Grinding spices in a mortar and pestle… is there a proper technique?  I’ve never been one to bother with rules in the kitchen.  I’m stubborn that way.

There’s surely some artistic metaphor in the use of a mortar and pestle – meditative simplicity, the release and blending of disparate flavours to create a mosaic for the palette or some such thing – but I’ll leave that to the health gurus and enlightened souls, whose wise counsel I stubbornly ignore.

Instead, when I use a mortar and pestle to grind spices a particular phrase comes to mind – mais vous n’avez pas la force!

You see I spent a few months in Benin some years ago, and I was regularly assured by my “little sister” Ruth that I was not strong enough… to wring out my laundry, to prepare food, to draw water, most things domestic in fact.  Precocious little troublemaker, that Ruth.  The youngest of 3 daughters of my host family.  And possibly the fiercest, which is saying a lot, if you knew her sisters… (and their mother!)

There are layers of meaning, there, I think.  Turf protection over domestic chores.  Gender roles, still traces of colonial power relations.  But still I’d persist and eventually they’d let me try and delight in my failure to execute the task in “the proper way”.  In truth this got on my nerves but I had little other choice than to be waited on, which I didn’t tolerate well.  I was stubborn, so were they.

There are other stories there, thick stories with intractable lessons.  Once, my sisters exploded in mocking laughter when I applauded the wrong way.  Clapping is done with hands symmetrical, not nested one palm into the other.  I didn’t know this.  Immediately, my faux pas provoked a chain reaction of delighted and embarrassing laughter.  Perhaps some day I’ll learn why.

But I still think of that when I grind spices.  Vous n’avez pas la force.  Am I strong enough for this?

And sometimes when I place my laundry in the dryer.

And always when I clap.

So call me sensitive, defensive, touchy, or stubborn.  But please, no life affirming metaphors about the proper way to use a mortar and pestle.  Not today.


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