Diaspora

Soup joumou is Haitian history in a bowl. For my mother and me, it’s also personal – Yahoo News

Soup joumou is Haitian history in a bowl. The hearty beef, squash and root vegetable stew’s very nature is tied to Haitian independence, which happens to fall on New Year’s Day. On Jan. 1, 1804, after years of war, the formerly enslaved people of Haiti won their freedom and were declared the independent nation of Haiti, a Taíno-Arawak word meaning “land of high mountains.”
Prior to that day, the soup was reserved as a delicacy for enslavers on the island. Now that Haiti’s inhabitants and we, their descendants, are free, we enjoy big batches of the soup, stewed with beef on the bone, blended squash grown from our own gardens and pieces of potato, strewn with carrot, turnip and tender pasta. For that reason, soup joumou is a yearly tradition for anyone with Haitian ancestry, marking the good luck for the New Year.
For every Dec. 31 I can remember, there has been one — and only one — person making this soup for the Lamour family: my mother, Marie. She typically makes gigantic batches for more than her immediate family, dutifully stirring the symphony of pots going on the stove as her children have gotten ready for whatever rager our friends were throwing. Every New Year’s Eve, portions get ladled into tall Tupperware containers and passed out to cousins and older relatives that can’t move around the kitchen like they used to.
This year, I wanted to assist my mother in the hours-long process of making soup joumou to learn the technique and reflect on her most vibrant love language: food.
It’s a language my mom learned from my grandmother and that she learned from my great-grandmother before that. Just like the recipes that have been passed down through generations, made in kitchens from Jacmel, Haiti, to suburban D.C., home-cooked meals have been an integral way for my family to say “I love you.”
In doing so, I realize how much I appreciate this lady who has always been on her feet in the kitchen whipping up gourmet delights not just on New Year’s Eve, but every day of the year.
I hand my mother a big hunk of red meat (we used beef shank) and she shows me how she quickly sears it on both sides before adding water to the pot to braise the meat, the first step in our joumou journey. “Protein” is definitely one of the biggest words she uses in her preferred love language, particularly in feeding her growing children in the suburbs of D.C.
The meat we’re cooking has been marinated for 24 hours in epis, the classic Haitian seasoning base. I’m well familiar with the scent of parsley and garlic with beefy bites of weeknight dinner, but I think to myself about how my mother is adept at other cuts of meat as well. She used to make me her superior version of poul non sos (chicken in sauce) when I was down or sick, serving a pot full of broken down Cornish hen with a tomato-based red sauce and green peas, served over white rice. I would always fall asleep full and happy.
Sometimes, my mom would bake a whole extra turkey on the Sunday after Thanksgiving so that we would still have enough meat for lunchtime sandwiches, mid-day gorge sessions and lunch breaks over the next week. She even used to send me back to college after the holidays by making me an oversized container of tassot cabrit (fried goat), a dish made with marinated meat, peppers, shallot and onion. Boarding a plane with a suitcase full of goat meat was always fun to explain to a TSA agent, but it was always worth it.
Next stop on our quest for soup is handling the squash. Soup joumou can be made with a range of peeled squashes and is most classically made with a giraumon, a squash variety popular in the Caribbean. For our pre-New Year’s version, we peel and boil a buttercup squash until the bright-orange interior was fork-tender.
The sweet potato-forward flavor of a buttercup is not native to Haiti, but is still delicious in this soup. My mom has used anything and everything over the years, from a kabocha to an acorn or butternut squash grown in the backyard.
Innocently, I ask if we’re making dumplings to put in this soup, and my mother corrects me by handing me a bag of uncooked pasta, saying I’m thinking of another soup similar to joumou: bouyon (Haitian bouillon). That soup takes the squash and pasta out and puts a rich broth, spinach, plantain and dumplings in.
When I was smaller, I loved bouyon, but I didn’t like the spinach in it because it would get stuck in my teeth. My mother would actually strain the spinach out from a serving and give me a bowl that I would eagerly consume on cold and snowy winter nights.
On reflection, I was a very prissy child. Remembering this, I apologize to my mom as I prepare the joumou’s pasta for boiling, and she says she doesn’t even remember doing that for me.
We use lumache (one of my favorite pasta shapes these days) this time, but one can usually find rigatoni in soup joumou.
If you’re wondering why there’s Italian rigatoni in a Haitian dish, so did I, once. There’s pasta in many Haitian staples, from my mom’s macaroni au gratin (Haitian mac and cheese) to the iconic espageti (Haitian spaghetti) which comes complete with sliced hot dogs and ketchup.
These touches of Italian and American cuisine are due to America’s occupation of Haiti from July 28, 1915 to August 1, 1934. Soldiers bought over food that was popular at the time, and ever the ingenuitive types, Haiti adopted and adapted them.
In fact, a pot of espageti features in one of my fondest memories of my mom. When I was 16 or 17, I played Seymour in my high school’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” and as the lead, I was at just about every rehearsal. One day, during a rehearsal full blocking and running lines with a giant puppet plant, I called and said I wouldn’t be home for dinner.
A few hours later, my mom appeared with a giant pot of espageti, not just for me, but enough for a cast of hungry teens, just because. This was after a full shift at work for her on a weeknight where McDonald’s or chips from a vending machine would have been on the menu for the cast and probably even our adult theater director.
Obviously, this was a big hit with everyone. At a time where kids my age might be embarrassed by this show of motherly affection, I remember thinking about how lucky I was to have a mom who could cook so well. Now, I’m thinking about how lucky I am to have a mother that is so kind at heart, particularly with her time. This show of love also had the unintended effect of making me more popular at school, too, so that didn’t hurt — many of my former classmates still ask me about her food to this day.
My mom and I put the now-cooked squash into a food processor and blend it until smooth and after chopping the cabbage, turnips, carrots, celery, potato and onion, we combine all the elements of the soup together in one pot. The final step: adding two sprigs of rosemary. The joumou’s orange hue bubbles away, a familiar sound of comfort in my mother’s kitchen.
We’re on hour four of our joumou jaunt at this point, so I’m thinking of all the times she’s made multistep dishes at home after coming home from a full-time job: sos pwa nwa (black bean sauce), bannann peze (fried plantains), diri ak pwa (red beans and rice), roasted carrots with chicken and so much more. I’m exhausted after working eight hours and then making this soup, so thinking of her making these dishes day in and day out for literal decades makes me want to hug her and then lie down.
Sitting down with my mom to enjoy the soup, I take a spoonful in and really taste this soup for the first time. Of course, I’ve tasted this many times before, but this time, I’m really paying attention. I can taste the celery leaves mingling with the sharp flavor of the turnip inside of the smooth squash broth. I can feel the onion and potato taking on the deep flavor of braised beef, all with a hint of rosemary at the end. Four hours, four days or a lifetime: This soup is truly special.
It makes sense that this is the soup of independence, a symbol of freedom that people literally died to give people like me a right to enjoy. Honestly, I couldn’t even be telling you about it right now if it wasn’t for people like my ancestors, so I thank Mom, and I thank them, too.
I realized that while this was a few hours of work over the stove for us together in one night, it’s been a lifetime of chopping, grating, peeling, sautéing and serving her husband and kids.
My mom still prepares pots of beans and rice, sweet potato and baked chicken thighs once a week when we all gather for family dinner, catching up on our now-adult lives while enjoying the foods that flavored childhood.
My mom is another in a long line of hardworking folks who have instilled in me a love for food and the tools to give love to other people through sustenance. I thank her for teaching me how to speak this way — may knowing a little bit about her inspire you to speak our language a little, too.
This article was originally published on TODAY.com
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