A Taste of Salt — Marakkanam, Bar Nuts, and Roasted Tomatoes
“There must be something strangely sacred in salt. It is in our tears and in the sea.”
—Khalil Gibran, Sand and Foam, 1926.
Driving down the East Coast Road that links Chennai to Pondicherry, barely out of reach of urban sprawl that reaches farther and farther each year, in between land still green with rice fields and land cleared for residential developments called “Palm Meadows” and “Queen’s Avenue,” one comes upon the salterns of Marakkanam.
Marakkanam appears another random point on the ECR, but it’s also the end-point of the South Buckingham Canal: a colonial waterway channeling backwaters between there and Chennai, and extending North all the way to Vijaywada in Andhra Pradesh, about 420 kilometers away.
It’s a desolate stretch that runs through the town. Only rudderals that survive the saltiest soil grow there. All else is brown and shades of grey—or brilliant white under the ferocious sun which dries the salty backwaters into fleur de sel for elegant tables elsewhere. Even the workers with their dark brown skin and bright nylon saris appear dull in the presence of all that brown-white-grey: small, incidental figures in a vast landscape of bare saline plenitude.
Marakkanam interests me for three reasons.
1. It connects big and little.
Small objects and common commodities often carry remarkable historical weight. Consider the ways this most mundane and common of daily ingredients is fundamentally central to the history of the world as we know it:
It shapes our political geography. Cities and towns are named after salt (Salzburg is a prominent example). Trading routes were once dotted by salt manufacturing sites; salt marketing was once big business along the Atlantic seabord. Salt was critical to the development of cheese-making and food preservation that expanded fisheries, the possibilities of maritime travel, and much of our now-global diets. Before there were spice routes and the silk road, there were saltways. Control of salt once assured vast wealth, mercantile domination.
It defines our worth and value, what we aspire to be; it is a metaphor we live by. Roman soldiers were once paid partially in salt—a salarium (today’s “salary”) as an allowance for salt or a payment for guarding the Salt Roads into Rome. And so also do we speak of “being worth one’s salt.” Salt signifies healthfulness: sal-ubrius and sal-ut are references to salt. Salt metaphors exhort us to keep the faith, as in these well-known lines from Matthew 5:13: “You are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost its savor, how shall it be salted? It is thereafter good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.”
It gives us the language of political discontent. The French salt tax (La Gabelle du Sel de Nice, instituted in 1458) and the salt smuggling that resulted helped foment the discontent that built into the French Revolution (the tax was abolished in 1790). By the 1900s, salt was indisputably essential for both rich and poor, so much so that the British monopoly on and taxation of salt in India gave Gandhi both metaphor and rationale to famously march to Dandi in protest, establishing the value of satyagraha (non-violent protest) and self-rule in one fell swoop.
It defines Empire. Greater Inagua in the Bahamas is today dominated by Morton Salt, which produces millions of pounds annually. The economy of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat owes considerably to salt production. We are divided still on questions of how much is too much at the dinner table, but we can’t question the centrality of salt to our healthcare (think: saline), metallurgy, winter road safety, paint, food, and so much more. And we needn’t be divided at all on the fact that our common salt is the stuff of which world histories are made. [But read this smart review of Mark Kurlansky’s Salt: A World History.]
2. There is a human story at its base.
My anthropological preoccupation perhaps?
India is the world’s third largest producer of salt after China and the US. About 70% of the approx. 19 million tons annually produced comes from the western state of Gujarat. Indian salt production is labor intensive, engaging some 150,000 workers daily, the majority of them in the scorching Gujarat desert. Marakkanam produces 50,000 tonnes of salt annually from 3,300 acres, owned largely by small producers. A model farm with greater mechanization is being organized.
What are the lives of those who are steeped in salt, literally in the corrosive, scorching evaporation ponds raking out crystal salt? Now that large-scale manufacturing and packaging processes have been well-honed to extract uncommon value from common salt, salt is among the world’s cheapest substances; mercantile empires are built from other things these days. And yet salt is a functioning empire without which we cannot do. What sort of labor does that empire command?
The women I met to chat with one afternoon en route to Pondicherry were a chatty, jovial lot, quick to remind me of how busy they were hauling baskets and building salty mountains–though they had time to be photographed and to gawk at their own images. Men rake earlier in the day and women haul until sundown; each can only take so much daily exposure to salt. Wages are meager, whether workers are independent or hired by traders. Labor is seasonal: salt needs the sun to crystallize, and the saltpans lie fallow during monsoons. Health and other work safety precautions are poor. Blindness is a common problem, working for full days in the glaring heat. Persistent skin lesions on hands and feet are another, along with blood pressure issues and urinary sodium excretion. Marakkanam workers are generally organized by community/caste-based collectives; the efforts of NGOs in the area have resulted in the registration of some 600 Marakkanam workers with the Tamil Nadu Government’s Welfare Board for Manual Workers.
Where does all this salt go? I asked, wondering if the women knew, or thought about the empire they were serving. But they were quick to set me straight, laughing: To towns without salt [uppu illaada uuru], of course.
3. It raises a problem of art and aesthetics.
This one requires explanation. It has bothered me for a while now that blogging about food invariably involves gawking at it. Food stylists perfect the art of setting up illusory scenes with beautiful colors and props; food imaging is now an art industry in itself. Established bloggers tell you that good photography is key to success, and there are entire blog-and-magazine-reading communities devoted to the voyeuristic consumption of food—food porn, as some call it (I dislike the descriptor, though it makes my point for now). Text and stories are important, but not nearly as important as the images in this attention deficit, time-deficit, visually oriented culture of ours.
Now I can’t claim not to participate in this culture, as creator and consumer of said “porn,” and I’m unabashedly happy when people claim to drool over my creations (who wouldn’t be?).
But that’s only a wee tiny bit of the food story, and I never want to forget that. Salt helps to jog my memory of all else that’s involved in the story of food, precisely because it connects little to big, human lives to empires.
Herbert Marcuse, a leading figure of the Frankfurt School, said it all in 1937. Art, he suggested in an essay titled “The affirmative character of culture,” contains the capacity to produce illusions of beauty and happiness in the present, ‘entire counterfeits of transcendence.’ Through the beauty of art, we suspend our discontentment; art makes beauty appear possible even within conditions of oppression such that it “pacifies rebellious desire … Men can feel themselves happy even without being so at all.” And so it is that we have the “rapture of inner plenitude alongside external poverty.”
How does one enjoy, treasure, and exhibit with care the inviolable beauty of food, even of food production, without forgetting its wider, often harsher realities? Even the images of workers in a salt-dominated landscape can be lovely–because there are those moments, and struggle is no uniform thing, and because it’s easy, in the return to laughter, to forget oppression. What does it take remember, in the midst of beauty–and think ahead to gastronomical pleasure, in the midst of scorching toil?
What is the taste of salt trodden under the feet of men?
My graduate school friend and Professor at the University of Oregon, Lamia Karim, suggested that one way would be to sit with the women and ask them their stories. I started that last time at Marakkanam, only to be reminded that work couldn’t pause because I happened by, and that there remained quotas to fill before sunset. Perhaps, on each successive trip up and down the ECR through Marakkanam, I’ll stop when they’re there for as much more of the story as there’s time to share.
For now, two gustatory offerings as homage to the women workers at Marakkanam, who work so that we may live a truly salted life.