PROCESSING ARROWROOT AND MANIOCA
Each winter Pitcairners dig up their home-grown crop of arrowroot and Manioca roots (like tapioca) and process them into a fine, snow-white powder for use as a thickener in pilai, custards, and biscuits.
Arrowroots measure about one inch thick by five to seven inches long. Each family cultivates its own plants, and these require little care during the growth cycle. When harvest time arrives several families work together, digging up the plants with four-pronged garden forks, and then stowing the roots from each family's plot in separate bags.
I joined an arrowroot peeling bee at Ivan's house on a Sunday night in August, 1982, after a community dinner in the court house. We sat on rough plank benches around a long make-shift table made of corrugated iron roofing laid over upright barrels. The arrowroots belonging to each family were dumped onto the table in turn, and we used knives to peel off the outer skins while we listened to music, chatter, and laughter. Other peeling sessions like ours took place in different homes throughout the village.
On the following day, the islanders set up the processing plant in the square―the first time in this location―since it provided the only sizable area of concrete in town. The large, home-made grater―a metal drum with holes punched into it from the inside and set into a wooden housing―was turned by the power take-off of one of the tractors. Below the grater lay a long wooden crib of water in which the islanders would wash the starch out of the pulverized pulp.
Again, all the islanders worked together to process each family's portion. The peeled arrowroots were washed in a tub and then run through the grinder by hand. Other hands lifted water by the bucketful from the wooden tank, pouring it over the moving drum to carry the fresh gratings down into the crib. Still others, also using buckets, scooped up the mixture from this reservoir and poured it through wire screens to separate the pulp from the starchy water. This strained liquid was again allowed to fall into the crib.
When it appeared that all the pulp had been removed from the crib, the bucket-handlers ladled the water into large wash tubs, carefully pouring the milky liquid through cloth sacks to remove the last vestiges of the pulp. The fluid was then allowed to rest for about an hour so that the starch could settle to the bottom.
After the settling process had finished, calloused hands carried each large tub to the processor, and poured the water back into the crib for reuse in another batch. Then they scooped out the half-inch layer of starch from the bottoms of the tubs, and stored it in suitable containers.
Later each family washed the starch again, and spread it out on long flat tables, where it dried into a snow-white powder. They stored this starchy flour in air-tight tins to keep it free from moisture and insects.
Manioca roots, though much larger than arrowroots (some grow to as much as two feet long by four or five inches across), were processed in much the same way.
The work at the square continued for the better part of a week, and the home work took two or three weeks more. One islander estimated that the total amount of processed starch amounted to about 3000 pounds, most of which would be eaten by the time another crop became ready for harvest.
This refining process resembles to some extent the work of the Holy Spirit as He washes out the impurities from our lives. In the words of King David: "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.... Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." (Psalm 51:7, 10).