Posted on Thu, Jan. 01, 2004
Pumpkin and pride
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
Two hundred years ago today, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a slave turned freedom fighter, declared Haiti free from French rule.
To mark the occasion, South Florida Haitians will turn to prayer and an age-old tradition deeply rooted in Haitian history and culture: They will drink pumpkin soup.
For Haitians, pumpkin soup or soup joumou (pronounced joo-moo) represents freedom and hope for the future, two ideals that take on added significance in this bicentennial year.
Stories vary about how the soup became ingrained in Haitian identity. There are some who believe it goes back to Africa and Vodou practices. Others trace it to the days of slavery, when it is said that only the French colonialists were allowed to drink pumpkin soup. After independence, the freed slaves celebrated by eating the master's once-forbidden food.
In preparing today's meal, some Haitians will stick to tradition, filling a big pot with generous amounts of beef, potatoes, carrots, celery and pasta. They will forgo frozen squash for the best fresh pumpkin (calabaza) they can find to give the spicy soup its distinct gold color and sweet tropical flavor. They will crush fresh garlic and parsley in a wooden mortar and pestle and purée the pumpkin with a sieve and a big wooden spoon.
Others will add their own twists to tradition. Instead of a stew in which every ingredient is distinguishable, they will blend it all together, symbolizing the melting pot that South Florida has become for its newest and hungriest immigrants.
Regardless of the recipe, local Haitian chefs and restaurateurs say, today's soup joumou should be eaten with a sweet sense of pride in Haiti's past and warm, soulful reflection on its future.
''If I had to say in one word what this soup represents to me, it is freedom,'' said chef Ivan Dorvil, owner of Nuvo Kafe in North Miami.
Dorvil is a traditionalist when it comes to pumpkin soup. The only nonstandard ingredient he uses is kosher salt ``because it's better, more controllable.''
''When you change the recipe it's not the same,'' said Dorvil. "Our soup has its own way of being, its own texture. You have to maintain the same quality.''
While some Haitian restaurants only offer pumpkin soup on special occasions, Nuvo Kafe serves it every day, said Dorvil, who calls his version "freedom soup.''
''Haitian people should have this soup every day to remind us of our freedom,'' he said. ``It should remind us of how hard our ancestors fought and where they want us to go and where we should be in the near future.''
Nuvo Kafe is closed for the holiday today, but across the street, Chef Creole will be adding a secret sauce and seafood to the traditional pumpkin base for his soup joumou. By replacing the meat with blue crabs, shrimp, lobster and conch, chef-owner Wilkinson ''Ken'' Sejour said he is showing how far Haitians have moved into the mainstream.
''When you taste Chef Creole's soup there is going to be a distinct difference,'' said Sejour, who plans to offer his version at both his North Miami and Little Haiti restaurants today.
'I want people to not only taste the flavor but to acknowledge, `Hey look at where we are right now.' We are the first black nation to get our independence and at this point in our struggle, we're still making progress, we are still paving the way in order for us to reach what each of us individually would call super-success.''
At Citronelle in Northeast Miami, where both the owner and chef are Haitian but the food isn't necessarily so, chef Jacques Emmanuel blends his soup joumou into a creamy purée.
''What we want to convey is the new generation of thinking, of innovating, of creating,'' said Ronald Rigaud, owner of Citronelle. "That's what 2004 is about. It's a reflection. It's what we've done, what we need to do, what we need to look for.''
Most of the ingredients of chef Emmanuel's soup are traditional, but there is no pasta, and instead of beef, the recipe calls for beef or vegetable stock and a little white wine. A bouquet garni adds a layer of flavor to the finished dish.
Soup joumou, which is typically a soup of the day at Citronelle, will be featured daily during the first week of January in honor of the bicentennial, Rigaud said.
''It's to everyone's palate,'' he said. ``It's a mix of different spices. There is nothing overpowering about it.''
This is how he would like Haitians to view 2004.
''What makes soup joumou is not just the pumpkin, but the different spices, different vegetables, a mixture of things. And that is what people need to realize,'' said Rigaud. ``When you consider what is a nation, it is this blend of different people, different backgrounds, different views, different vision with a common goal: Haiti.''
CHEF CREOLE: 13105 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami, 305-893-4246; 200 NW
54th St., Miami, 305-754-2223.
CITRONELLE: 7300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, 305-757-2555.
NUVO KAFE: 13152 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami, 305-892-1441. (Closed today.)
© 2004 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
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