Choosing Your Protein in a Land of Plenty

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Before I travelled to Brazil, it never occurred to me how much hard work it takes to get less than a handful of nuts from the nut tree (nuts do grow on trees). They look a lot different in their natural state than they do included in a delectable chocolate bar. First someone agile has to climb the tree; then he (usually) has to chop down the large husk, which falls to the ground. Next the thick, hairy, husk is smashed open (it takes considerable effort – and precision – by a man or woman, a lot more than, say, opening a jar with elderly hands when you can’t remember where you put the jar opener). Inside that inner shell is the core of the husk, and inside that core lies its heart – perhaps four Brazil nuts. That’s why they are so expensive when you buy them in a North American supermarket. They’d be a lot more expensive if agricultural labor in Brazil were not so poorly rewarded.

Producing the chocolate (made from cocoa or cocoa beans, which also grow on trees) for the bars is also a lengthy process. The beans, which are the basis of chocolate, have a leathery rind, and they beans inside have to be extracted from the rind, fully fermented, and dried. Because the seed has fat, cocoa butter also can be extracted.

I visited one rural village where the chocolate beans were broken down in the old-fashioned way by a donkey hitched to a small mill. The donkey provided the power as he went round and round as directed. Round and round over and over. Using more modern methods, the industrialized production of chocolate from cocoa beans is big business today.

I have now visited nut plantations, cocoa plantations, coffee plantations. Some of the processes involve roasting in an open flame oven as well. The number of different products that can be made from these agricultural materials is amazing. But my personal affection is reserved for the coconut. One caveat: if you sit under a coconut tree when the nuts are ripening (that is, no longer green), it may be your last day on earth should a coconut fall on your head, something that is quite possible. So while you can sit under an apple tree romantically in North America, beware the coconut tree in South America for shading yourself, a seductive option in the tropical heat, to say the least.

As with the Brazil nuts, it’s also quite a job to climb a tree and hack down and then open a coconut. However, it’s worth the effort because every single part of the coconut can be used. Think of all the ways in which a coconut and its foliage contribute to society.

Actually, it was not in Brazil but rather in one of the Fiji islands in the South Pacific (there are some 330 of them, only about 110 of them inhabited, plus 500 islets) that my love affair with the coconut began. Many of the islanders have very frizzy hair, and some of them still let it grow out wild and bushy. My own hair, which is pleasantly curly in dry Southern California but grows to frizzy proportions in a humid tropical climate, can actually look quite presentable, even pretty, with daily applications of coconut butter, a product I found commercially from a Fijian company that ships its products all over the world. I slather the coconut butter (really intended as a skin cream) all over my face too. Some of the creams intended to protect your skin in from climactic wear cost a lot of money. A word of advice: try coconut.

The people of the Republic of Fiji (for a long time, from 1879 -1970, they were a Crown Colony of Britain) are warriors by nature. Even on their main island, Viti Levu, their small dwellings huddle defensively close together in their villages, despite the fact that there is lots of surrounding land. They maintain a large standing army, of which they are proud – native Fijians have served in major wars and continue to partner with their allies in democratic countries. As small memorials attest, they are proud of their patriotic service.

For many years, Western countries trod lightly when dealing with Fiji – that is, explorers and missionaries avoided going there because of Fiji’s history of aggressive cannibalism. In fact, an early missionary’s leather shoes that refused to soften in the boiling vat are still on display in the Fiji museum, along with the impressive sea-going vessels that the Fijians crafted to sell (despite the fact that they were not sailors).

Eating their human enemies ritually gave them their enemies’ power, they believed. They had special long forks by which they fed their priests in symbolic rituals. This human food did not actually touch the priests’ lips – it just slid down their throats. I’m ashamed to say that I bought a tourist version of the ritual fork for my grandson. Better a chocolate bar with Brazil nuts. Or aromatic Brazilian coffee. Or coconut butter face cream from Fiji for his hair (it’s curly too).

No one eats another human in Fiji today — and given the multiple benefits derived from the coconut and the from the surrounding sea, they really didn’t (and don’t) need this kind of protein. As a matter of fact, Fiji has one of the most developed economies in the Pacific, with extensive forest, mineral, and fish resources. I must admit, though, that as a first time visitor, I felt a little queasy when I considered that the cannibalistic history of these vigorous islanders was less than a couple of hundred years behind them. As history reminds us from time to time, even in 2017, civilization can be a thin veneer, indeed.