This note is not meant to take up the question of whether women should go back to the kitchen.
The idea carries dreadful political connotations. But “Are you game for some salt and kitchen stories?” sounds fair enough. For one thing, the note goes on in a round-about manner, picking images and myths at random, without scanning for likely answers; for another, liberation politics is often laden with salt.
The idea of salt as politics readily leads us to M.K. Gandhi. He had to touch salt to touch Indians. How else could he have generated the critical mass out of a people who represented “further diversity in diversity”? The Salt Satyagraha was the most triumphant campaign in modern history (before commercialism cut in on almost everything). It even seems to draw a parallel to the modern viral marketing, for it could do with “word of mouth” propagation.
So much can be written about salt, so many volumes -- about the chemistry of salt (both in the kitchen and the lab – two spatial entities that often overlapped in the past when women ventured into science); salt harvesting techniques; and every community’s salt-based cultural tropisms. We, however, are rather concerned with the symbolic contradictions in liberation ideologies that are salt-centred.
Les Switzer informs us that, while in Africa, the scope of Gandhiji’s work was confined to Indians, and that he had never made any attempt to weigh up the liberation issues of Indians in conjunction with those of Africans. There is no reason to doubt Switzer’s comment or to accuse Gandhiji of “sin by omission” (to borrow an expression from Ogden Nash).
But, talking from within the context, we ask a question: Was it possible that Gandhiji had never heard of the legend of the Flying African? And talking from within salt (so to speak), we answer: That African legend didn’t square with Gandhiji’s liberation ideology anyway, as we will see later.
The phrase “sucking salt” follows an episodic development. Basically it addresses extreme poverty, when you have nothing left in the kitchen other than salt to eat. From there it expands to take in the concepts of coming into terms with poverty, living with it, and establishing one’s communal identity through it. “Sucking salt” is an ensemble. And a Caribbean touch changes the very taste of salt.
In kitchens where lives disintegrate, salt becomes a recipe for preservation. Meredith Gadsby’s Black version of Caribbean women’s emancipation begins with “salt sucking”, as a metaphor for three tasks: writing, migration, survival. Given an emphasis on migration, it unfolds into a double task: understanding the significance of salt in the Caribbean, and exploring “creative resistance to systems of oppression”.
At this point, we clash with a story told by a female Grenadian poet about a plantation where the slaves started to protest and run away. Its owner approached an adviser, wise and faithful – an old home slave! He came up with a suggestion: Give the slaves salted food; taking salt would make their spirit heavy; and the heaviness would make them bend. It turned out be a successful solution -- until the adviser was beaten by the slaves when the deception was disclosed.
Strictly speaking, the story is not about just a plantation; the legend of the Flying African is at its core. The deliverance of the Africans is in flying, but those who take salt can’t take off. We see fathers who want to fly from the peak of the highest mountain around, and children who add salt to their fathers’ food, on the sly, to avoid disasters.
Meanwhile, the dear dead, who had already taken to wings and become souls, warn off the living about the hazard involved: Don’t fly; salt has corroded our flying propensity; so, stay where you are, but stay resisting; let this resistance be our flight.
Returning to the kitchen, everything that concerns the Black women in the Caribbean (their writing, their resistance, their survival… everything) is a tension in the dialectics of salt. Perhaps, the knowledge of how much salt is to be added to each dish signifies the foremost awareness of any radical process. Kitchen scientists already knew it from two sources.
It was Barbara Smith who put an old influential Malayalam expression (“Atukkalayil ninnu arangathekku”) in reverse. She transformed the stage or podium to a kitchen. This, she reminds women, is where our power is, where our creativity is. The significance of this female territorial imperative shouldn’t be lost on us. First, Barbara is a Black feminist theoretician of unquestionable integrity; secondly, she doesn’t specifically refer to female scientists of the past, who were denied official recognition, and therefore turned their kitchens into labs.
Now, are you thinking about an African dish or a Caribbean dish? Either way, salt is dauntingly central to it. And an updated perception of the kitchen changes women; it is true the other way round too.