Parallels and Symbolisms of a Flour Product
In Fortaleza, chegadinho is the name given to a biscuit that is sold on the streets, advertised through the sound of a triangle. The biscuit has a conical shape and is also sold in other places in Brazil, where other instruments are used to promote it. There is a huge variety of names by means of which this traded good is known. People call it cavaco chinês in many cities where the triangle is played – the word cavaco means wood chip. In Recife it may be referred to in its diminutive form cavaquinho, as if it were a tiny log. Recife-born sociologist Gilberto Freyre mentions the link between hearing the sound of the triangle and the desire to taste the biscuit:
[There are] certain kinds of candy sold by street vendors [which] are associated, in Northeastern Brazil, to sounds that, as the Pavlov bell does with dogs, trigger specific predispositions of taste in children and adults: the sound of the triangle of the so-called cavaquinhos, for example. (Freyre 2007: 59)
However, these associations may be more complex. In the case of Fortaleza, there have been a significant amount of reports in the local press, from the 1990s on, expressing that the sound of an echoing triangle on the streets not only triggers the experience of enjoying the biscuit, but also activates childhood memories in places where it is sold. The famous Brazilian comedian, Renato Aragão, made one of the first recorded statements of this kind that I could trace.
Unnoticed, comedian Renato Aragão and his wife Lilian checked in as guests at the Caesar Park Hotel during the extended weekend. In the course of their stay the comedian was the protagonist of a surprising event. From the balcony of his hotel room he heard the sound of a triangle. It was a boy selling the famous chegadinho. Renato could not resist: he left the apartment, went downstairs, and bought the whole stock from the vendor. ‘This is how I can remember my childhood.’ (O Povo 1993: 4A)
Neither listener nor place was the same as those of the childhood years. However, as the passage of chegadinho vendors remains a presence in the city's landscape, it can yield a kind of access to the past in the present. That happens mostly in response to the sound of the triangle rather than the taste of the biscuit. Purchasing the food is unnecessary for recollections to happen: listening to the tinkling and clinking alone is enough.
This itinerant practice, however, goes back further than the space-time of contemporary inhabitant’s childhood experiences. This manner of street vending also happens in other Latin-American cities; vendors sell similar biscuits while playing the triangle on the streets of Montevideo, Uruguay, and Mexican towns such as Puebla and Querétaro. It is thus observed that the use of the triangle in this itinerant sales transaction happens in places of the American continent which had Spanish or Portuguese colonial experiences. That suggests the existence of a commonly-shared tradition.
But how can we know that this is the same biscuit in all these places so distant from one another? An examination of the means of preparing it, selling it, and naming it may answer some questions. Let us begin with the possible denominations of the biscuit in Portuguese and Spanish. There are words being used to name it that appear in Ibero-American spaces as well as in Portugal and Spain. In Hispanic places in the Americas, the Spanish word barquillo (alternatively, oblea) is preserved, whereas in Brazil the use of the Portuguese word barquilho has been recognized, yet it has become old-fashioned and has been replaced by the various names mentioned above.
Néstor Luján (1975), a chronicler of gastronomic culture, wrote that in Catalonia the barquillos stand as the equivalent of the neules, which are part of Christmas-season celebrations as they become gifts. According to Luján, the neules were mentioned in the royal invitation from James I “the Conqueror,” King of Aragon, in 1267, and appeared for the first time in Catalan in Ramon Llull's Felix: or the Book of Wonders, dated from the thirteenth century. Barquillos and cañutillos de suplicaciones (as they were also called around 1600) are mentioned in literary works edited in Madrid at the time of Cervantes' Don Quixote, one example being La Pícara Justina (Úbeda  2012).
This nomadic sale was also present on the streets of France as early as the 1260s, the date of Crieries de Paris, a series of registries of street cries collected by Guillaume de la Villeneuve. “Chaudes oublées renforcies!” (hot, baked oublées!) cried the sellers. The historian Rolande Bonnain (1993: 542) presents the medieval French recipe of this biscuit: “The oublie – based on the best flour mixed with water, wine, sometimes eggs, baked between two circular iron-cast griddles – used to be very thin.” The description is similar to the barquillo recipe that is still being homemade in Salamanca (Marcos 1993: 10). If not for the addition of cassava gum, developed by native people before the arrival of Europeans, the recipe and the preparation of the biscuit in Fortaleza would be the same as the product made in contemporary Spain: a pastry of wheat flour, sugar, and water baked between two iron-cast griddles.
