On New Year’s Day, at home and abroad, Haitians and Haitiphiles are all about soup joumou. A squash based consommé laboriously made with chunks of beef, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, some kind of pasta, seasoned with epis-that concoction of Haitian spices, which was hopefully brought to perfection by an expert who uses enough scotch bonnet pepper without overshadowing the fragrant aroma. This soup is traditionally consumed to commemorate Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ proclamation of Haitian independence from France on January 1, 1804. Thirteen years after the only successful slave revolution started that abolished colonialism and slavery, Haiti became the first Black Republic in the world, second only to the United States.
For many of us, the soup is as much about its gastronomic delight as it is about redressing history. Under French rule, the enslaved population was specifically forbidden to eat this delicacy. As the story goes, that fateful day, Dessalines’ main squeeze Marie-Claire Heureuse Felicité Bonheur, outdid Marie-Antoinette and declared, Let them eat soup! Indeed, “the antidote to dehumanization has to be rehumanization,” culinary or otherwise, as Zingermans’ Ari Weinzweig has said.
As a child, I enjoyed avoiding those sprigs of parsley and rosemary to gobble up this annual staple. Here we were on Christmas talking soup plans, George Michael was dead, none of the family members could relate to my state of gloom. “Who?” “Wham! Don’t you remember ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-go?’” I sang to no avail. A couple bars of “Everything She Wants” — no response. “Careless Whisper” got me some I-feel-sorry-for-you hums while other lyrics did not resonate at all.
Minutes before, the speakers had been blaring our beloved Kompa rhythms. Not quite my thing, which is enough to get one’s Haitian authenticity card revoked by diehards. Blame it all on migration, as if we have never been plural. Depending on where you lived, resources, and what you had to spend, there were variations of the soup. In keeping with our diasporic tendency to rename things, according to Miami-based reporter Nadege Green, it has been dubbed “liberty soup” or “freedom soup” by younger Haitian-Americans. Dudley Alexis has a documentary in the works about it. Perhaps the greatest honor of all is the brand new Afro-beat mixed-genre soup joumou anthem by Alize Music featuring Paul Papi.
Lately, I have been meditating on notions of freedom and our not so common principles as presidential elections in my birth and adopted countries collided my worlds. Having grown up under a dictatorship, ironically, I feel primed to soon be living under an authoritarian regime. “All we have to do now/is take these lies and make them true somehow.” Yes, I know George was talking about his battles. I had my own. A Black woman who refused to be docile, I was struggling to complete my dissertation in an historically white institution, “Freedom 90″ was my personal anthem. “All we have to see/is that I don’t belong to you and you don’t belong to me.” In the aftermath of migration, it was music that guided my path to individuation. That’s why I lamented his passing. Decades later, the song still resonates. And in these times, it matters now more than ever. “Freedom/You’ve gotta give for what you take.” Someone in the kitchen knew the words. I wasn’t singing alone.
These days, you can find vegetarian and gluten-free soup joumou recipes online. I have been flirting with the idea of a pescatarian version as I imagine my aunt, a caterer, vigorously shaking her head at this sacrilege. Would it still be soup joumou? That depends, has nationalism ever really recognized its inherent differences? Haiti’s L’Union Fait la Force and the United States’ E Pluribus Unum are mottos built on contradictions from brutal colonial histories that have steeped the past in the present, yet remain unknown. Unity, under such conditions, is improbable without complicity in white supremacy, as well as our silence and absolute negation. For belonging is fundamentally based on a hierarchical system of ownership. The chains of slavery were broken long ago, but there remains unfinished business.
Happy 213thBirthday Haiti Cherie. Now, off to go get some salmon!
Photo: Andy Vernon-Jones