shows the trend of many young Black Americans returning to African Traditional Religions and Diasporic Traditional Religions: they desire a connection with their African history and spiritual practice that acknowledges their humanity in the physical world.
Our connection to food anchors this reclamation since Ifá ritual work often requires cooking West African cuisine. Social gatherings set up a culinary family reunion where diasporic dishes share a table with their kin like fufu and its junior, mofongo. Banquet-sized aluminum pans line the tables and countertops with smoked and slathered pork ribs, tender cubes of goat floating in a fragrant brownish-green curry, and creamy beans simmered with herbs from someone’s garden.
I enjoy ritual cooking, but the necessary changes in personal eating habits test my faith. Sacrifice is at the heart of the Ifá tradition, and I’ve sacrificed time, money, and favorite foods. My beloved mid-day snack, almonds, and my once daily protein, chicken, are now food taboos I must adhere to lest I incur negative consequences. Almost every other day, I spend an hour preparing red beans and rice, freshly roasted yam with coarse sea salt, and other dishes to lay down as offerings to ancestors and Orisa, forces of nature in Ifá, for their spiritual assistance and nourishment. I adjusted the grocery line item on my financial spreadsheet to account for the extra food. Depending on the obstacles of the moment in my life, the cost to appease them and earn assistance breaks my budget.
Ifá says humility and sacrifice are rewarded with blessings—including a community with a mutual understanding about expanding your palate in the name of faith and being that friend with dietary restrictions. But together, we show special care with the variety of ancestral foods available at social events. These moments of iwa pele, demonstrations of good character, remind me how these ancient pearls of wisdom survive only when followers of the tradition embody the principles.
The mother of the child I helped watch over during a ceremony slides me a pack of cookies from her bag. One of the Babalawos packs me freshly butchered goat meat to take home and cook. An Iyanifa in the kitchen sneaks me a piece of fried fish while asking me about my recent date. The shared vulnerability from spiritual family and occasionally strangers feeding me and feeding into me reassures me.
With every dish of pounded yam I pray over, for every bite of kola nut I ingest for the collective’s blessings, others show the exact same care towards me. My life grew more complicated when I switched out my local chain supermarket for the African markets further away in crowded strip malls, but in the aisles of those markets, I found my heritage at my fingertips.