Diaspora

Soup joumou is a taste of freedom for Haitians celebrating … – The Philadelphia Inquirer

Every Haitian knows that on Jan. 1 , soup joumou is on the menu. The tradition holds even more significance in the diaspora.
For Marline Idopcil, real soup joumou is how it was made two centuries ago: oxtail or chuck roast boiled then seared with epis seasoning and tomato sauce, pumpkin and squash, pasta, potatoes, carrots and celery — all married together with a list of seasoning that goes on and on, such as garlic, fresh herbs, scotch bonnet peppers and lemon pepper powder.
“The kitchen smells like everything,” says Idopcil, who runs the Haitian restaurant Food Fusion in Northeast Philly. “Once you start the meat, then you add all these herbs together, oh my God, it just takes over. People from outside stop and want to know what you’re cooking that smells so good.”
With all its different seasonings and ingredients, the complex flavors and taste of soup joumou is one that’s hard to explain. But many Haitians will agree that, most of all, the soup tastes like freedom.
Soup joumou is more than just a soup.
When Haiti was colonized by France in the 1600s and 1700s, enslaved Africans were forced to cultivate the squash that comprises the base of the beef soup — “joumou” means squash in Creole — but were forbidden by their French oppressors from eating the soup.
So when the Haitian Revolution ended with victorious independence from the French on Jan. 1, 1804, Haitians celebrated by consuming soup joumou all day, relishing the taste of freedom.
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“It reminds us of what our ancestors did in 1804 to find a way to fight the French army — that was something that was exceptional, it was unthinkable,” said Josephys Dafils, founder of Haitian-American United for Change
It was the first time in history that a country of enslaved Africans overthrew its European enslavers to establish an independent, Black republic in the Western Hemisphere — marking a point of significant pride in Haitian history and heritage.
So when Haitian American Cynthia Compere, a board member of the nonprofit organization We the Village, which supports Love Orphanage in Haiti, thinks of soup joumou, the first word that comes to her mind is home. The second is family.
“When I think of home and I think of family, I think of the freedom that comes with it, and the responsibilities associated with that,” she said.
“During those family events, that’s where we sit and talk about not just [independence], but how it has impacted us, how it has changed and formed us, how it still provides us — especially myself, my generation — the ability to want to go back home and make changes.”
To Esaie Pierre, co-founder of the nonprofit Men Anpil, soup joumou not only represents independence and an ode to the Haitians’ victory, but also a strong sense of community.
Whether or not people enjoy the flavor of the soup, whether or not they know the story behind the soup, every Haitian knows that on Jan. 1 of each year, soup joumou is on the menu. And that holds even more significance for the Haitian diaspora.
“I left Haiti in ‘81 and haven’t returned, so every time I have [soup joumou], it reconnects me to the place that I’ve been and it reminds me that I’m more than just a person in the U.S.,” said Pierre. “It reminds me that I’m part of a whole.”
It also fills Pierre with a sense of bittersweet gratitude — grateful that he’s here in the U.S., but devastated by the situation his home country currently faces.
According to the World Bank, 87.6% of Haiti’s population lives under the poverty line of $6.85 per day, and the literacy rate was just over 60% in 2015. The country has suffered from two magnitude 7 earthquakes in the past decade, as well as a presidential assassination and ensuing political turmoil.
And with the natural, political and economic catastrophes Haiti has suffered has come a rise in violence in the island.
“The situation in Haiti right now is probably worse than it’s been in a very long time,” said Ahaji Schreffler, founder of We The Village and co-leader of study abroad programs in Haiti.
“But if you look under the hood as to the factors that have all come to a head to result in the current situation — which is the pandemic, a presidential assassination, natural disasters, on the backdrop of a country that already was lacking in strong infrastructure and strong economy — a lot of what’s happening is really a symptom of these chronic issues that have been existing for many years,” Schreffler said.
“It reminds me that I’m part of a whole.”
Haitians and scholars also point to the fact that when it became liberated, the country was forced to pay its French enslavers the equivalent of $20 to $30 billion in today’s dollars in exchange for their freedom — which took Haiti 122 years to pay off.
But they also say it’s the general economic and political imperialism Haiti has been subject to over the years that has the cut the country off at the knees.
And so reflecting on that groundbreaking independence established over 200 years ago, the question becomes how to regain that autonomy.
“As it relates to Independence Day, it’s really about freedom, and at this point, it’s economic freedom and self-determination,” said Schreffler. “To be free from the influence of outside corporate interests, political interests. If we don’t have economic freedom, then the situation becomes what we’re seeing today, which is instability.”
“We’ve gone through a lot from 1804 to 2022, but what I think the outside world doesn’t see is the resilience, they don’t see the strength of Haitians as a whole, and there is still unity,” said Compere.
“And because there’s still that hope, even though we are all over the world, there is still that desire and want and need to go back.”
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The day before New Year’s Eve, Idopcil will be whipping out a 60-gallon pot to make soup joumou for 400-500 people at her church’s celebration.
Then she’ll be grabbing an 80-ounce pot to make even more soup to sell to community members who don’t get around to making their own joumou for the festivities.
“It means a lot to me because I’m able to cook it freely, I’m able to make a great dish for others that were limited at one time,” she said. “The joy is overwhelming because it wasn’t something that we were able to do.”

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