Every Sunday morning I wake up to the smell of tomatoes, onions, herbs and spice simmering in a big pan, to my father boiling salt out of a batch of saltfish (he always forgets to buy it Friday or Saturday to soak out the salt overnight). Almost all the burners on the stove are on; one boiling fish, one boiling eggs, the last simmering aromatics.
It's not time to get excited yet - it's still too salty for us to even bite.
The amount of salt will make you gag.
Only 6 out of 8 of us want eggs.
Now when my dad gets to simmering this, it's time to start getting excited.
Hearing that breakfast is ready NEVER GETS OLD.
Cue the elation!
So nearly every time breakfast's all done and we’re all eating the saltfish, he reminds me that my grandmothers and aunts and uncles and cousins in Antigua are eating saltfish for breakfast too. Sure, they’re eating it with fresh chop-up (usually okra, eggplant, and spinach mixed together and seasoned sooooo damn well, may contain pumpkin or yam) and freshly baked Antiguan bread from the neighborhood baker, and we’re up here eating it with spinach (because acquiring chop up ingredients is a different ballgame up here) and lackluster whole wheat loaves of bread from Western Beef, but we’ve got the boiled egg, the plantains in common. When my family's having Sunday breakfast together, we all have Sunday breakfast together, even when we’re nearly 2,000 miles apart.
But this connection across space leads me to a connection across time, to the legacy of the slavery my ancestors endured. Enslaved Africans in the West Indies were treated terribly, the planters using gang labor with little care for the well-being or longevity of slaves, working them to death, set to constantly replenish the supply of slaves by acquiring more flesh. So these planters also did not care to devote land for food production for slaves. The land was for slaves to work, not eat well off of – whatever food they received was meant to merely keep them alive enough to work. The slaves’ diets consisted mostly of ground provisions (root veggies like cassava, yam, and dasheen), breadfruit, and salted cod (which was produced with salt from the salt ponds of the West Indies) imported from New England, usually administered on Sundays.
After slavery was abolished in the West Indies, saltfish remained the cheap food for the poor, but evolving from its administered state to something paired with different fruits and veggies and grains across the Caribbean. Now more expensive (cod having been overfished, pollock often replacing it as the imported fish for the dish), saltfish has a very visible legacy – many West Indian countries’ national dishes involve saltfish, and if it’s not the national dish you can safely guess that saltfish is still beloved, because it's delicious.
So every time I sit at my kitchen table enjoying the salt and spice and crunch of onions and peppers and the acidity of tomatoes on Sunday morning, I think of my family, the legacy that has led to my existence. I don’t know if my other family members do – I’m always told I think too much, so I doubt it. That’s why I’ve never asked whether I’m alone in this or not. But I can’t help but think of how the bonds between culture and food and history are so permanent, how time and circumstance defines the differences between me and my ancestors.