Marcos Roel’s shoe is on fire. As is the floor. And part of a chair, all of them covered by a thin veneer of blue flame. Roel has been introducing me to the boozy pyrotechnic spectacle of queimada, a flaming punch from the Spanish province of Galicia, and as the fiery liquid leaps out of the bowl and onto Roel’s fawn-colored sneakers, I wonder if today is the day someone ends up in the hospital as a result of my drinking.
Luckily, Roel quickly and expertly stamps out the flames; this is not his first queimada. As the child of Galician immigrants and the former president of Casa Galicia, a members-only social club in Queens, Roel has participated in dozens of them. While they used to be reserved for holidays or festivals, now any occasion can be an excuse for a queimada. Birthday party? Queimada. Wedding? Queimada. Random American friend-of-a-friend shows up wanting to learn about Galicia’s witchiest tradition? Pass the aguardiente.
The origins of queimada can be traced back to the region’s Celtic roots, which manifest in everything from Galicians’ relatively fair complexions to their fondness for bagpipes. These ancient Celts left behind ruins of fortified hilltop settlements and the type of Druidic practices that sound like a Stevie Nicks fever dream. There’s the feast of San Juan, falling on the summer solstice, when Galicians build bonfires and jump over the flames nine times to ward off evil spirits. (The tourism website for the town of Vigo explains matter-of-factly, “It’s a night when the doors to other worlds are opened. The typical dish of the night of San Juan is grilled sardines, be sure to try them!”) And every town, says Roel, has a witch— meiga in Galego—who will tell your fortune and prescribe you some herbs to cure what ails you. Roel describes the time his family went to pay a visit to their local meiga. He was home in New York, but he had sent an item of clothing that he had worn with his sister, per her instructions. When his sister called him after the session, she said the meiga had mentioned ten things about Roel. “My sister was like, ‘Isn’t this ridiculous? None of them are right.” And I was like, ‘Haha, yeah, so dumb.’ They were all right. The witch knew things about me that I hadn’t told anyone.”
Our occult chat is interrupted by a chorus of voices raised in warbly song. In the next room there’s a long table with a dozen or so old-timers who, Roel explains, have a standing Wednesday night dinner: “They eat, they drink, they sing.” A large percentage of New Yorkers who trace their lineage to Spain are Galician, and Casa Galicia is the fulcrum of the expat community. The men in the next room pound the table in time to the lyrics of “O Miudiño,” a Galego folk song, which can be roughly translated as “Look, Maruxiña, look. I’m shit-faced because I’ve been drinking wine instead of water.”
Roel begins to prepare the queimada, offering apologies for not bringing the proper equipment. The punch is customarily made in a clay vessel, but Roel broke his while descending from a Williamsburg roof last 4th of July (presumably because he’d been drinking wine instead of water), so we will be making do with a stainless steel bowl. Galician livelihoods traditionally center around agriculture and fishing, so the clay represents the earth while the aguardiente—a bottle of which Roel empties into the bowl—represents the sea. While we’re using 80-proof, commercially available aguardiente, in Galicia the base of a queimada is often blindingly alcoholic homemade hooch distilled from the pulpy, grapey waste of wine production. To the aguardiente, Roel adds sugar, lemon peel and a handful of coffee beans—ingredients that nod to the influence of North Africa and the Americas in Spain.
With the queimada prepped, it’s now time for the fire. Roel scoops up some of the potion with a ladle, and after a few false starts with a lighter, the booze is ablaze. He pours the blue flames into the bowl, igniting the whole surface. It’s an impressive spectacle; the fire whooshes and pops, and as Roel plays with it, scooping up flames with the ladle and pouring ribbons of it back into the bowl, it leaps into fireballs of orange, threatening to slosh over the sides. Which it does. I mentally review my first grade Stop, Drop and Roll fire safety training as Roel attends to the situation.
By now the sugar in the punch is caramelizing, leaving a brown residue on the sides of the bowl and an enchanting toasty-sweet smell in the air. At this point, traditionally, the “Conxura da queimada”—queimada spell—would be recited, and here’s where it gets next-level witchy. This is not the New Agey witchcraft of sage ceremonies and crystal dildos and beautifully illustrated tarot decks favored by a certain subset of contemporary woman. This is the ancient witchcraft of a people who coexist with Satanic demons and want to be left in peace for a GD minute.
Owls, barn owls, toads and witches.
Demons, goblins and devils,
spirits of the misty plains.
Crows, salamanders and sorceresses,
charms of the folk healer.
Rotten pierced canes,
home of worms and vermin.
Fire of the Holy Company,
evil eye, black witchcraft,
stench of the dead, thunder and lightning.
Howl of the dog, omen of death,
maws of the satyr and foot of the rabbit.
Sinful tongue of the bad woman
married to an old man.
Satan and Beelzebub's Inferno,
fire of the burning corpses,
mutilated bodies of the wretched,
farts of the asses of hell,
the roar of the raging sea.
Barren womb of the unmarried woman,
meowing of the cats in heat,
filthy hair of the wicked born goat.
With this ladle I will raise
the flames of this fire
which looks like that from Hell,
and witches will flee,
straddling their brooms,
going to bathe in the beach
of the thick sands.
Hear! Hear the howls
of those that burn in the firewater,
becoming so purified.
And when this brew
goes down our throats,
we will get free of the sins
of our soul and all witchcraft.
Forces of air, earth, sea and fire,
to you I make this call:
if it's true that you have more power
here and now, make the spirits
of the friends who have departed
take part with us in this queimada.
Roel extinguishes the flames, and after a few minutes ladles the still-warm brew into glasses. It is lemony and very sweet and, as some of the alcohol has burned off, not as grossly potent as I’d imagined it might be. “They say,” says Roel, “that with the first sip you banish the evil spirits.” I can’t say I feel the sudden absence of evil spirits, but I do feel pleasantly cozy here in this odd Galician outpost in Queens, the smell of citrus peel on my hands and the warmth of sugary booze coating my tongue. The photographs of former Miss Galicias, in teased 1960s bouffants and plucked 1990s eyebrows, gaze sweetly down from the walls while the voices of the old men carry in from the next room. “ Mira, Maruxiña, mira…”