IT COULD have been anything, but it was salt. It could have been police violence, which was all too present, or the land tax, which siphoned crops and maintained a centuries-long state of famine. It could have been the very existence of the Raj and its guarantees against self-governance. But when asked where to train the gaze of India’s uprising, Mohandas Gandhi pointed to the Salt Act, an undeniably racist but, by most accounts, bearable law under which Indians were forbidden from harvesting their own salt and instead required to purchase it from British sellers at inflated cost. During a period of political oppression and the legalized murder of dark-skinned people, this bit of policy struck Gandhi as “the most iniquitous of all.”
The funny thing is that he hated salt. He’s known more for his deep suspicion of sweets (“I see death in chocolates”) and his conflicted relationship with mangoes (from “luscious mangoes” to “mango is a cursed fruit”), but he had a history with salt as well, insisting that the only measure of it required by the human body was provided naturally through the food one ingested. There’s a discernible rhythm to this period of his life, between the fear of food and the practice of fasting, which, in the philosophy of nonviolent resistance, is seen as a reclamation of one’s hunger— “the last weapon in the armory,” as he puts it. If the Salt Act was a means by which to reinforce British rule and sever India’s connection to its own waters, the omission of salt, the aspiring toward an aloofness to salt, was itself an act of protest.
But the sight of his followers, laboring under the hot sun and hydrating with saltwater, eventually caused him to doubt the utility of his ascetic dreams. After ten years of abstinence and under advice from his doctors, Gandhi reluctantly afforded himself thirty grains a day (less than two milligrams)—not such a change in daily intake, but a clear acknowledgment of its necessity to all around him, and a signal that the fast no longer would hold. For thirty grains of salt, he marched with twelve thousand followers to the ocean’s edge, where he closed his fist around a handful of muddy saltwater and raised it in the air.
History’s survivors gather around the food of resistance. It could have been anything too for Jibreel Khazan (then Ezell Blair Jr.), Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond, but it was lunch. “I was hungry,” McNeil said. In a state where the law had permitted at least a hundred Black Americans to be lynched, their language of protest was inspired by nothing more than a lunch counter denying them service. Studying the action design of the Salt March, the four students set out on their own unlikely fast, holding seats before empty plates and staying the afternoon under the scrutiny of bothered shoppers and the media’s readied lens. If Woolworth was where they chose to remind the white community of their existence, it was because their existence depended no less on lunch than on liberty.
And it could have been anything, on the other side of the world, to which Nelson Mandela objected on Robben Island, but it was the food. He writes of Black prisoners served water and corn—corn porridge in old oil drums, boiled corn kernels, and a watery brew known as corn coffee—while white prison workers were given fresh crayfish. Organizing a hunger strike to protest the conditions, Mandela hid messages for other inmates in empty soup pots that could travel the prison grounds discreetly. Among his legacies at that prison is the garden he cultivated in the courtyard, which served both to feed his community and to hide the handwritten manuscript of Long Walk to Freedom. Years later, one of his biographers would observe him calling guests to the table at home by saying, “Let’s go to battle.”
The table may bring us together, but it is a battlefield. Food, after all, is how we take in the world. We are in conflict with every bite, greeting or ignoring one culture in favor of another, taking life to give life, or just keeping the wolf at the door, as M.F.K. Fisher puts it. We nourish our bodies at such great expense, it is only right that we do so honestly, with whatever caution our hunger abides. O