Recipes and Food Stories from the African Diaspora
The holidays are usually a time where people come together in ways that are unlikely the rest of the year. If you are a New Yorker like myself, you are guaranteed days filled with the non-stop and fast-paced business of life’s routines and demands. The holidays force us to slow down and remember what is important: relationship, connections made by exchanging daily experiences, family, friends and of course food. For many cultures, around Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year, there is more of the “getting together” wand connecting over food than any other day of the year.
In Haitian households such as the one I grew up in, we partake of a celebratory soup, a soup that represents freedom and liberty on New Year’s Day. This soup is called soup “joumou.” It is originally known as a pumpkin soup, but has also transformed to include winter squash instead of the pumpkin. For many years, I did not know the significance of why we drink this soup only on New Year’s day. Why did we gather around the table as if it were thanksgiving? Why didn’t we drink this soup on any other day of the year?
For once in my 31 years of life, I ventured to interview my mother, a native born Haitian woman and one of the best Haitian cooks that I know. To my surprise, she had no clue as to why we make and have this soup every New Year. She only knew what I knew: we gather to eat a delicious bowl of squash soup on New Year’s Day because “it is what we do.” I would hate for the meaning of a great heritage to be forgotten. More than one generation has gone on without an appreciation of a heritage that makes Haitian people so strong. We have gotten so caught up in the tradition that we forgot about the history and failed to pass it down to future generations. Heritage, history, and culture have shaped our parents who have helped to shape us as well. Honestly, I expected stories, I expected the sharing of life experiences in Haiti as she told me about the dish, but to much disappointment, I didn’t quite get that.
It’s saddening that it took this long to build up an interest. Nonetheless, I sought out other resources and this is what I learned: In 1803, the Governor-General (later Emperor) Jean Jacques Dessalines (former slave from West Africa), with other leaders rose to rebellion when the French military leader Napoleon expressed intentions for reintroducing slavery to the country from which slavery was abolished by the French Convention in 1794. With the help of the British, the French were expelled and on January 1, 1804 Dessalines declared the entire island of Hispaniola (on which Haiti is located) as an independent country The soup joumou was used as a symbol of liberty and freedom by Dessalines because in the times of slavery, the French masters were the only ones allowed to drink this soup, especially during celebrations. Dessalines and his wife offered the soup to former slaves to consummate their newer found freedom as an independent country.
I don’t celebrate Kwanzaa, but on this 1st day of the kwanzaa traditions, I acknowledge the importance of celebrating unity. It is what soup “joumou” represents: a group of people sharing in same interests of celebration of liberty. However you come together with a group of people sharing similar interests and connections, you are exemplifying a culture of unity when you do it.
Unity is an important aspect of my life, especially as a Christian mom and wife. Family (which can come in so many different forms and consist of varying dynamics) means unity to me. We each play a role in our families, but when we come together, those roles weave into each other creating a community of loving, sharing, encouraging, motivating, inspiring people. So when I think about my church family, I think unity. When I think about my husband and son, I think unity. When I think about my small group of close friends, I think unity. The soup is a representation of unity in both the historical and the familial sense. When I can sit down with my mom, siblings, husband and son around a table and be on one accord, even if it is just in the moment of enjoying a bowl of delicious soup, I bask in the feeling of unity that overwhelms me; even if it is just for that moment. We build each other up by engaging with one another in conversation and learn from one another.
To follow suit, the bible says these things about unity:
When we take the time to recognize the roles we play in each other’s lives and the uncapped potential to impact someone’s life because of the gifts we have, we are operating out of a place of unity. Now, as I anticipate the new year quickly approaching, I not only look forward to connecting with family, but remembering the once long ago, former slaves did the same as they celebrated their freedom TOGETHER as individuals and as a homeland. I also anticipate the opportunity to reunite my palate with the smooth textures of the pumpkin/squash puree complimented by the complex textures of noodles/macaroni, meat and vegetables. Its amazing how delicious food can bring people together.
Soup joumou has been interpreted in so many different ways and the taste will vary from household to household. If you are familiar with the way veteran Haitian cooks, you also know there are no measurements involved. However, based on the ingredients, I have found a recipe that most closely resembles my mothers amazing soup: the creamy texture of the squash puree accompanied by hearty and fulfilling ingredients. Many soups tend to have the reputation of leaving you feeling hungry within the hour. You will not feel this way with this soup. My mother’s method involves fresh ingredients down to the spices. If you would like you can substitute dried spices and seasonings, but I think fresh is the best way to go. Serve the soup with warm slices of Haitian rolls from any local Haitian bakery with or without butter and consider your meal complete.
As I stand by nutrition and health, I value this dish even more because of it’s healthy ingredients.
Here are Mama’s Ingredients and Method:
If you would like a more measurement-specific recipe, here is another option. It most closely resembles the path to my mama’s final product.
Salt and fresh black pepper; as needed
1 red peppers; roughly chopped
1 yellow onions; roughly chopped
About 4 scallions; roughly chopped
1 bunch of fresh parsley; minced
1 Jamaican hot pepper; roughly chopped
Fresh thyme leaves
(Optional) 2 tsp. Adobo seasoning
About 1 lb. of meat (Stew beef, steak, cow feet, pig feet or chicken)
One Winter squash or small pumpkin; peeled, seeds removed and cut into 1″ cubes*
About 3-cups of low-sodium meat broth/stock or water; plus more, if necessary
2 tbsp. Olive, peanut, safflower or sunflower oil
2 Yucca; peeled, remove small inner stem, cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 large potatoes; peeled or unpeeled, cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 cups of roughly shredded white cabbage
3 to 4 carrots; roughly chopped
2 to 3 celery stalks; diced
2 cups of penne, spaghetti or macaroni pasta; cooked al dente according to the manufacturer’s directions
*For winter squashes with ridges, such as acorn squash, it’s easier to roast them prior to peeling. Preheat oven at 400°F. Cut the squash in half. Place the squash, cut side down, on a foil or wax paper lined baking sheet. Roast for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until the inner flesh is fork tender. Let cool. Easily peel the squash.