In class we’re going do one something one may do every day, sometimes twice a day, in Kiribati–Toddy Cutting! We are going to cut “toddy,” which is a sap that comes from the blossom of the coconut before the “spathe” that contains it bursts. (See a picture of a man cutting toddy here.)
The toddy is the sap that comes from an unripe coconut-blossom before the “spathe” inside the coconut bursts. A toddy cutter cuts off the tip of the spathe, showing a bit more than an inch of the unopened blossom. The cutter then binds the spathe with a string and shaves off a thin section of the exposed blossom; the toddy seeps out of the place where the cutting happened. The cutter then pulls the spathe down so that it sticks out horizontally and suspends a coconut shell under the tip to catch the toddy. To drink the toddy right away, one would let it drip into the mouth by a funnel made out of a leaf. The toddy cutter will change the collecting shell twice a day, each time cutting a thin layer of the blossom to expose more sap. As more and more sap extraction happens the spathe-binding unwinds so more and more of the blossom is available to be cut. This happens until the sap has run dry. (Thanks to Jane Resture’s Oceania Pages entry on eating in Kiribati, “Kiribati: Food of the Navigators” for the description of toddy cutting.)
Toddy cutting is tricky! A particularly adept toddy cutter can get about two pints of toddy in a day from one spathe. A non-adept toddy cutter…not as much.
Why drink toddy? If you drink toddy right from the coconut it’s refreshing, and also quite good for you. If you leave it out in the sun to ferment for about fifteen hours it will ferment, and become coconut wine.
Toddy cutters usually do their work in the very early morning, at dawn or even earlier, or at the end of the day, toward sunset. Toddy cutters very often sing, and sing loudly. Why would someone sing at the top of his lungs while high up in a coconut tree? One reason, relayed to All Around This World by Mike Wright, former Peace Corps volunteer in Kiribati and author of Wright’s English to I-Kiribati Dictionary, is that toddy cutters are singing to let women know they’re up in the trees so the women won’t use the often-roofless outdoor shower houses, called “rokis,” until toddy cutting is done. Whatever reason toddy cutters sing, they sing, and we will too. In class we’re going to listen to “Toddy Cutting Songs (Kiribati)” from David Fanshawe’s Spirit of Micronesia while we learn how to cut toddy, then maybe even come up with some toddy cutting songs of our own.