Max Eliot ’21: Book VII, Chapter II (Of the Indian’s Bread Called Casabi or Cassava)

Book VII, Chapter II

Of the Indian’s bread called casabi or cassava, which is the second type of bread made by the Indians in this island of Hispaniola and other parts, as well as by Christians, and there are some who use it more often than maize, and prefer it as tasting better, which is made from a plant they call yuca or manioc.

Translated by Max Eliot ’21

We will now discuss the other kind of bread, the one the Indians make from yuca on this Island of Hispaniola and on all others that are populated by Christians, and even in some parts of the Mainland. The plant called yuca has a knotty stalk, and it sometimes grows taller than a man and sometimes much shorter. The stalk is a little more than two fingers thick or slightly less, because the height and thickness vary according to the fertility of the soil and the variety of the plant. Some yuca plants have leaves that look similar to hemp, like a man’s open palm with the fingers spread out, except that their leaves are larger than hemp leaves, and each one has seven or nine points or sections. The stalk is very knotty, as I said, with a brownish-grey complexion, and some are almost purple. The leaf is very green and looks very beautiful out in the fields, from the time it is planted and ripe to when it is cleared out from the plots.

There is another type of yuca with branches and fruits no different from the one mentioned above, but with different leaves. Although each leaf similarly has seven or nine sections, it looks different, which is why I include the shapes of both (Illus. 2, figures 6 and 7). However, this is not to say that among plants with similar leaves there are not different sub-varieties of yuca. Some are greener than others, some have sturdier branches, some have whiter stems, or other differences on their cortex that are not worth mentioning here.

To plant yuca (any of the varieties I have mentioned), the Indians make little rounded mounds of earth in orderly rows, the way vineyards are organized in the kingdom of Toledo, especially around Madrid where they arrange the vines in even rows. Each mound is eight or nine feet in circumference, and the edge of one comes right up to the edge of the next. The tops of the mounds are not pointy but almost flat, and the highest ones come up to the knee or slightly higher. In each mound, they place six to ten or more bits of the yuca plant with stems and stalks, about a small span deep into the earth; some of the stem remains visible above the ground, and because the ground is loosened and free of clods, they put these stems into the earth very easily as they go along making the mounds; others do not make the mounds, but rather flatten and loosen the soil, then put the plants in two by two, close together in rows. However, no matter the method, before planting the yuca, the brush is cut, trimmed, and burned, just as I described in the previous chapter on maize. Only a few days after being put into the earth, the piece of yuca planted in the ground sprouts (or rather takes root) and puts out its leaves, buds, and shoots, which grow into branches. It is necessary to weed the conuco (what the Indians call their plots of land for cultivation) until the plant grows larger than the weeds, though it is advantageous to always keep the field clear. They always plant the yuca or put it in the earth after the new moon and do so as quickly as possible while the moon is waxing, but never while it is waning.

This grain is in no danger from birds or animals, except cows, rats, and horses. This is because the juice from its fruit (a tuber, like a large turnip), which grows between the roots and tendrils the plant puts out below the earth will kill any man or animal who eats it fresh (with the exception of the three mentioned above)—there is no cure whatsoever for this poison. In truth, there is yuca on the Mainland that is not deadly, although the stem, fruit, and leaf are just like the deadly one from this island. On this island and the others nearby in this gulf, all the yuca is, for the most part, of the deadly variety. In these parts there is also a variety called boniata, which is like the nondeadly one of the Mainland, and so must have come from there.  On the Mainland they eat the fruit boiled or roasted, because it is not lethal; they do not know how to make bread from it there, but only in a few places, and where they do make it, they do not use the edible variety but rather the one from here. In truth, some soldiers from these islands have taught the mainlanders how to make bread from the nonlethal yuca, but they prefer not to so as not to waste time; because, as I said, they eat it without making it into bread, but boiled and roasted without squeezing it out or taking the precautions one takes here when making bread so that it is not deadly. Among the men who work the fields, they can always tell which is which, but the animals (though not all of them) do not need to be taught the difference, as their natural abilities help them avoid the poison. It is unknown why no horse or cow, or any of the other numerous animals brought from Spain (or their innumerable descendants) have died from the yuca. Cows have eaten it before, and rats eat it every day, and some equine animals do so as well. So, among the animals, the effects of yuca are not equally potent for all.

