Certain foods are too powerful to stay in the past.
Buljol, named for the contorted patois of the French words brulé (burned) and gueule (mouth), is a dish of dried salted cod, and has followed my family through generations, well beyond my mother’s childhood in 1950s Trinidad.
Every Friday night, my maternal grandmother, Elaine Cadet, whom everyone called Teacher, would make a sauté using the flaked meat of boiled salted cod (or saltfish, as it’s most commonly called in the Caribbean).
She would zap it with a bevy of bright, grassy herbs, such as scallions and chadon beni (culantro), punchy aromatics, ripe sweet tomatoes, Scotch bonnet peppers and an assertive spray of fresh lime juice. It was always served — to her husband and five children — with coconut bake, a dense, sweetly scented unleavened bread made from the milk, oil and fresh pulp of the coconut.
My mother, Anne Marie Ransome, taught me to make the dish in almost exactly the same manner, the only change being the inclusion of extra-virgin olive oil. And, now, from my home in Raleigh, N.C., I am carefully introducing my mother’s and grandmother’s recipe to my 6-year-old daughter, Noelle.
As a child and teen on the island, I often witnessed my mother’s delight in preparing the dish, a happiness rooted in memories of those Friday night dinners. But those moments of joy were brushed with pain, as I got a sense of the violent history that brought this saltfish to the table in front of me, one I would never wish repeated.
Salted cod bridges centuries and cultures. A protein-rich, shelf-stable commodity, it found its way into many cuisines and became a no-frills feature of the diet of enslaved people.
From the 16th to 19th centuries, plantation owners, unwilling to cede any land earmarked for sugar cane cultivation to grow crops for enslaved Africans, looked to abundantly cheap dried salted cod. After emancipation in Trinidad and Tobago, in 1838, saltfish continued to be a dietary staple for formerly enslaved people, becoming part of their lifestyle and eventual legacy. It remains an essential ingredient that reveals part of the islands’ histories, while also offering a redemptive arc.
Noelle doesn’t quite get it. And understandably so.
In her childlike assessment, saltfish looks like something that “came from the Halloween store.” I chuckle, but, as gently as I can, remind her that engaging with these formative Trinidadian foods demands more because it delivers more. I’m hoping that, by looking past the appearance of saltfish, she will come to understand herself within a greater context: the culture that carried the matriarchs before her — and learn, as I learned from my mother, that she can never forge a whole identity by overlooking any one of her parts.
Bake and buljol is a part of Trinidad, so it’s part of me.
And part of her, too.
As I knead the textured dough for coconut bake and the saltfish bubbles on the stovetop, I suspect that she perceives the recipe’s power, how it preserves the past and immortalizes my granny, of whom only a few sepia-toned photographs remain. In making these dishes we are breathing back to life a part of the past and a people once devoured by loss. And death loses its sting. This food of incalculable worth makes us students of its history, while collapsing the gulf across four generations of Caribbean and American women.