RENDERED 18: Acras de Morue (French Antillean Salt Cod Fritters)
So delicious, you almost can't taste the colonialism
I've been living in France for a little over 8 years. I'm lucky to have a community of friends and family-in-law here who are accepting and loving and just cool as hell. But my blood family is far away, and I'm the only Puerto Rican person I know here. That means, in between those times I can be with mi gente (my people), I have to find ways to keep my own traditions alive and stay connected.
As for many of us who live in a different country, food is an important tie to home, my roots, my traditions. Those food memories from home live deep in my warm, comfy subconscious--they are the baseline by which I compare anyone's attempts at making it (including my own).
After moving here, I tasked myself with learning how to recreate the dishes I craved with ingredients I could find: one of cravings was a Puerto Rican snack called bacalaitos, salted codfish fritters. As I became more familiar with my city's international markets, I realized that salt cod is easy to find here! And not only that, I learned I can find something very similar to bacalaitos themselves at my local market...
French open-air farmer's markets are a dream: rows of vendors selling pert produce screaming for attention, artisan cheeses, loaves of bread in all varieties, meat and poultry vendors that give you a side eye and ask how you'll treat their meat once you take it home, and the traiteurs, or catering food stands... where I live, I can expect to see Breton crêpes and galettes, Vietnamese prepared dishes, and Créole food, including my favorite: marinades or acras (what I would call frituras, or fritters).
Acras de morue are simply rounder bacalaitos, with slightly different seasoning. Créole food, and more specifically, that of the French Antilles, encompasses many of those familiar Puerto Rican flavors I adore.
To make Puerto Rican bacalaitos and French Caribbean acras de morue, the base is the same: flour, salt, leavener, flaked salt cod, and spices. The exact spices differ slightly, but the biggest difference is the shape: bacalaitos are large, flat crispy cakes; acras de morue are round, golf-ball sized fritters. Both are, in my humble opinion, out-of-this-world delicious.
Known in Jamaica as stamp and go or saltfish fritters, in Haiti as marinades, accra in Trinidad, and both marinades and acras in Martinique and Guadeloupe. In this essay, I'm talking specifically about salt cod fritters, but the words marinades and accra can also refer to fritters made with lots of other ingredients, including black-eyed peas, pumpkin, hearts of palm, breadfruit, crayfish, taro, cassava, and more!
In this video on Ewe food traditions, we learn that akara were originally from Nigeria. The recipe passed from Yoruba to Ewe hands in Ketu (in Benin), and it became part of Ewe cuisine.
When enslaved people from West Africa were taken from their homes, akara is one food tradition, among many, that made the journey along. In the words of writer Tobi Olaiya: "Akara is the symbol of the connection between West Africans and the diaspora." Brazilian acarajé, or black-eyed pea fritters, take their name from Yoruba: akara + jé ("to eat"). To make either akara or acarajé, black-eyed peas are peeled and blended with seasonings into a batter that is deep-fried in crispy round balls.
The more I learn about global diaspora cuisines, the more I'm curious how those histories intersect. It's a spider web of political, economic, religious/spiritual factors that shaped the stories of our food. This is why I write my newsletter: I'm interested in understanding more about these connections, the richness and complexity of the web that we landed into (or rather, found ourselves in).
Much of the history of bacalaitos and acras de morue overlap: we start with the Atlantic cod trade.
European Catholics, who abstained from meat on particular days, required lots of fish to accommodate this dietary religious observance. From the 10th century, Norway provided Europe with dried stockfish. The Norse were also reputed to be the first foreigners to explore the western Atlantic waters off Canada's east coast (you know, Leif Erikson and all that).
In 1497, emboldened by the voyage of Christopher Columbus and the riches promised by Marco Polo's Travels, Englishman John Cabot crossed the Atlantic and landed on what became known as Newfoundland.
The waters of the North Atlantic, off the coast of Canada, and New England in the northeast United States, were teeming with marine life. Whales (as I have written about previously) and cod were two particularly valuable catches. The typical Norse drying method of preservation wasn't possible in that climate, so salting proved to be the best way to keep the fish.
After some squabbles with the Basque, Spanish, French and Portuguese over who would get to score this bounty of primo cod, England came out ahead, and became the world's major supplier of salt cod for centuries to come.
Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) were once so plentiful, they lent their name to the eastern arm of Massachusetts: Cape Cod. Overfishing through the late 20th century, though, has depleted cod populations. Today, regulations are in place to attempt to repair those populations, but the species is still considered vulnerable to threat of extinction. Fun fact: apparently, they swim with their mouth open.
