In the midst of crisis, Haitians find solace in an uncertain place: soup
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — For Wilfred Cadet, buying soup on Sunday is tantamount to going to church.
Sitting on plastic chairs next to a street food stall hidden in an alley, the 47-year-old Haitian man sips orange soup in a metal bowl next to his 9-year-old son.
Haitians passed them carrying larger plastic containers, each eagerly taking a giant spoonful of stew boiling in two human-sized pots behind them.
Made with pumpkin, beef, carrots, and cabbage – ingredients produced on the island – joumou soup is a staple of Haiti’s culture.
And in a time of growing crisis in this Caribbean nation, it’s one of the few points of enduring national pride.
To this day, when you mention soup, Haitian people will quickly smile.
“It is our tradition, our culture. It makes everyone proud. No matter what happens (in Haiti), the soup will stay,” Cadet said.
During the colonial period, slaves were forbidden to eat this spicy dish and would have to prepare it for French slave owners.
But the Haitians claimed joumou soup as their own in 1804 when they organized one of the largest and most successful slave uprisings in the Western Hemisphere.
The uprising ended slavery in Haiti before much of the region, and the dish is nicknamed “independence soup”.
In 2021 – the same year the country fell into a spiral of turmoil following the assassination of the president – the soup was added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the first dish Haiti has on the list.
“It is a celebratory dish, deeply rooted in Haitian identity, and its preparation promotes social cohesion and belonging to communities,” the UNESCO entry reads.
It is traditionally eaten on Sunday morning and on Haitian Independence Day in early January.
That’s when customers started queuing through two black metal gates to enter the makeshift restaurant of Marie France Damas, 50, at 7:30 a.m.
Nestled behind rows of parked cars, a brick wall with a painted sign that reads “Every Sunday: Joumou Soup” and a pile of local pumpkins, Damas works hard on his two large pots the same way she has for the past 18 years.
Her husband weaves between plastic tables to take orders while her daughter chops vegetables in the back. It was a family affair, but Damas was very clear.
“I am the boss of the soup,” she said with a grin.
The business has allowed her to send her children to school and provide a good life for her family in a place with the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the region.
For every Haitian, food has a different meaning.
For Cadet and his son, it represents a moment of escape from the daily chaos of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
It also allows Cadet to pass on a cherished part of Haitian culture at a time when they are slowly fading. Celebrations like the Masquerade that once took center stage on the island have fizzled out as the deep gang violence that divided the country.
“Violence in the country is driving people away, and over time we will lose a lot of cultural traditions,” Cadet said. “My son, of course, (will go). Right now he doesn’t like Haiti.”
He hopes that when his son is gone, he will remember their Sunday mornings together.
For others, like Maxon Sucan, 35, it’s a way to reconnect with family and home in the country.
He grew up in a rural town in western Haiti in a family of farmers who grew vegetables used to make soups.
He came to Port-au-Prince 13 years ago to support his family and worked as a manager at a nightclub.
He used to visit his family six to eight times a year, but because of kidnappings and gang control in the countryside, he can’t go home now.
So on Sunday mornings, he drinks soup like he used to as a kid, and he thinks about his daughter, who he sometimes hasn’t talked to for weeks. she.
“She’s three years old and I’m heartbroken that I can’t see her,” Sucan said. “(When I eat joumou soup) I miss my family.”
As he was about to leave the restaurant alone, holding a large Tupperware filled with steaming soup, he stopped.
“When I get home today, I’ll call her. And when I do, I’ll ask her if she’s had any soup,” he added.
Associated Press journalist Evens Sanon contributed to this report from Port-au-Prince.