It’s the dead of winter, and most of the fun holidays are behind us—but there’s still months of cold and slush to get through. So we’d like to welcome you to Tropical Staycation, a week of island-inspired recipes and other stories that will transport you to much warmer, sunnier places. Just don’t look out the window while reading.
The first time I made soup joumou was my first New Year away from home. I was sitting in my unaffordable and barely furnished Washington D.C. apartment with a heater at my feet. I was trying to convince myself that I was at the beach with my toes in the waves; Fort Lauderdale was calling my name, and she was doing it in a Haitian accent. Every year, for as long as I could remember, I had eaten soup joumou, or Haitian squash soup, to bring in Independence day, which happened to fall on January 1.
The soup was tradition, the origins of which all little Haitian kids were taught a version of in school, and then taught again at the knees of the family elders. After declaring the 12-year war for independence won on January 1, 1804, general Jean Jacques Dessalines stated that we would commemorate that independence by drinking squash soup. This was the same soup that the French colonial slavers had forbidden the enslaved people on the island from eating, so having the soup was itself an act of rebellion. There is no written history that explains why the Africans and Tainos enslaved on the island were banned from eating it, but turning squash into soup is a practice traceable to African countries, and the squash used to make it was native to the West Indies, not imported from France. It was a delicacy created by, and stolen from, the people forbidden from tasting it.
As time went on, I discovered the lore of the soup had a few more layers, namely the women who held less celebrated roles in the story, their names seemingly dissolved into the soup itself. Like many stories surrounding revolutions, the female counterparts of male actors are blended into the background. We know of Dutty Boukman, the mambo who incited the slave revolt that sparked the revolution, while the legacy of Cécile Fatiman, the priestess who co-led the ceremony, melts away, down into the soup. And there’s alternate lore in which Dessalines declares independence, but it’s his wife, Marie-Claire Félicité Bonheur, who champions the symbol of rebellion, proclaiming that soup joumou would be made in commemoration of the revolution.
D.C. was the worst place to have an intense craving for Haitian food; at the time, there was no restaurant in the city to satisfy that need. In a rush—mostly because I needed all the motivation I could muster to head into the cold—I walked over to my local Giant to grab the ingredients to make the soup myself. When I made it to the store, I mostly worked from memory. I knew I needed squash, but having never peeled it, I only knew the inner flesh had to be orange, which isn’t particularly helpful. I grabbed a butternut squash, which I would find out later, after calling my mother, was the wrong one. I made a few more wrong turns: I had too many ingredients for my pot. I didn’t have a blender and had to mash the cooked squash by hand. I burned the soup. Looking back, that first attempt was nothing to write home about, but my mother was so proud of the effort, and every year that I kept at it made her even prouder.
The trouble and the beauty of soup joumou is that there is no set recipe, no matter what anyone tells you. There are a few building blocks you find throughout Haitian cooking, such as the familiar flavor profile of epis, a cooking base made of smashed garlic, scotch bonnet peppers, green onion, and oil, combined using a mortar and pestle. Most food uses a base like this and builds upon the flavors in complex layers—but everything else is subjective. Haiti is on one half of a small island, but the regional differences in the food keep the cuisine vibrant and ever changing. Each region has their own “right way” of making the soup, adding layers of history and their own little rebellions to the mix. Some places believe in a hearty soup, adding chayote squash, potatoes, and cabbage early on in the cooking process to thicken the broth. Others like a thinner soup, adding vegetables right at the end for a crisper finish. There are even differences within families: My soup starts off with oxtail and beef chunks, but my sister, who eats a plant-based diet, thinks it’s closer to the ancestors to have a meatless soup. More power to her.
Over the years, my soup has added her own story to the cultural lore, as a diaspora soup. I’ve only been able to find the right calabaza squash once, in 2017 at a tiny vegetable stand in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and I’ve had to settle for kabocha squash every other year. Kabocha doesn’t grow in Haiti; its flesh is missing the right amount of sweetness and always comes up short of calabaza’s orange color. My mother also tells me that my peppers aren’t spicy enough. The parts of my tongue that still remember eating pikliz in Haiti absolutely believes her.
But my soup is rebellion just the same. Food culture has a way of unifying diaspora attempting to make their home in lands that haven’t fully welcomed them. It’s a way of connecting, of being seen, and seeing in return. It is a tangible aspect of our culture that we are proud of and want to share with others.
Haitians, we love visitors, but loathe a settler. One of my ever recurring nightmares involves walking into a restaurant and finding a soup joumou dish elevated so far from its roots that it’s managed to shrivel into a pale version of its former self. To keep fighting the good fight, I’ll make my soup each year, and celebrate the ones who try to keep the history alive.