These tubers are like plump carrots or very thick Galician turnips, or even bigger. And in many places they can get as thick as a man’s calf or thigh. They have a rough dark-tawny skin, and some even turn slightly brownish gray; inside they are very white, and dense like a turnip or chestnut. The Indians make a bread from these tubers, which they call casabi. This is the traditional bread of this island and many others (those that are already populated with Christians and those that have yet to be conquered). The process to make casabi is as follows: After the Indian men and women take the skin off the yuca using scallop shells, scraping it until none is left (like one prepares turnips for a stew), they then grate the yuca on rough stones which they keep for this purpose. Once it has been grated they put it in a very clean place and from there into a cibucan, which is a long sack (about ten spans long and as thick as a leg) made from strips of flexible bark woven loosely together, like palm matting. After this sack is filled with that grated yuca, it is loaded onto a wooden scaffolding, which attaches to the sack from above. They then attach heavy rocks to the bottom, which stretches out the bag and presses all the juice out of the yuca. The juice is filtered out onto the ground through the holes in the sack, and the yuca stays in this press until not a drop of juice remains; that water or elixir is a noxious poison, and they spill it out on the ground when they want to be rid of it. The flesh left inside the cibucan is similar to well dried almonds. Nearby, they have a fire pit with a buren on top, which is a simple clay pan about as big as a sieve but without walls; the fire below is quite large, but the flames do not reach the pan, which is fixed in place with clay. When the buren is at the correct temperature, they put in some pressed yuca as if it were bran or a flour mixture, almost filling the pan but leaving a space of about two fingers around the edge, and making the mound flat on top and about two fingers or more in height. They cook it like that until it sets, and then with a paddle made for this purpose they flip it over so the other side cooks as well. So, in about the time it would take to make an egg tortilla in a frying pan, they make a bread from this yuca in this thing they call a buren; they then leave it for a day or two in the sun, so that it dries out, and what’s left is a very good bread. Where there are lots of people and they need to make it in large quantities, they set up many cibucans and many of these pans they call burens. The bread is good and quite nutritious, and it will keep at sea. They make it about half a finger thick for common people, and wafer thin and paper white for important people; this special one they call xauxau. In this city of Santo Domingo, a batch of this bread typically costs about a ducat when it is expensive, and a half peso for the cheaper one, though sometimes it can get to a gold peso (which is 450 maravedis). It is sold in batches of two arrobas, which is equal to fifty pounds at sixteen ounces per pound. For many in this land it is a lucrative business because it is consumed in great quantities.

There are notable things about this yuca plant which cannot be discussed as well elsewhere, and as so much has been said here on the subject, it will be good to tell the rest. The juice from the yuca after it is grated and pressed in the cibucan is so horribly poisonous that one single tiny drop could kill a man or any other living animal, even an elephant. That being said, after boiling it two or three times, the Indians use this very same juice as a base for stews and tonics. But as it cools, they stop eating it, because even if it is no longer deadly after being boiled, they say it causes indigestion when eaten cold. If they heat the freshly pressed juice until reduced by two thirds and leave it to sit for two or three days it becomes sweet, and they use it as a sweet liquor, mixing it with other foods. If, after boiling and resting it once, it is boiled and rested again, the juice becomes sour, and they use it like a vinegar or sour liquor with no danger whatsoever. This method of turning it sweet and then sour is folk knowledge, and few Indians still know how to do it because all their elders are dead, and the Christians have no need for it since there are plenty of oranges and lemons on this island to be used for that purpose; for its sweet property there is even less need because of the abundance of sugar, and for these reasons they have forgotten these two applications of the yuca juice. But I have seen it used quite often in soups, just after being pressed and boiled. It is also quite often demonstrated that just a gulp of the stuff will kill if it has not been boiled after pressing, and it is quite a notorious thing on all the islands.

The cassava bread keeps for a year or more, and it is brought to sea amongst all these islands and the coasts of the Mainland; I and others have even brought it to Spain. In these lands and seas it is a very good bread, because it lasts a long time without becoming corrupted or spoiled, so long as it is kept dry. This bread made from yuca, called casabi, is found on all these islands I have mentioned. And when they harvest this fruit from the field to make bread, a year or more needs to have elapsed since it was planted. It is even better if it has been a year and half, or even two years old, as it is even better and yields more bread. If very necessary, they will eat it after ten months, but no less. When there were many Indians on this island and some of them wanted to kill themselves, they would eat the fresh tuber of the yuca, and after two or three days, they were dead. But if instead they drank the juice, there would not have been any time for regrets, as they would die very quickly. And so to avoid work, or under the advice of their cemi (or devil), or for whatever reason, they ended their days by way of this yuca. It sometimes occurred that, in order to avoid working or serving, many of them got together (in groups of fifty or more) to kill themselves, each with a big swig of this juice.

The fresh yuca growing in the fields is quite beautiful, and there are six varieties of it on this Island of Hispaniola. One is called ypatex, which has a fruit like manchineel, and each plant makes a quarter pound of it—this kind of yuca is one of the best. Another is called diacanan, which is considered the best of all because it has the highest yield. The third species of yuca is called tubaga, the fourth is called nubaga, and the fifth is called coro, which is the one that has the leaves with the red stalks. The sixth and last is called tabacan, and it has the whitest stalks of any of the others. These particular names of the varieties of yuca are different on other islands, and also different on the Mainland, according to the different languages.

These two foods—the breads from the maize and the yuca—are the principal, most common, and most necessary foods the Indians have. The reader should not forget the most important particularities noted here about the yuca, which are these: bread for sustenance; sweet and sour liquids, which serve in place of honey and vinegar; stew that can be eaten, and which the Indians make quite well; wood for fire from the branches of the plant when others are not available; and incredibly potent and evil venom or poison, as I have said. In certain parts of the Mainland they also make quite a nice wine from yuca, but I was not aware of this particularity when the first volume of these histories was first printed. I will talk more about this in the second part of this General History, in Chapter III of Book XXIV, which discusses the Huyapari river, and the incident of Captain Diego de Ordaz. So, these are the seven notable things about yuca. We will move along to other aspects of the Indians’ agriculture.

Image: Lithograph of the cassava plant by Etienne Denisse published in Flore D’Amerique in the 1840s.