Food and Philology

“Words matter”. That’s how a hero of mine once began a lecture on Bach. I think she was right, but I also think that context matters a lot, too.

I have a very particular example in mind. It’s a Creole phrase, “Vin m pale w.” It means, roughly, “Come here. I want to talk to you.” But it can mean much more. I’m thinking of Madanm Anténor.

Madanm Anténor is married to Mèt Anténor. She is master of the house I live in. She and her husband divide their responsibilities pretty clearly for the most part, and at home she is the boss. Her name is Bernadette, but I have never, ever heard a Haitian use it. They call her Madanm Anténor or Madanm Mèt. Her husband has real status here on the mountain. Some call her “Makomè,” a way to address a woman which indicates something like a collegiality among adult members of a community.

She has her own job outside the home. She works as a health extension worker,
hiking with our neighbor, Casnell, all over the mountain, vaccinating children and talking to mothers about care of their infants. It’s exhausting work, and the pay is bad, but the little bit of extra cash is helpful with three children in school and land that does not produce all the food the family needs-even if the work she does requires her to hire help to do some of the work around the house.

When Madanm Anténor says “Vin m pale w” one of several different things can happen. If she says it to one of her own children-Cassandra, Cyprien, and Valerie-he or she will quickly try to find a place to hide or a plausible explanation for not having heard her. Because when she speaks to them the phrase can have two meanings, neither of which appeals to them very much. It could mean, “Come here, I have a chore for you to do” It could mean, “You’ve done something you shouldn’t have done. I’m angry, and you’re going to know it.”

On the other hand, she often says it to local teens, usually teenage boys. Then they run like the wind to her. When she says it to them it can have only one meaning, “I have food for you.” There is, uncharacteristically for Haiti, no real food shortage here in Ka Glo, but Madanm is a great cook. Acknowledged by all here as the best. And teenagers everywhere love to eat. When she calls, they come, and they think nothing of doing chores for her when she asks. And she does ask, because her kids are still too small for
heavy work.

I like and respect her enormously. But there is one last thing I should say about her. When I say that she’s telling her kids “You’re going to know that I’m angry,” that is a euphemism. What it means is that she’s stripped a fresh branch from the ornamental bush near her door, and she’s preparing to whip her child. It’s a lovely shrub, with thin green leaves on its younger branches and stunning reddish orange ones on some of its older ones. It’s flowers are a delicate pink. When I look closely at the bush, I can see the
various places where young twigs have been torn away from it, and I know what each of those places means. How do I reconcile the horror I feel when I see and, even worse, hear the whipping with my fondness for her? I don’t. I know she loves her children, and that the world is full of contradictions.