In comes the period of colonization. The English, French, and others were hot on the heels of the Spanish to sail armies abroad to take what they could, claimed in the name of their Motherland. The islands of Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico were dominated by Spain, Martinique and Guadeloupe (and eventually Haiti) by France.
Initially, European colonizers exploited and enslaved the Indigenous peoples, including the Taíno and the Kalinago. Their mistreatment meant many did not survive. Bartolomé de Las Casas was a Spanish priest and missionary who wrote about the New World from his first-person perspective, in the early 16th century. He was an influential writer and thinker of the time, and denounced the cruelty of the enslavement of the Indigenous people of the Americas.
However, he inititally recommended using African people as slaves instead of Indigenous people. He wasn't against slavery at all--it just depended on who was deemed "more fit" to be enslaved. France banned the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, finally freeing all Indigenous slaves in 1550. By the 17th century, the enormously profitable sugar industry was ramping up in the Antilles, and labor was needed to maximize production. So heightened the slave trade. The hierarchization of the value of human life was decided.
The French were the third-largest transatlantic slave traders, behind Portugal and Great Britain. French port cities like Bordeaux, Nantes, Le Havre, and La Rochelle prospered by outfitting ships to carry slaves from West Africa, destined for France's Caribbean colonies.
In 2001, France officially recognized slavery and the Atlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity, in a law known as la loi Taubira, named after the woman who spearheaded the bill--Christiane Taubira, a politician from French Guiana, whose work has cemented her place in contemporary French history.
The vegetable fritters called akara made the journey, along with much other ancestral knowledge. Peoples of different languages, different countries, found themselves together in a cruel situation in a distant place. Ingredients at hand were used to make food using familiar cooking techniques.
Salt cod, for reasons both religious and practical, became a staple ration for soldiers and enslaved people alike. Salt cod could travel well, and was eaten in great quantities both in the colonies and in Europe.
This blend of factors: the massive salt cod trade, the persistence of culinary memory among displaced West African people in the Americas. No matter the name or regional varities of flavoring, the origin story matches: salt cod fritters like bacalaitos and acras de morue have a shared origin story.
The word "creole" in English is used to refer to the blended language and/or culture of European and Black or African cultures and languages. It comes from Spanish criolla and French créole, which in turn come from Portuguese crioulo. Crioulo was used to refer to a "home-born slave," a person of mixed European/Black descent, or someone of European ancestry born in the colonies of Central and South America and the West Indies. Criar in Portuguese ("to nurse," "to breed") comes from the Latin creāre, "to create, to procreate, to sire, to give birth to."
What is "the European territory of France"? Also known as "metropolitan France" or "the Hexagon," it's the piece of the European continent sandwiched between Spain and Germany, plus the Mediterranean island of Corsica. When we talk about "France," as a whole, it is much larger.
Just as the United States claims Hawai'i and Alaska as part of its 50 states, France has 5 overseas departments and regions, or départements et régions d'outre-mer. Overseas France includes: Réunion Island and Mayotte (off the coast of East Africa), French Guiana (in South America, north of Brazil), Guadeloupe and Martinique (located in the Caribbean, southeast of Puerto Rico).
France also claims 8 territories (or overseas collectivities) with various administrative designations and levels of autonomy. Some would say that the words territory and overseas collectivity are modern jargon for "colony." Technically, only New Caledonia and French Polynesia are on the United Nations' list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, where the people "have not yet attained a full measure of self-government," and rely on their "administering powers."
Is your head spinning from all this circuitous language yet? It feels like a lot of linguistic plate-spinning to soften all language related to France's colonial history.
The French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti today) was enormously profitable. In the 18th century, coffee and sugar plantations were carved into the country's mountainsides, and those products garnered top prices in European markets. The more money on the table, the more labor necessary! So the slave trade to Saint-Domingue intensified: it represented 37% of the entire translatlantic slave trade during the 5-year period from 1785-1790.
The dehumanizing brutality of French slaveowners in its colony Saint-Domingue is also well-documented. It was so bad, a law forbidding excessively inhumane treatment of slaves was passed in the 1780s. In 1791, the world's first successful slave revolt took place. Led by Toussaint Louverture, it became a revolution for independence which concluded in 1804, in a victory over Napoleon. Saint-Domingue took on its Indigenous name: Ayiti, or Haiti.
However, 21 years later, French warships rolled up into Haitian waters with an ultimatum: Pay us our indemnities for lost real estate and give us lower taxes on French goods, or else we're going back to war. Thus began Haiti's long-standing "independence debt" to France. In other words, the former slaves that claimed their independence had to pay reparations to their former masters.
A recent New York times investigative report traced historical documents to show the debt charged to Haiti was enormous. It's estimated that 560 million dollars was paid out. To cover the debt, coffee taxes were increased, and foreign money was borrowed.
