The Soup That Symbolizes Haitian Freedom

  • Posted on: 30 December 2016
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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On January 1—the country's independence day—Haitians prepare soup joumou, a rich pumpkin soup with an even richer history. Haiti became free on January 1, 1804, and on that day it acquired a new name too. Previously called Saint-Domingue, the territory had been France's most profitable colony, its plantation economy dependent on a brutal system of slave labor. Following an insurrection that grew to a full-fledged revolution, Haitian slaves and gens de couleur libres—free people of color—defeated the French military and declared for themselves a republic. The new name was also an old one: Haiti (in Haitian Creole, Ayiti) came from the indigenous Taino word for the region. It means "land of the mountains."

After freedom, it was time to celebrate. And to eat—at least, according to the legend surrounding the origins of soup joumou, a pumpkin soup that swiftly came to symbolize Haitian independence. The dish is the subject of a forthcoming documentary, "Liberty in a Soup," by the filmmaker Dudley Alexis, who traveled to Haiti to dig into its history. "There's no written account," Alexis told me. "But the story behind it is, blacks and slaves were not allowed to drink the soup." It was a delicacy—something reserved for French slave masters. When Haitians threw out the French, they vested this previously forbidden food with new meaning. "The soup became a symbol of Haitian independence and freedom," Alexis said. (It may have been Marie-Claire Heureuse, the wife of the revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines's wife, who initiated the tradition.)

"Soup joumou is everything. For Haitians, it really is our freedom soup," said Nadege Fleurimond, who runs a catering business in New York. The soup is a tradition in Haiti and across the diaspora. "If you speak to a Haitian in Paris or a Haitian in the Bahamas, the soup is going to come up if it's January 1. Even if you don't make it, you're trying to find who made it so you can go eat it."  The other day, in the kitchen of my apartment, Fleurimond was rinsing pieces of beef with vinegar and water, preparing to make soup joumou. She drained the beef and squeezed lime juice over it. The recipe is eclectic and variable—rich with beef and bone marrow, bitter with turnip, starchy with potato, thickened with noodles, spiced with cloves and Scotch bonnet pepper. (This is about a quarter of the ingredient list.) In my opinion it is the perfect marriage of pumpkin soup and beef stew, leaning slightly in the direction of the latter. Far from dominant, the pureed pumpkin gives the soup a slightly sweet, vegetal backbone.

Substitutions are possible, Fleurimond said. Do you lack access to joumou—the Haitian Creole word for calabaza squash? Use butternut instead. No Scotch bonnet? Habanero works. Fleurimond told me her flexible approach to cooking reflects the influence of her father, who brought Fleurimond from Haiti to Brooklyn when she was seven years old. "He always said that his measurement of a good cook was, you should be able to create no matter what is in your cupboard," she said.“We may be poor, but we're the first black republic. We may be suffering but we're children of revolutionaries.”

When Fleurimond graduated from college—Columbia University, political science, 2003—she expected she'd continue on to law school. And when she started catering full-time soon after, she kept law school on her mind, studying each year for the LSATs. "Coming from an immigrant household, you don't think of catering and food as professions," she said. "The expectation is, you're going to be a doctor, or you're going to be a lawyer. That's what your parents expect from you." By 2013, though, it became clear there was a reason Fleurimond had been putting off making the next steps toward the law—she'd rather be cooking. "I was like, 'You know what, Nadege, you're not going to law school," she said. "'Just give it up.'"

Nowadays Fleurimond is a caterer but also a kind of food impresario, hosting events like a brunch series that features talks from prominent Haitian-Americans. She founded Haiti Global Village to help rebuilding efforts in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew, and in 2014 published a cookbook/travelogue called Haiti Uncovered: A Regional Adventure Into the Art of Haitian Cuisine. "I do food, but I've always been big on the conversation that surrounds food," Fleurimond said. "Writing my book was about that—to get the Haitian person to understand a little bit more deeply our heritage. But it was for the non-Haitian person to also pick up this book and be like, 'Oh, I didn't know this.'"

In the kitchen, the first step was to make Haitian epis, a sort of all-purpose flavor base like sofrito or mirepoix. Into the food processor went onions, garlic, parsley, each color of bell pepper, oil, and a few leaves of basil. Blended, the mixture looked like confetti, and after she took it out of the processor Fleurimond coated the chunks of beef with it, setting the meat aside to marinate while she and I created a mountain of chopped vegetables on the countertop.

After stewing the beef and chunks of pumpkin together in broth, we removed the pumpkin, pureed it, and added it back in, and then the rest of the vegetables. (Soup joumou is almost universally described as a "pumpkin" soup, though calabaza is a squash; it's a sticky subject.) You could smell what was on the stove from the foyer of the building. While the soup cooked, Fleurimond talked about what it means—that is, what freedom means for Haitians, freedom that is the result of the only successful large-scale slave rebellion, a first domino in the eventual cascading of the Atlantic slave trade. "It's our 'but,'" Fleurimond said. "It's like, we may be poor, but we're the first black republic. We may be suffering but we're children of revolutionaries."

Haiti, Fleurimond said, has "been dealt a pretty bad hand." Its status as a free black republic left it isolated in a region where slavery fueled economic progress, including in the United States. "When the rest of the world was enslaving black people, you have one black republic telling slaves all over the world, 'You can be free too.' They're not going to look too kindly on that," Fleurimond said. The U.S. didn't recognize Haiti as a country until 1862, nearly 60 years after its revolution.  The country literally paid a price for its freedom: in 1825, French warships approached the Haitian coast and demanded compensation for Haiti's gains, which were France's loss—a ransom equal to ten times the young nation's annual revenues. Faced with the threat of invasion, and the return of slavery, Haiti agreed to pay. Though it was a lesser amount than was originally demanded, the debt hobbled the brand-new country; at a certain point loan repayments took up 80 percent of Haiti's annual budget. (These days, that France should itself repay this illegitimate bounty remains an open political demand.) Haiti continues to deal with the effects of that debt and various other economic disasters, compounded by natural disasters.

