Tail fat glass jar (Kazakhstan)


Tail fat glass jar (Kazakhstan)

Glass jars appeared in the cultural and daily life space of the USSR in the 1930s. Basically, they served as manufactured containers for groceries. That’s how they ended up in soviet homes, and I don't remember a single soviet apartment in which there would be no such jars. In summer, the manufactured jars left over from sour cream, eggplant caviar, juices, mayonnaise, etc. were used for storing homemade products like compote, marinades, jams, etc. Sometimes the jars stored bulk products or money. Until almost the 2000s, children used jars for rinsing watercolor brushes, catching butterflies and ladybirds. Еxtra jars in the family were brought to the glass recycling points.

However, in Kazakh urban families, Soviet jars had another purpose – they were used for storing tail fat (kaz. kuiryk mai). In nomadic life Kazakhs used to store fats and oils in a processed stomach, peritoneum of sheep or goats [2], in Soviet period they were stored in glass jars. Every Kazakh urban family had such jar in its kitchen cupboard.

Tail fat was purchased mainly along with the meat from the relatives in the village, fat tail was almost never found in stores. In Soviet period there was no special tail fat production and distribution. The tail fat was melted and filled in jars after butchering. Such jars had various everyday and ritual functions in the Kazakh traditional society. The use of tail fat can also be observed in different cultures since ancient times [3].

Sources indicate the widespread use of tail fat in the cultural space of Kazakhs, where its sacred role is clearly traced. Nevertheless, everyday practices of Soviet urban families were so Sovietized by the 1970s that tail fat was barely the only element of the nomadic past that survived despite the Soviet cultural hegemony.

Having lost most of its meanings, tail fat remained an important attribute for many Kazakhs. Tail fat was used starting from the first days after the birth of a child for oiling the body – "sylau", for massaging against cold and sickness – "terleu", for oiling door frames during the wedding ceremonies – "bosagha mailau", for throwing it into the fire/the gas burner) on the first visit of the bride to her husband's house – "otka mai kuyu", for frying flatbread – "isin shygaru".

My mom recalls that the jar has always been at home. In 1970s my grandmother still fried flatbread on Thursdays and explained: “The smoke coming out of the window is the only way to communicate with the ancestors (kaz. aruak)”. By 1980s, tail fat had been replaced by vegetable oil, but the meaning of the ritual remained. Until now Kazakh families still practice various rituals associated with the ancestors cult – an inextricable link between deceased and living relatives [4].

The name itself also went through transformation - in our Almaty family the grandmother replaced “kuiryk mai” (eng. buttocks fat) to a softer “koidyn mai” (eng. sheep fat).

It is not surprising that already by 1990s, a jar of tail fat was used in our home only for cooking and massaging against cold. I remember, whenever grandchildren caught cold my grandmother made air-dried horse meat soup, rubbed tail fat over and covered us with camel wool blanket. We were healed by the warmth of grandmother's hands and “the three nomadic fundamentals – sheep, horses and camels” [5] (only they are able to endure distant migrations).

By the 2000s, there was more tail fat in our family and now it is also used during celebrations (childbirth, kudalyk (prewedding), housewarming). Tail fat keeps transforming. My post-modern tail fat jar is stored in a French glass jar and is mixed with apricot oil. Moreover, since last year, there is a new family ritual – applying tail fat to the nostrils against COVID19.

Used sources
1. Great Soviet Encyclopedia. https://rus-bse.slovaronline.com

2. Tayzhanova G.E. Kazakhs: Historical and Ethnographic Research. Kazakhstan, 1995. p. 170.

3. Perry Chris. Fate of the tail. Disappearing Foods: Studies in Food and Dishes at Risk: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1994. p. 150.

4. Kulumzhanov N.E., Zholdubaeva A.K., Kotosheva K.K. Ancestor cult in the Kazakhs' world outlook. KazNU Bulletin. Volume 63 № 1 (2018) https://bulletin-philospolit.kaznu.kz/index.php/1-pol/article/view/418.

5. Simakov G.N. The experience of typologization of cattle breeding among the Kyrgyz. Soviet Ethnography. 1978. No 6. p. 17.

Dinara Assanova is a doctoral candidate in History, specializing in women’s history, women’s museums and biographical research. Founder of Women of Kazakhstan NGO that runs it’s virtual museum dedicated to Women of Kazakhstan.