Addicted to Salt Fish

One of my favourite calypsoes is the Mighty Sparrow’s pungent tribute to salt fish.  The distinctive flavour of this delicacy makes the calypsonian salivate in verse after tasty verse.  And we all know that the fleshy salt fish over which the singer’s sensitive tongue playfully lingers is not to be taken literally.  Well, not entirely so.  That’s what makes the salty lyrics so sweet.

I have no problems with Sparrow’s celebration of the pleasures of savouring figurative salt fish.  In fact, he must be applauded for bringing into the open, so to speak, a subject that is often concealed in the kitchen cabinet.  Caribbean men love to eat certain kinds of salt fish in private – though some of them would never admit it in public.

What does bother me is our cut and dried addiction to salt fish of the literal kind.  All through the Caribbean – Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, right around the arc of islands to Aruba – salt fish is in our blood.  And it’s a provoking irony of history that salted cod, which was brought to the Caribbean as cheap food for enslaved Africans, has now stepped up in life.

‘One People’ documentary

A couple of Saturdays ago, on my regular market run to Papine, I went to Ras Hopeton’s cookshop to see if he had any fritters that had just come out of the frying pan.  I like my fritters crisp and hot.  Ras Hopeton’s shop is beautifully decorated with Ethiopian/Rastafari flags.  There are pictures of His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I and the equally imperial Marcus Garvey. Empress Mennen and Prince Immanuel are there, as well as Queen Ifrica.  On a more mundane level, Red Rose tea, Wrigley’s and Pepsi signs are very much in evidence.

Hellshire before sand erosion

I was quite disappointed when Ras Hopeton told me he’s stopped selling fritters.  At $450.00 per pound, salt fish is just too expensive.  So now he’s doing only dumplings.  I questioned his decision, pointing out the big difference between the price of the dumplings – $25.00 and the fritters – $70.00.  His profit margin would be much higher from throwing in a little salt fish.  In any case, I really couldn’t buy ‘so-so’ fried flour. It’s not as if I was at Hellshire eating festival, along with one of Aunt Merle’s fat parrot fish.

Robbed of my fritters fix, I started to contemplate the culinary legacy of transatlantic slavery.  If that sounds too highfalutin, let me put it another way.  Why is ackee and saltfish our unofficial national dish?  On Independence day, as I watched the One People documentary, produced by Justine Henzell and Zachary Harding, I was amused to see how many people said their favourite Jamaican dish is ackee and saltfish: Donald Quarrie, Beverly Anderson Duncan, Mutabaruka, General Colin Powell, Sean Paul, Ainsley Henriques, Romain Virgo, Jack Scorpio, Constance White and Cliff Hughes.  Elephant Man was one of the exceptions with his mouth-watering description of roasted yam cut in two, pasted with chiffon butter and topped with roasted salt fish.  For Michael Lee Chin, it’s mackerel run down.

Import substitution

The ackee in the popular national dish is an appropriate enough symbol.  According to the Dictionary of Jamaican English, the ackee plant “was brought here in a Slave Ship from the Coast of Africa, and now grows very luxuriant, producing every year large quantities of fruit”.  The ackee was introduced around 1778 and it has certainly taken root in Jamaica.  Ackee also migrated to the Eastern Caribbean but it’s not usually eaten there.

The salt fish in our unofficial national dish is another story.  Unlike the ackee which has become totally Jamaican, imported saltfish is a symbol of our continued dependence on foreign goods and services.  Surrounded by a sea of fish, we still believe that Canadian cod or, more recently, Norwegian salt fish is the ideal complement to ackee.

One of the best policies advocated by the democratic socialists of the 1970s was import substitution.  I know I’m going to be accused of glamourising a period of Jamaican history that so many people feel was the closest thing to hell, thanks to Michael Manley.  Supermarkets practically empty of foreign foods!

But import substitution wasn’t just a matter of deprivation.  It was an opportunity for us to experiment with local raw materials and create new products.  Since we’re so stuck on ackee and saltfish, why haven’t we come up with a high quality local alternative to imported cod?

Culinary slavery

Just like our CARICOM partners in the Eastern Caribbean who don’t eat ackee, we are missing out on perfectly good local foods simply because we’re afraid to experiment. For example, the purple flower of the banana plant is edible.  I’ve seen it on sale in Asian grocery stores in London.  And the leaves of the sweet potato plant can be cooked down like calaloo.  Quite a few years ago, on a research visit to the Fiji campus of the University of the South Pacific, I discovered curried green jackfruit.  It’s absolutely delicious.

I think the Caribbean Food and Nutrition Institute (CFNI) needs to do a global audit of food items from other tropical countries that are readily available in Jamaica and which we’re wasting simply because we don’t know their full value. I know it’s a real challenge to re-educate one’s taste buds.  Food culture is harder to change than ideology.  I get vexed with myself every time I buy an expensive piece of imported salt fish.  Fresh fish is just about the same price, if not a bit cheaper.  But I’m a victim of history.  Still, I’m trying to emancipate myself from culinary slavery.


Tanya Stephens to lecture at UWI

The Mona campus of the University of the West Indies brings down the curtain on International Women’s Month with a big bang.  On Thursday, March 31, the ‘infallible’ Tanya Stephens will give a public lecture in the Assembly Hall on the topic, “Music, the Power to Shape Societies,” hosted by the Department of Literatures in English.

