Food for the Soul: Eden's Garden of Delicious
How tiny can a Haitian village be?
Ysbella grew up in a Haitian village so tiny it didn't have a name.
That didn't stop it from producing one of the best Haitian healers, herbalists and cooks in Chicago.
Her great-granddaughter is Rev. Eden Jakajebarga-Bell, pastor of Grace Inclusive Church of Santa Cruz.
Eden has a lot to say about the magical cooking of the "gramma" who raised her.
"First of all, in Haitian food, everything is rubbed, washed or marinated with lime," she says. "It doesn't matter what-plantains, chicken, pork — lime is one of the things giving it the tangy flavor.
"For instance, baking a chicken would mean that the bottom of the cast iron pan would first be lined with plantains, sliced lengthwise, and doused with lots of lime juice.
"Next comes the chicken, which has been marinated in a mixture of orange and lime juice. To that, add plenty of yellow hot peppers, thyme, rosemary and a mixture of red and white beans and bake it in the oven. De-e-e licious!"
How much lime juice and how many peppers and plantains?
Eden shrugs her shoulders and says a "lagniappe," a marvelous Cajun word meaning a little this and a little that.
"Gramma used to say, ‘Use your instinct, mon ami, cooking is an art,'" Eden explains.
Even more important than the limes was the attitude toward food.
Gramma was in a constant subvocal state of prayer from the moment she entered the kitchen to prepare a meal.
She uttered a litany of thanks, in a colorful linguistic mixture of French and indigenous Haitian, to the plants and creatures who gave their lives so her family could live.
"Wasting a life was the worst thing," says Eden.
There was no such thing as wastefulness — in gramma's home everything was used, recycled and fully appreciated.
Gramma would spend hours in a devout, rolling motion grinding coarse corn and herbs on her sloping stone matate.
This was a sacred process, when the spirits would inform her of what foods family members needed to eat in order to nourish their bodies and souls.
On the rooftop of their Chicago walk-up, gramma would reverently circle each plant in her garden, giving thanks to the spirits and the house gods.
Gramma died many years ago, but her spirit is very much alive for Eden.
"In the years since gramma died," Eden shared, "my attitude toward food changed.
"At that time in my life, I felt rootless and had slipped into a way of living where I was working two jobs and using the house as a motel, almost.
"I was grabbing a bite from the vending machines at school and sleepwalking through my life to the degree where I could barely remember each day, what I did the day before.
"Then money got really tight, and my partner and I had to budget, plan meals carefully and eat at home.
"This turned out to be an unexpected gift. I was surprised to discover that we were eating a better quality food on less money.
"We were also talking to each other more and spending time preparing food together. We're really fully appreciating both the food and each other now.
"I often think about all that gramma taught me. She used to say that family life is made up of the many little moments shared together. Those moments build something powerful between your souls, so that when you have tough times your bond is really strong.
"My great-grandmother and grandfather had that kind of bond, and I want that for my marriage.
"I noticed that when my partner and I began to cook together, our relationship became much closer. We felt restored, whole again. Now I feel gramma's presence in a very strong way when I cook."
Eden's gramma used to share stories about food from the indigenous Haitian tradition with the many visitors who came to the house for healing and prayer. Each story had a moral.
One story was about Baron Samedi, the skull-faced god of the crossroads, who wore a top hat and smoked a big cigar.
Someone made him an offering of cakes, some savory and some sweet. The Baron was partial to sweets, but the first cake he ate was savory. He spat it out with distaste and devoured all the sweet cakes. With that he got a stomach ache.
Gramma said, "When you expect one thing and you get something else, the good thing will be spoiled. The food is all good, but it's not the kind of good you expected."
Gramma didn't have much money, but she was very rich in spirit.
Here is a recipe for a sauce that is a staple of Haitian cooking. It brings out the flavor of meat and fish, and is guaranteed to bring tears to the eyes!
Ti Malice Sauce
(This recipe produces about 2 cups of sauce.)
2 tsp. hot yellow pepper
1 onion-chopped finely
½ cup of shallots
2 chopped cloves of garlic
½ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ cup of olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Marinate onions and shallots in the lime juice for at least two hours.
In a pan, bring all ingredients to a boil.
Allow to cool and store in a jar in the refrigerator.
Haitian Chicken Stew
1 bunch of scallions, 6 to 8
2 stalks celery
1 large red bell pepper
4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
¼ cup flour
1 tsp. thyme
Þ tsp. cayenne pepper
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, minced or crushed through a press
1 can (14 oz.) stewed tomatoes with their juice (or diced tomatoes)
¼ cup chicken broth
3 drops Ti Malice sauce
1 bay leaf
¼ cup lime juice
Coarsely chop the scallions. Dice the celery and bell pepper. Rub the chicken liberally with the lime juice. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces.
In a plastic bag, combine flour, thyme and cayenne and shake to mix. Add chicken and shake to coat lightly. Remove chicken and reserve excess flour mixture.
In a large skillet, warm 1 Tbsp. of the butter in the oil over medium-high heat until the butter is melted.
Add the chicken and cook until it is browned, about seven minutes. Remove chicken to a plate and cover loosely to keep warm.
Add 1 remaining Tbsp. butter to the skillet and heat until melted. Add the garlic and the reserved dredging mixture. Cook, stirring, until the flour is no longer visible, about 1 minute.
Add tomatoes and their juice, the chicken broth, scallions, celery, bell pepper, hot pepper sauce and bay leaf and bring to a boil over medium-heat.
Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
Return the stew to a boil over medium-high heat. Return the chicken (and any juices that have accumulated on the plate) to the skillet along with the sausage, and heat until the chicken is cooked through, about 3 minutes. Remove the bay leaf before serving.
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