When they say that something is ‘an acquired taste’ I don’t think they took canned mackerel into consideration. The stuff smells bad – really bad. I was a kid on our first trip to Samoa when I first smelled the stuff and I just about lost consciousness when someone opened up a can a few hundred yards away and I took a whiff of the stuff. You know, it’s that dizzying, nose hair singeing type of smell that makes you wish you had a bio-suit on and a warning label only this smell actually scorched my brain a little bit too.
“Have some,” my mom said through gritted teeth as her entire extended family looked on.
It was one of those moments when the locals try to get the ‘foreigner’ to eat something that they don’t like eating themselves but they do it just to see the reaction on your face. I think my siblings choked it down pretty good but I just couldn’t get past the overpowering stench.
“Go on, it’s like tuna,” mom urged, her eyes now bulging out of her head and that familiar ‘you wait until I get my hands on you kid’ look that preempted a severe tongue lashing and a swift kick to my polyester wearing rear-end later in the privacy of our own home.
Slowly, I prepared myself for the inevitable. I stuffed some taro in my mouth, a tiny bit of elegi, then another truckload of taro in before washing it all down with water without chewing. I cursed my mom forever after whenever I saw a can of elegi sitting about, waiting for consumption by someone who wanted to lose their taste buds and their bowels in one swift mouthful.
A funny thing happened though. It took months (perhaps it was years) to really ‘acquire’ for the stuff but I finally did. Mom actually became an expert at cooking it different ways to conceal the bitter taste. Over time, elegi became more of an enjoyable part of our dinner table and less of an intestinal burden.
Lesson learned – One man’s mackerel is another man’s treasure.
Mackerel is as much a part of Samoan life as maize was to the ancient inhabitants of the America’s. It has been such an integral part of Samoan life that a song was written to extol its virtues even as the rest of us held our noses as we somehow managed to slide it down an equally aloof esophagus.
Tinned mackerel was once the lifeline for many Samoans during post-colonial times and in times of severe famine. Cases of the stuff are still used as a form of currency when dealing with faalavelave (family and village crises). In our home in Samoa, elegi became a staple when the number in our household of ten swelled to double its size with members of our extended family living with us during the week for school. There was elegi soup; elegi curry; elegi and vegetables; stir-fried elegi; elegi in gravy and dozens of other variations of the lifesaving fish.
We grumbled but we ate it because we knew that taxed minds and blistered hands worked hard to provide it and yet another pair of loving hands worked diligently to prepare it for our consumption. There is now an emotional connection to elegi that still stirs my heart every time I see a can sitting on a shelf. It reminds me of things that helped build me:
1) Hardship – Many Samoans toil in the sun and heat to make a living. There are many who barely eek out an existence doing menial jobs. Elegi reminds me of these people and the things that they must endure to provide for their families. Hardship makes us feel deeper and work harder knowing that the only reprieve from our situation is through determination, the work of our hands and God’s love.
2) Love – Hardship is hardly suffering at all when you realize that you do all that you can each day for the people you love. You set aside your grievances with life and work hard for a single can of elegi because without it your family will go hungry. Love makes us work harder but it also makes the load lighter. It is the primary motivating factor behind island intuition, resourcefulness and sheer purpose of heart.
3) Gratitude – when you come from humble circumstances and you see the difficulties of life, you learn to appreciate the times when you don’t have to crack open a can of elegi to survive. You learn to be grateful for the things that you have been blessed with and in turn learn to cultivate a desire in your heart to bless the lives of others. Gratitude is the byproduct of hardship and love and when you see hardship you remember to be grateful. And gratitude then transfers to an outpouring of love for those who have very little.
For many years after we moved back from Samoa, my mom would occasionally cook a special elegi dish for our Sunday meals that seemed to be dwarfed by all of the other wonderful dishes on the table. For the most part it was largely ignored by those feasting on the delectable treats, but eventually the elegi would disappear. We found that the elegi was consumed by a room full of people who ate it for sentimental reasons more than its mouthwatering appeal. It was eaten by people who felt the love of parents who endured those hardships for the future of their children and posterity. Elegi was the pungent garnish of gratitude for family and the blessing of life.