Diaspora

Haitian soup joumou gains new recognition, with the same deep history – The Journal News

SPRING VALLEY, N.Y.— Pots simmer across a packed stovetop. Onions, potatoes and other vegetables are chopped wherever kitchen surface is found. Nicholas Julien remembers going to sleep with his mother or grandmother still working, but he could never wake up early enough to beat either back to the heat.
He’d wake up smelling everything.
“There are so many different ingredients,” said the 21-year-old. “There are ingredients on the stove; there are ingredients on the counters; there are things being cut up everywhere. You could smell onions, you could smell potatoes, you could smell like pasta boiling.”
As a young boy born and raised in Spring Valley, New York — a village home to one of the largest Haitian American populations per capita in the United States, with strong political representation — Nicholas still didn’t always understand why he ate the same yellow soup each first of January.
“It was almost like you have no choice,” the youngest of four brothers recalled from early childhood. “Like, even if you don’t eat these things, you’re gonna try it. But I never understood why. They would just tell me, ‘It’s a part of your Haitian culture.’
“Slowly, I started to ask more questions.”
Nicholas would soon learn the inner makings of this soup — depths that stretch much further than squash, vegetables, plantains, meat, pasta or a multitude of spices.
He hopes to watch the rest of the world learn the same. 
A year of disaster, violence and unrelenting uncertainty for Haiti now comes to a close with one Haitian dish, steeped in over 200 years of history, gaining international recognition. 
The United Nations cultural agency, or UNESCO, added the soup joumou — the Caribbean nation’s symbol of freedom from slavery — to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list this month. The bright, beloved yellow dish was once exclusively reserved to slave owners, but Haitian people took ownership of the soup upon gaining independence from France in 1804.
Haitian families across the world will gather around the delicacy Saturday morning, marking Haiti’s Independence Day on Jan. 1. This year they will do so around the first cultural item from Haiti to ever receive this global designation. 
But it already held deeper meaning.
“This soup means everything,” said Dominique Dupuy, Haitian ambassador to UNESCO and chief proponent of Haiti’s entry to the global cultural organization, to NPR just days after the designation. “The soup is not so much about what it tastes like, although it tastes delicious. It’s a velvety, bright yellow, very tasty soup. It’s a vehicle of all the Haitian heritage. We call it the bowl of freedom.
“During the colony, the soup was prepared by slaves for hundreds of years. And they could never taste it because they were deemed too uncivilized. So on the day of independence, the first emperor of Haiti has his wife stand up and declare that this is now the national soup of the first free Black people in the history of humanity.”
That impact seeped into following generations, passing along tradition for over two centuries with or without written instructions. 
Today, Haiti still struggles to recover from a 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck in August, killing more than 2,200 people and injuring many others. Today, violence, gang activity and political instability continue to grip the small nation. And today that collective trauma extends to Haitian communities throughout the United States, holding growing homes to a Haitian diaspora for generations.
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In these communities, from New York to New Jersey, Maryland and more, recipes tweak and families make their own small changes — but some things have stayed consistent. 
“It’s not just a soup,” Nicholas said. “It’s not just a regular meal, just like rice and beans. It shows the world that it has a deeper meaning than just a regular meal. It shows us. It shows everybody. It helps bring to light how big it is.”
Nicholas’ father, Renold Julien, knows all of his sons are exposed to cultural norms that might not reflect their Haitian household. But the executive director of Konbit Neg Lakay, an advocate and immigrant relief organization in Rockland County, was reminded this year that the importance of Jan. 1 has been passed down. 
His eldest, Josephhad come home to Spring Valley, from his work as an engineer with the U.S. Navy, to celebrate Christmas. Nervous he would have to work the following week, Renold inquired.
“He said ‘Yes, next week I will be working online,'” the father of four recalled. “He said, ‘Dad, Jan. 1 makes me know that I am human; Jan. 1 makes me know that I am part of this world; Jan. 1 means I don’t have anything to envy from any other human being.’
“Would you know, I started crying?”
The significance transcends generations. Renold hopes one day to see it transcend cultures. 
“Finally we are getting some recognition from the world,” said the community advocate. “Soup joumou, I feel, should not only be a special dish for Haitians. It’s supposed to be a special dish for people who believe in freedom. People who believe there is supposed to be no injustice in the world.”
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According to the UNESCO application, there are several variations of soup joumou, as it can be found in multiple Caribbean and Latin American cuisines. Preparing the dish is an extensive process, and added ingredients can vary by region and personal taste. An array of hearty ingredients are often incorporated, like cabbage, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, meat, pasta and the squash called “joumou,” pumpkin in Haitian Creole. 
“Soup joumou is more than just a soup. It is all life. It is all respect. It is whatever people believe in — we believe in justice,” Renold said. 
“We are the first Black republic in the world. We are not going anywhere. Haiti will always be the first Black republic in the world. After 218 years, it’s time to understand that.”
Roughly 215 miles southwest of Spring Valley, a similar call echoes.
Komité Ayiti — a Haitian grassroots organization in Baltimore — uses soup joumou as an educational tool to immerse and introduce Baltimoreans to Haitian culture. 
The organization has hosted a soup joumou celebration every year since it was founded in 2016. The organization serves as a resource for the community, connecting individuals to programs that promote and support community development. 
President Garry Bien Aime said the soup is more than a shareable dish — it’s empowered by a relatable history.
“The Haitian story is a Baltimore story,” Aime said. “It’s a story of triumph. It’s a story of adversity. It’s a story of trying to make the best of what you have.”
The celebrations have taken place in Highlandtown — a Southwest Baltimore neighborhood that has attracted immigrants since 1866. Komité Ayiti usually calls on a local caterer and three or four volunteers from the community to provide different variations of soup joumou: vegetarian, pork, turkey and beef.
The pandemic has halted plans for the past two years, but the celebration provides Haitian games, stories, jokes, speakers and even a documentary about the Haitian Revolution. Aime also ensures that he and at least one other person is available to answer questions about Haiti, which he says has been the target of many stereotypes.
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Aime, who was born in Haiti, said Komité Ayiti’s celebration replicates some of his first memories of soup joumou, which catalyzed a “rotating celebration” among neighbors. Neither the dish, nor the holiday, should be experienced alone, he says, as it’s a perfect opportunity to acknowledge the pride, ancestry and ownership the holiday embodies. 
Between the Haitian dish, the history and the recipes — of course — Aime said there’s one thing that should be kept top-of-mind. 
”It’s not yours to keep. It’s yours to share.”
Kelly Powers and Jasmine Vaughn-Hall are culture reporters for the How We Live team — covering race, culture and identity for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region. Contact Kelly at kepowers@gannett.com or (443) 694-0770, and Jasmine at jvaughnhal@ydr.com or (717) 495-1789.

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