Cod have mercy

Trinidad Express
August 7, 1999

THERE IS SOMETHING extremely fishy about the price of salt fish, not only in Trinidad and Tobago, but also in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean where salt fish is a staple. Somewhere in the world there is a mafia or some kind of cartel controlling the world's supply of salt fish and squeezing consumers dry. Undoubtedly, it is headed by a criminal mastermind or Codfather, who rules with an iron fist and who no vendor of salt fish dares defy. Anyone who flouts the authority of this Kingfish or Don Codfish and seeks to sell salt fish at reasonable prices most likely ends up in the sea with the fishes on a permanent basis, a clear case of nearer my cod to thee.

Given the present price of salt fish everywhere one wonders why the Colombian and other cartels bother with cocaine when salt fish peddling is a socially acceptable and legal act of commerce carrying no penalty except the need for air fresheners. Even locally produced salt fish is generally made from and by sharks as there is no significant price difference between the foreign and local products. It is just robbery on a smaller scale or, since sharks don't have scales, a fin-ancial transaction or fin-agle bordering on piracy.

The problem is that the market for salt fish is a seller's market.

While slavery and indentureship have in common the sugar cane, they continue to have in common the salt fish. We are all children of sugar. It is what brought us here-black, white, yellow, brown and all the other colours, creeds and races. What we have in common, now that those bad days are over, is our love of salt fish and other foods associated with slavery and indentureship, when fresh meat was denied to the labourers and they had to subsist on salt fish, salt "kine'' (pork) and canned foods like sardines. What is interesting is that like Sisyphus in the legend, a man who came to look forward to his own punishment, we have continued our love affair with salt fish even though it was initially part of our punishment and the penalty we paid for not being white.

This love of salt fish is universal and makes it ubiquitous in the Caribbean. Whether in Indian food, Bajan fishcakes or Trinidad accras, Spanish bacalao, Jamaican ackee and salt fish, it is omnipresent in the region, used and appreciated by all. The calypsonian Sparrow is an aficionado. He boasts, "Nothing in the world is sweeter than salt fish.'' He also makes up in enthusiasm what he lacks in discrimination, pointing out, "When you want to eat, all salt fish sweet.''

Unfortunately, from Bridgetown to Barrackpore, and from Holetown to Mount Hololo, many salt fish fans have to curtail their desire for the commodity because of their inability to afford the constantly increasing prices that are fast putting the product out of reach of the masses. The old Grenadian saying, "Salt fish and plantain me never eat at all, but now the hard time come, me eat the skin and all'' is even more apt today than when I first heard it more than 40 years ago. There was a calypsonian who complained:

You give you wife salt-fish money and want to eat chicken,
Salt-fish money and the chicken money, how the hell the chicken buying?

And when your wife doing wrong thing, you does say she bad,
But buying chicken with salt fish money even Mandrake does find it hard.

Now we face a reversal of values. Everywhere, chicken costs less than salt fish and even Mandrake, the Magician, would not be able to gesture hypnotically and change the situation. Salt is cheap. Fish is still relatively cheap, especially cod, which are caught in large quantities in New Foundland and other places. Yet, when the salt fish arrives here it is more expensive per pound than prime New York steak or Butterball turkey. It is perhaps this expense and the need to get real value for money that prompted the calypsonian Companero to sing:

Me ain't want no bone,
Give me flesh alone.
From the time the salt fish bony,
You ain't talking to me.
The price is too high,
Only quarter-pound I could buy,
Me ain't want no bone,
Give me flesh alone.

One of the greatest tributes paid to salt fish is its synonymity with the female reproductive organ. There is a legend about how that arose.

It seems that after the first humans were created and made love for the first time, the Lord appeared and asked Adam, "How dids't thou like it?'' Adam admitted it was incredible. The Lord asked, "What about Eve?'' Adam smiled knowingly and said, "She liked it too.'' The Lord then asked for her, and Adam replied that she was in the river, washing.

Suddenly the sky darkened and the winds roared. Adam was alarmed and asked, "What's the matter, Lord? What's wrong?'' And the Lord boomed in frustration, "Now I'll never get that smell out of the fish.''

-Tony Deyal was last seen denying that he was put out of the house because he had been cod in the act of eating salt-fish surreptitiously. He said he left home on his own ac-cod.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples