Dr. Jessica B. Harris is an award-winning culinary historian, cookbook author and journalist who specializes in the food and foodways of the African diaspora. With this column, "My Culinary Compass," she is taking people all over the world — via their taste buds — with recipes inspired by her extensive travels.
Compass points: 18.31 degrees north; 72.20 degrees west. Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Haiti. I took my first trip there in the early 1970s when the flowers still bloomed on Papa Doc's grave. By the 1990s, I had written a guidebook section to the island, traveled multiple times from the South to the North by road (no mean feat), and made friends around the country. I took my mother there for her 73rd birthday, and we got stuck by the political events that led to Baby Doc’s departure the day after we left on the first thing smoking.
I thought I knew Haiti well. I knew about the Haitian Revolution and names like Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, Pétion and Christophe. I knew that Haiti had been the second independent republic in this hemisphere. I knew that the Haitian revolution of 1804 was a beacon to all in the African Atlantic world and one of the world’s few successful slave revolts. But, although I had visited the Citadel and been down south to Jacmel, although I had purchased more than one piece of Haitian art, although I had had eaten griots de porc and riz au djon djon at Le Rond Point restaurant and danced the meringue at the Cabane Choucoune and at Lambi, I didn't know all I should about Haiti.
I didn’t know about the importance of food in Haitian history and the importance of the soup that I had consumed multiple times on the island. In the pre-revolutionary days, soupe au giraumon, also known as soup joumou, was a delicacy on the island. And, as was the case with many dishes served to the elite enslavers during the period, it was illegal for the enslaved who prepared the soup to consume it.
Some suggest that the soup was served at the ceremony du Bois Caïman that signaled the beginning of the revolution as a culinary manifestation of the rebellion. Others credit Marie-Claire Heureuse Felicité Bonheur, the wife of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, with distributing the fortifying soup to the foot soldiers of the Revolution.
Regardless of the origin myth, the soup is inextricably entwined with the story of resistance and triumph that is the Haitian Revolution. (The story of the Haitian Revolution did not end there. Haiti was forced to indemnify France for their French enslavers for what is estimated to be about $49 billion, a debt that they paid between 1825 and 1950.)
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In recognition of the triumph of the Haitian Revolution, the resiliency of the Haitian ancestors and the steadfastness of the Haitian people, soup joumou is consumed on Jan. 1 by Haitians wherever they are in the world. I am not Haitian, but the island does own a piece of my heart. This year, I will join with my Haitian friends and celebrate the island that has been battered by recent history with a bowl of my version of soup joumou.