Ms Stephens is one of the songwriters whose lyrics are studied in the Department’s innovative course, “Reggae Poetry”.   The other prescribed poets this year are Burning Spear, Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bob Marley, Steel Pulse and Buju Banton.

And, yes, veteran journalist Ian Boyne, I still believe in the innocence of Buju.  My heart is much too heavy for glib opinions on the catastrophic circumstances in which the Gargamel now finds himself.  Many commentators, and even some musicians, are gloating.  ‘Time longer than rope.’

If worst comes to worst and Buju is forced to spend a long, long time in prison, he will have to take comfort in the experience of other great men who learned to turn adversity into opportunity, as in the famous case of Marcus Garvey.

The African Studies Center at the University of California Los Angeles houses an important project with global reach focusing on the papers of Marcus Garvey and the UNIA.  The project director is Professor Robert Hill, a Jamaican academic who has devoted much of his distinguished career to preserving Garvey’s intellectual legacy.

The Center’s website notes that “Garvey met the challenge of imprisonment by applying a significant part of his time to writing. ‘African Fundamentalism,’ perhaps his most famous essay, was published as a Negro World editorial in June 1925 and quickly made its way onto the walls of UNIA members as a manifesto of the philosophy of the Garvey movement.

“Garvey also turned his hand to writing verse, producing and publishing ‘The White Man’s Game – His Vanity Fair,’ a lengthy polemic that he later republished under the title the Tragedy of White Injustice. It is, indeed, tragic that ‘white injustice’ enables unprincipled individuals to make a ‘good’ living in America as informers and entrappers.

‘Room to exercise our minds’

Tanya Stephens’ lecture will challenge stereotypes of dancehall as a “betrayal of reggae; the tragic case of the child doing violence to his mother”, to quote Ian Boyne in full melodramatic mode.  Tanya is a dancehall DJ who knows that verbal creativity is not limited to reggae.

In “Way Back,” she reflects on her own best practice as a dancehall DJ, critiquing sub-standard composers who substitute un/dress for verbal skill:

I wanna take you way back

To when a girl on a mike’s worth

Wasn’t determined by the length of her skirt

I mean way back to creativity before MTV, before BET

Tanya celebrates lyrical prowess:

Let us journey past this melody

Give us room to exercise our minds

Take me to another place, another time,

Better hooks, better rhymes

Stronger lyrics every line,

You could even press rewind

Come with me,

Let us journey past this fallacy.

We have come to expect ‘phalluses’ not ‘fallacies’ in dancehall lyrics.  But this is precisely the dominant fallacy: that dancehall culture is all body and no mind. “Language is the dress of thought” is a famous witticism of the Roman orator Quintillian that was translated into English by the poet Dr. Samuel Johnson.  Some DJs are, indeed, completely naked, lyrically speaking.  Tanya’s thoughts, by contrast, are very well dressed.

In the song “Who is Tanya?” the DJ describes herself as the “gyal weh come fi change di whole game wid a pen.”  Elaborating the image of writing, she adds,  “Well although di mike a mi favourite utensil,/  Still numba 1 wid a numba 2 pencil.”  The humorous interplay of 1 and 2 and ‘utensil’ and ‘pencil’ is characteristic of Tanya’s witty style. The word ‘utensil’ also suggests the DJ’s escape from the trap of domesticity through the power of the pen and the mike.

Women in Reggae

Ibo Cooper

Tanya Stephens’ lecture marks the revival of the brilliant public forums on ‘Women in Reggae’ that used to be hosted by the Reggae Studies Unit at UWI to mark International Women’s month.  The first forum, held almost a decade ago in March 2002, was organised by Mr. Ibo Cooper who was then a research fellow in the Unit.

Judy Mowatt, Cherry Natural, Lady G, Lady Saw, Angie Angel, Queen Ifrica and attorney Sandra Alcott spoke with passion about their experiences in the reggae music industry. Tanya Batson, writing for the Gleaner, reported that “One of the major problems appears to be the ‘commodification’ of women in the industry. Ms. Alcott noted that many women were often pressured to engage in sexual relations with producers in order to make record deals.”

Ms Batson also reported that “[t]he other major problem faced is beauty standards. Ms. Alcott stated that many record producers will not sign female artistes who are above the age of 21 years. This is in keeping with the idea that the female artiste should be ‘sexy’, ‘good-looking’, and ‘young’.

Queen Ifrica

“This is not true of male artistes, who can tie their looks to a part of their act, whether it be a ‘big belly’ or any other feature deemed ugly. Furthermore, she also noted that ideas of female beauty are not in favour of the black woman. ‘Our standards of beauty have for too long been based on Western ideals woven from fantasy,’ Ms. Alcott said.”

Pam Hall, Sabrina Williams, Jana Bent, Shirley McLean, Italee, Crissy D, Ce’Cile, Nadine Sutherland and attorney Diane Jobson have all been speakers at the UWI ‘Women in Reggae’ forums.  Tanya Stephens’ lecture promises to be an eloquent celebration of the creativity of Jamaican women.