Where did the money go? Foreign lenders like the Rothschilds, French bankers, and even the French government as recently as the early 20th century. French bank CIC established the National Bank of Haiti in Paris, commandeered Haitian treasury operations, paying its French shareholders commission fees. In 1894, they got more money than Haiti's entire agriculture budget for the year. Haitian money went into building the Eiffel Tower, growing the CIC bank, and the American bank which would become Citigroup.
If that money had stayed in the country and gone toward building infrastructure and contributing to economic growth (schools, businesses, water and sewers, bridges, medicine...), it would have added an estimated $21 billion to Haiti's development.
Until now, there has been silence in France about this: it isn't taught in schools, and the French government certainly doesn't address it directly, as it would open the door to talks about restitution for other places it's historically extracted wealth from.
President François Hollande in 2003 publicly stated that France owed a debt to Haiti. Immediately afterwards, the government moved in to clarify. The standing official position of the French government is that it owes only a "moral debt" to Haiti, a country which faces issues of chronic poverty, corruption, and underdevelopment.
France is all about its universalist stance. In theory, each French département enjoys the same rights, same education programs, same everything under the eyes of the law.
Taking inspiration from the Declaration of Independence, La déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789) outlines the inalienable rights of the French people. It is in the preamble of the French Constitution, and Article 2 declares the rights to "Liberty, Property, Safety and Resistance to Oppression."
However, looking closer at the overseas départements, and the current reality, it is clear that reality doesn't quite match what's on paper.
In France, the current SMIC, or minimum wage, before taxes is 10.85€/hour. That is, except in Mayotte, where the minimum wage is 8.19€/hour.
An import tax, known as octroi de mer, is levied on products imported to all of overseas France--in the case of Réunion Island, an additional octroi de mer is also applied to products manufactured locally. Its historical precedent dates back to 1670: the droit de poids collected taxes on all products entering French colonies, as a way to generate further revenue.
Prior 2013, it was found that there were higher levels of sugar in foodstuffs destined for overseas France. A 2016 mandate required the enforcement of the 2013 law that requires food companies to manufacture the same quality of products for everyone in France. This disparity may have influenced the differences in rates of diabetes in France--In 2018, 5.4% of people in continental France were treated for diabetes, versus 7.7% in Martinique and Guyana, 8.9% in Guadeloupe, and 10.2% in Réunion Island--nearly double the rate in the Hexagon.
Until 2013, food manufacturers had legal free rein to assign different expiration dates on products meant to be consumed in the Hexagon, versus overseas France. For example, yogurts could be given expiry dates of 30 days for continental French consumers, but 50 days for those in overseas France. For reblochon cheese: 35 and 70 days, respectively--and for shredded gruyère cheese: 40 days and 180 days.
In terms of unemployment, the differences are staggering. In 2020, metropolitan France saw a 7.8% unemployment rate. During the same period, it was 12.4% in Martinique, 16.1% in Guyana, 17.3% in Réunion Island, 17.4% in Guadeloupe, and 28% in Mayotte. This is explained by "specific geographic factors" such as limitations in the labor market and a "mismatch" between jobs and candidates' levels of training.
Perhaps the most pressing at the moment is the aftereffects of chlordecone. It is a pesticide meant to kill off one particular pest, the banana weevil, which infests and destroys banana crops. In the 20th century, bananas were the main crop cultivated in the French Antilles.
Chlordecone has caused lasting environmental damage, having permeated into the soil, the water, the sediment. It is a known toxic substance, an endocrine disruptor which affects the nervous, hormonal, and reproductive systems, in addition to its (likely) carcinogenic properties. Guadeloupe and Martinique have the world's highest rates of prostate cancer. This pesticide will remain in the land and water for the next 100 to 600 years. An estimated 90% of those in the French Antilles have had some exposure to chlordecone, which happens notably via food: fresh fish, eggs, and poultry.
In other words, the lands are poisoned.
Residents of Martinique and Guadeloupe who have been affected by chlordecone came together to sue the government. In March 2022, after 16 years of investigation, two judges declined to make an indictment, which means the case could be dismissed. There is also a fear that the State will simply dismiss the case because the statute of limitations has expired.
These are just some of the real-world consequences of France's colonial history.
The decade 1990-2000 was the First International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism--it marked the 30th anniversary of the 1960 Declaration on Decolonization (aka. "Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples"). That was to be the decade which would accelerate the accomplishment of the goal of that 1960 Declaration: eliminating every remaining facet of colonialism, once and for all.
For the record, we are currently in the Fourth International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.