Fleurimond was thinking about putting together a Haiti Global Village event on January 1 but wasn't sure she could plan it in time. In fact she wasn't sure what she would be doing on New Year's Day, though it seems likely that soup joumou will be involved. As we sat down in front of a couple fragrant bowls, I asked if the soup should be served with bread. Yes, she said: "That's the thing we always joke about Haitian cuisine—people want to pile on as much starch as possible. It needs to hold you over, you know?"

Photo Credit: Miami New Times


By Yveka Pierre

The Takeout

30 January 2019

’s the dead of winter, and most of the fun holidays are behind us—but there’s still months of cold and slush to get through. So we’d like to welcome you to Tropical Staycation, a week of island-inspired recipes and other stories that will transport you to much warmer, sunnier places. Just don’t look out the window while reading.

The first time I made soup joumou was my first New Year away from home. I was sitting in my unaffordable and barely furnished Washington D.C. apartment with a heater at my feet. I was trying to convince myself that I was at the beach with my toes in the waves; Fort Lauderdale was calling my name, and she was doing it in a Haitian accent. Every year, for as long as I could remember, I had eaten soup joumou, or Haitian squash soup, to bring in Independence day, which happened to fall on January 1.

The soup was tradition, the origins of which all little Haitian kids were taught a version of in school, and then taught again at the knees of the family elders. After declaring the 12-year war for independence won on January 1, 1804, general Jean Jacques Dessalines stated that we would commemorate that independence by drinking squash soup. This was the same soup that the French colonial slavers had forbidden the enslaved people on the island from eating, so having the soup was itself an act of rebellion. There is no written history that explains why the Africans and Tainos enslaved on the island were banned from eating it, but turning squash into soup is a practice traceable to African countries, and the squash used to make it was native to the West Indies, not imported from France. It was a delicacy created by, and stolen from, the people forbidden from tasting it.

As time went on, I discovered the lore of the soup had a few more layers, namely the women who held less celebrated roles in the story, their names seemingly dissolved into the soup itself. Like many stories surrounding revolutions, the female counterparts of male actors are blended into the background. We know of Dutty Boukman, the mambo who incited the slave revolt that sparked the revolution, while the legacy of Cécile Fatiman, the priestess who co-led the ceremony, melts away, down into the soup. And there’s alternate lore in which Dessalines declares independence, but it’s his wife, Marie-Claire Félicité Bonheur, who champions the symbol of rebellion, proclaiming that soup joumou would be made in commemoration of the revolution.

D.C. was the worst place to have an intense craving for Haitian food; at the time, there was no restaurant in the city to satisfy that need. In a rush—mostly because I needed all the motivation I could muster to head into the cold—I walked over to my local Giant to grab the ingredients to make the soup myself. When I made it to the store, I mostly worked from memory. I knew I needed squash, but having never peeled it, I only knew the inner flesh had to be orange, which isn’t particularly helpful. I grabbed a butternut squash, which I would find out later, after calling my mother, was the wrong one. I made a few more wrong turns: I had too many ingredients for my pot. I didn’t have a blender and had to mash the cooked squash by hand. I burned the soup. Looking back, that first attempt was nothing to write home about, but my mother was so proud of the effort, and every year that I kept at it made her even prouder.

The trouble and the beauty of soup joumou is that there is no set recipe, no matter what anyone tells you. There are a few building blocks you find throughout Haitian cooking, such as the familiar flavor profile of epis, a cooking base made of smashed garlic, scotch bonnet peppers, green onion, and oil, combined using a mortar and pestle. Most food uses a base like this and builds upon the flavors in complex layers—but everything else is subjective. Haiti is on one half of a small island, but the regional differences in the food keep the cuisine vibrant and ever changing. Each region has their own “right way” of making the soup, adding layers of history and their own little rebellions to the mix. Some places believe in a hearty soup, adding chayote squash, potatoes, and cabbage early on in the cooking process to thicken the broth. Others like a thinner soup, adding vegetables right at the end for a crisper finish. There are even differences within families: My soup starts off with oxtail and beef chunks, but my sister, who eats a plant-based diet, thinks it’s closer to the ancestors to have a meatless soup. More power to her.

Over the years, my soup has added her own story to the cultural lore, as a diaspora soup. I’ve only been able to find the right calabaza squash once, in 2017 at a tiny vegetable stand in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and I’ve had to settle for kabocha squash every other year. Kabocha doesn’t grow in Haiti; its flesh is missing the right amount of sweetness and always comes up short of calabaza’s orange color. My mother also tells me that my peppers aren’t spicy enough. The parts of my tongue that still remember eating pikliz in Haiti absolutely believes her.

But my soup is rebellion just the same. Food culture has a way of unifying diaspora attempting to make their home in lands that haven’t fully welcomed them. It’s a way of connecting, of being seen, and seeing in return. It is a tangible aspect of our culture that we are proud of and want to share with others.

Haitians, we love visitors, but loathe a settler. One of my ever recurring nightmares involves walking into a restaurant and finding a soup joumou dish elevated so far from its roots that it’s managed to shrivel into a pale version of its former self. To keep fighting the good fight, I’ll make my soup each year, and celebrate the ones who try to keep the history alive.

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