The way the chegadinhos are sold also resemble the ways similar biscuits used to be sold in Portugal, Spain, and France. Many vendors walked, carrying biscuit-filled cylindrical drums strapped to their backs, a sight still present in both Europe and the Americas. Jean Mariette's print L’oublieux – based on a 17th century drawing by Claude Simpol – portrays a vendor carrying a long tapered basket (corbeille) in the shape of a diabolo (the Chinese yo-yo), as he lights the way with a lantern. At that moment the trade was performed by apprentices, young men who went out to walk the streets at dusk; Bonnain (1993: 547) affirms that biscuits were not properly sold, but given away, subject to the “roll of the dice” (“jouaient aux dés”).
Les oubloyers were French workers of one of the three crafts related to processing flour, along with bakery and patisserie workers. Bonnain claims that the very biscuit trade had a ceremonial character and, in this specific case, the consumption of flour in the form of pastry served as a rite of desacralization and an offering to the dead. He analyzes the elements of the practice as a whole and argues that the combined use of the lantern and gambling gave the oubloyers’ work an aura of mystery, related to the symbolic function, as mediators between the worlds of the living and the dead, performed by these street characters.
The game of chance, the song, the basket, and the lantern generate a field of references that reinforce each other and that make it possible to specify the exchange’s signification, as well as that of the character, the oublieur. Here, action lies in the sphere of chance, which refers not to what is possible, or probable, in the sense proper to the scientific world, but to random omens of fate in a universe full of meaning that must be deciphered by way of empirico-magical knowledge (Ravis-Giordani and Bromberger 1984: 129-135). The sequence’s figures of chance could then be said to deliver a message from beyond. But what message is that? If the hypothesis of an offering of flour presented to the dead in the shape of a piece of pastry with an evocative name, the forgotten/oblata, is proven to be correct, then it is the souls of the departed who decide on the quantity of gifts, in turn rewarding the player-consumer. The oublie would then be a means of communication between the sphere of the living and of the dead (Bonnain 1993: 548).
The oubloyer as a character – a messenger transmitting the will of the afterlife to the living – may have disappeared from the French streets in the beginning of the eighteenth century, but this ritual of the distribution of sweets on the streets in the form of a game has remained. It reached the twentieth century, but in another shape. Instead of a man, the character became a woman – la marchande de plaisirs – and her audience was mainly composed of children. The dice game was replaced by a numbered roulette, in which a needle would spin, stopping to point to a number showing how many biscuits could be taken by the receiver. The roulette was placed on top of a lid in a portable cylindrical drum, and the vendor no longer sang any songs; she used the sound of a martelet (wooden ratchet) to announce her products. Frequently used as part of walking rituals, ratchets were used to make noise on Holy Thursday to indicate the disorder of the world, but they could also be used to ward off evil spirits (Bonnain 1993: 551, 599).
The barquillos and the barquilhos were sold inside similar box in Spain and Portugal, at least since the nineteenth century. The bombos or barquilleras, as these containers are called in Spain, are still usually painted in red, often including the name of the barquillero, colorful drawings of parks or other landscapes, and badges or coats of arms. The tiny roulette was also mounted on the lid for children and adults to try their luck in getting more biscuits, something that still happens in Mexico and Uruguay. Shown here are two pictures of a drum of the Portuguese barquilho with roulette and decorated with lithographed images, part of the collection of the Sintra Toy Museum in Portugal, and a barquillero selling barquillos and obleas near the Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid.
In the audio recording one can hear the barquillero selling his products and the sound he makes as he manipulates the roulette of the Madridian barquillera that can be seen in the picture. The recording was made in the Northern summer of 2017. The particular sound of the roulette begins to arise at 0’40”:
The listening experience of witnessing the walking vendor with his triangle is quite different. The video below shows the passage of a chegadinho vendor in Fortaleza. It was the first time I observed the event more methodically. I watched it from the same spot throughout two weeks in 2008.