After six hours of cooking, my aunt Margaret Moise finally sat down at a table covered with a medley of dishes from her native Haiti. She had spent the day in my parents’ kitchen on Staten Island teaching her daughter and nieces, including me, to cook the food she grew up eating on holidays like Haitian Flag Day, celebrated on May 18.
A day once marked by compulsory demonstrations of national pride under the dictator François Duvalier, it is now observed as the highlight of an entire month of heritage celebrations for the Haitian diaspora.
Silent clips of Kanaval revelers adjusting their headdresses played on the television in the corner while my aunt recounted memories from her childhood in Port-au-Prince. “When there were special parades the government was doing, it was like you were forced” to go, she said.
“It’s not ‘like’ we were forced,” my father, Gabriel, interjected from across the crowded table. “We were forced!”
Flag Day has been a major holiday in Haiti since 1803, when the revolutionary leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines tore up a French tricolor and had his goddaughter, Catherine Flon, stitch together the country’s first independent flag. The new banner consisted of just a red and a blue stripe, without the central white stripe of the tricolor. It is said to symbolize the unity of the nation’s people of color, and rejection of its white colonizers.
It was not until Jan. 1, 1804, that Haiti officially declared independence from France, becoming the first free state in the Caribbean liberated and governed by its former slaves. That revolutionary spirit is still a source of national pride and celebration.
And no Haitian celebration would be complete without a homemade feast, much like the one my aunts preside over every year — with my mother, MarieYolens Fequiere, who defers to my aunts’ cooking skills, serving as sous-chef. The food of Haiti is a rich, fragrant patchwork of French, African, Caribbean and Spanish influences.
“I learned to cook the real Haitian way through the community I was involved with at the church in Brooklyn,” said Marie Carmel Vallon, Margaret’s older sister. The two women immigrated to the United States as teenagers, before they had the chance to acquire cooking skills.
In 1971, the family joined a burgeoning Brooklyn community of Haitian-Americans hailing from different regions of the island nation. “I remember burning beans,” Marie Carmel recalled, laughing. “I almost set the apartment on fire.”
Alarmed by Haiti’s steadily intensifying political upheaval in the 1960s, my grandmother, Anita Fabre, had gone ahead of her husband and six children to get situated in the United States.
By the time the rest of the family arrived in Prospect Heights, Marie Carmel said, “She was already very involved in the church and the Haitian community, which was beginning to grow.” Anita arranged for my mother, who had led a Girl Scout troop in Port-au-Prince, to resume her role in Brooklyn.
“We used to have a bunch of girls that would hang out in our apartment after the meetings,” Marie Carmel recalled. Women cooking together in the kitchen was a big part of their upbringing, she said.
“Not long ago, we were talking about how my mother wasted a lot of money — because she’d go and shop for the week, but by the time Saturday afternoon came by, the Girl Scouts would use almost everything she had by experimenting with food,” she said.
While the country’s wide variety of dishes is certainly worth exploring, there are a few that constitute a worthy crash course for the uninitiated.
“Griot, for sure,” said Cass Alcide, a first-generation Haitian-American and community manager at the SoHo location of the women-only work space the Wing. She also mentioned black rice, made from mushrooms called djon-djon that grow wild and are collected and dried by Haitian cooks. Her parents came to Brooklyn in the 1980s by way of Jérémie, on Haiti’s southern peninsula.
Served at just about every Haitian gathering, griot consists of pork shoulder spiced with incendiary, fruity Scotch bonnet chiles; the pork is cubed, marinated and cooked to maximum tenderness before frying (or baking, as my Aunt Margaret chose to do), yielding a crispy crust on all sides.
Griot is often served alongside banan peze (from the French “banane pressée,” meaning pressed banana), another essential Haitian dish. Peeled green plantains are fried in vegetable oil, seasoned with salt, squashed into flattened rounds and refried until golden. (They are called tostones or patacones in other parts of the Caribbean.) Aunt Margaret shared her trick of soaking the plantains in salt water to season the crust and make it crispy.
Fortunately, she also knew how to make black rice, also known as diri djon-djon, a dish I’d never seen made from scratch. The mushrooms are soaked and strained, and the dark water is later used to both color and flavor the rice, along with Scotch bonnets, garlic, cloves and thyme. Aunt Margaret enlisted her daughter, my cousin Josiane Moise, to help her strain the mushrooms until the water was perfectly clear.
Josiane, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at George Washington University, considers herself a kitchen novice. “I’ve been saying forever in my head I need to learn from my mom to cook Haitian food, and I never do,” she confessed. “I think today was a good start.” On her left wrist, she sports a tattoo of the Haitian flag’s motto, “L’union fait la force.” (Unity makes strength.)
Missing from the festivities were Haitian patties, rarely made by home cooks. A ubiquitous appetizer at gatherings from Christmas to graduations to baptisms, patties are labor-intensive. Enter the Haitian bakery. From six people, I got six different New York-area recommendations, and each one insisted that his or her choice was the only one worth visiting.
“If you’re more familiar with Jamaican patties, the Haitian patty is more of a puff pastry,” said Michael Clervoix, an owner and the manager of Le Bon Pain Bakery in Queens Village. (Jamaican patties are encased in a short dough that is closer to pie crust.) “The flake is just as important as the actual meat.”
Opened in 1988 by Clervoix’s parents, George and Ghislaine, Le Bon Pain has developed a clientele beyond the Haitian community; that has led to offerings beyond the traditional fillings of chicken, herring, beef or cod.
“People are getting addicted to that crust and liking the taste even without meat, so now we’re selling spinach, meatless,” said Mr. Clervoix, who splits his time between the bakery and a career in music production. “People really enjoy the puff pastry.”
Back at my family’s table, we cousins shared the skills we had developed as children to spot which patties were filled with herring (which we feared) and which were filled with beef (which we loved). Our conversation about Haitian food continued long after the last plates had been cleared.
Recipe: Crisp Fried Plantains
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