The initial Web results for "histoire des accras de morue" in French will bring you several retellings of one urban legend. In short: sometime during the 20th century, an unnamed Normand woman (from the north of France) living in the Antilles wanted to cook apple beignets one day, but finding no apples on the island, needed a substitute. An "African cook" suggested she use salt cod instead; a third "Indian cook" advised her to use hot pepper for seasoning--thus, the birth of acras de morue! A fusion of cultures, representing the mixed heritage of the dish! (But of course, notice that the story reframes acras de morue as a French continental recipe.)
Of course, acras de morue, like bacalaitos, were likely made with the salt cod rations available, sometime in the 1600s or 1700s, when the slave trade was in full swing and salted cod was an important staple protein.
While this story is clearly the fever dream of some confused, flag-clutching sap, I think it is interesting. Not for the fuzzy feelings of colonial charm it's intended to give, but because for some French people, this is the type of story that some people need to tell themselves about their nation's history. Those charming anecdotes that conveniently sanitize the legitimate questions that arise, to the detriment of historical fact and truth.
You might wonder what the harm is in a made-up fairy tale like this. I would say that stories like this erase the reality of France's brutal presence in its colonies, and obscures the real-life histories of the people who lived under French rule. That's a lot of fancy footwork to (to put it bluntly) make white people feel more comfortable about their country's extremely unpalatable colonial history.
Because there was not the same system of enslavement within Metropolitan France, there is a feeling of distance and removal from the colonial atrocities committed by France, and the subsequent benefits reaped by French institutions.
In many ways, France lives with her head in the sand about the dim realities of her history and its continued impact today. France has a particularly hard time discussing, even acknowledging, her colonial past (and present). Attempts to do so are criticized. France would be losing face, and that cannot be accepted.
As a result, even talk of "systemic racism" and "white privilege" are often poo-pooed as something inherently American, irrelevant and even dangerous to French ideals. The idea of institutional inequalities like systemic racism is confusing to some, ridiculous to others, and still others find it downright dangerous to French society. Right-leaning thinkers call it wokisme, or being "woke."
One might ask: If racism is so rampant in France, then why did so many African American artists and intellectuals find a welcome home in France in the 20th century? One fact can be true without negating another. It's true that figures like Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Nina Simone made part of their lives in France. But it's also true that the year Nina Simone moved to France, it was only just halting its use of chlordecone in the Antilles. In the time of Josephine Baker, there were human zoos with people from the colonies, on display for Parisian gawkers.
The French are no strangers to "othering" people for the sake of entertainment. Even today, there are many flat, caricaturized portrayals of "Other" cultures and people in pop culture and media. The gawking at Otherness has persisted.
Understanding these connections is more than looking at how my one story reflects in the larger picture--it's about really understanding what went in to building the place I stand on.
Since moving here, learning the language, and becoming more involved with my community, I have adapted. I find my ingredients for Puerto Rican food at the import market, cook arroz con gandules for my friends, drive around with my little Puerto Rican flag hanging from my rear-view mirror, and rely on the Internet to connect with my people.
I had less than zero interest in France before I met my husband--I decided to come, gourmand hat on, and go from there. I didn't have many preconceived notions, I just kinda... ended up here. So the learning has been gradual.
Living in a new country doesn't mean I have to love everything about it. There are plenty of things that bother me about this country, and how things work here. (To be fair, I could say the same for my home country.)
But there are smaller things. There are those new faces that become familiar, local places that welcome you in. I've got my libraries, my weekly Spanish classes, my usual café, my favorite markets and vendors where I can get a taste of home. My friends and chosen family are here, and while we don't share the same heritage, we share a community bond. This is what integration feels like to me. Whether or not I choose to become a French citizen one day, at least I can say I'm learning as much about this place as I can, through food stories: learning new ones, understanding my own better, and sharing them.
Thank you for reading. This is part 1 of a mini-series on French history. This series is particularly research-heavy, so I encourage you to see my Bibliography for more detailed information. Paid subscribers: I'll be back on July 1 with a narrated essay on the birth of French gastronomy!
In case you missed it, all my subscribers have a discount code to my web shop: for 10% off, use code RENDERED10 until August 1. Paid subscribers have 20% off with the code I sent out on June 1.
If you enjoy my work and would like to support my efforts, share with a friend/hit the "like"/leave a comment to help this newsletter grow, visit my web store, or consider a paid subscription. I also accept one-time donations via my website. To follow my art practice, catch me on Instagram or view my portfolio on my website. Be well, take care of your heart, and I'll see you all next month.
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"Taux de diabète dans les départements d'outre-mer: 15e législature." Senat.fr, Updated 30 Aug 2018.
Interspersed food history and political influences on diet. Salt cod so delicious!