Paraguayans think that if you make it past August, chances are good that you will survive for one more year. Old maids say that this month is especially hard on little children and senior folks; and in a sense, they are right: The National Directorate of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses (is the plural form correct?) states that August is the month with the highest mortality rate.
Reasons for that are not hard to discover. August is the last month of winter, and in that month one is pushing at the limits of his metabolic reserves and environmental stress endurance. To complicate matters further, August is not a typical “winter” month. While it could be cold and downright chilly, there is the dreaded August drought, where you can reach highs of 38 C (100 F). The heat is dry and oppressive; clothing feels as if the were freshly ironed, all day; and the sky is brazen with dust particles.
Therefore, it is understandable that Paraguayans have made a point to have some traditional meals on August 1st to help them “overcome” this difficult month. They go from practical to silly, and paint some of the typical Paraguayan character. Let’s see them:
- “Carrulín”. The strongest tradition prescribes the preparation and drinking of a very peculiar beverage on the First Day of August. It is called carrulín from its ingredients: sugar cane liquor (caña), rue (ruda), and lemon (limón). The beverage is made by picking rue (in this country, this denotes several plants of the Rutaceae family, preferably of the Ruta genus) and lemons, and crush them up in caña, which is a distilled beverage made from pure sugar cane. Caña is a typical liquor from Paraguay and people who know swear that it’s way, way better than rum.
Carrulín is said to provide protection from colds, influenza, and other respiratory diseases that are common in August. Besides drinking it on the First of August, Paraguayans also drink it when they are affected by any cold or flu in August. And the beverage might very well be effective: add the vitamin C of lemon with several active principles of rue and lemon extracted by using the liquor as a solvent, and you could have a very good medicinal value.
- Agosto Poty. I’ve already talked about the favorite beverage of Paraguayans (myself included), tereré. Well, this particular tradition prescribes that you must put in your mate or tereré some crushed leaves, stems, and flowers of the plant known as Agosto Poty (“the flower of August”, here denoting several groundsels or ragworts of the Senecio genus).
It is widely believed that this plant could help overcome the ills of August; but the facts differ. Ragworts are highly toxic because they contain pyrrolizidine alkaloids, probably as a way to discourage feeding by herbivores by providing a bitter taste. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids are metabolized into several highly toxic pyrrol derivatives in the liver, thus causing serious liver toxicity (summarized info, very long info). Doctors know that it’s hard to swim against traditions, so they just recommend to go easy on the ragworts, and not to use them in days other than August 1st. Silly, isn’t it?
- Jopará. This is a strong, heavy stew made with beans, hard kernel corn, meat, cottage cheese, and vegetables. As I said before, this is mostly eaten on the First Day of October, but it is also present on Paraguayan tables on the First of August. Whatever the tradition might be or not, this is incredibly delicious and definitely a help against the ills of the month.
If you ever stop by my place, I will be happy to offer you a non-alcoholic version of “Carrulín” (perhaps in a herbal tea version) any day. Ready to sip a little…?