By Nicole Alcindor and Onz Chery
Two days before Thanksgiving last year, Anne Clerge was already mixing and blending Haitian spices in her Elmont, New York kitchen. She was dabbing ‘this and that’ to her meats and pots, while blasting music from KAI, the Richard Cave band.
In addition to the traditional turkey and fixings for the holiday, Clerge prepared riz , the Haitian black rice dish made with mushroom, an upside-down cake, baked macaroni, Haitian cookies, chicken griot. As the aroma of garlic, onion, thyme, and peppers filled the house, Clerge cleaned and seasoned enough meats to serve about two dozen family members.
“After immigrating from Haiti to America at the age of 15, it took a few years, but eventually my family started celebrating the American Thanksgiving holiday,” said Clerge, 41. “But, we always put a Haitian twist on it. I enjoy preparing and eating Haitian foods because it always serves as a positive reminder of my birthplace.”
Immigrants in America have long added their own cuisine to Thanksgiving celebrations, and Haitians are no different. In some households, some embrace the American instructions that call for thawing, brining, baking, and dressing the whole turkey before serving.
Other Haitian-Americans add a few extra cleaning and seasoning steps to the process. They might apply salt and pepper inside and outside of the bird with limes or sour oranges, rinse with steaming hot water, then rub down the turkey with globs of homemade épices. Still, other Haitian-Americans eschew American instructions entirely, preferring instead to make turkey , deep-fried drumsticks, wings breasts.
No matter how the main dish is prepared, there’s bound to be an array of distinctive Haitian sides on every table.
“Most Haitians cook American Thanksgiving [dishes], but they will add macaroni and cheese Haitian style and black rice and peas,” said Joe Montour, owner of Flanm Cuisine & Catering in Queens Village. “Even though there won’t be as many people celebrating this year together, I look forward to this Thanksgiving.”
Giving thanks despite year’s losses
Like so many Haitian families accustomed to cooking expansive Haitian meals for extended family and friends, Clerge bemoans curtailing this year’s Thanksgiving plans. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, larger families in New York like Clerge’s are planning gatherings of ten or fewer people to abide by the state regulations.
“This Thanksgiving will be a bit difficult because my whole family cannot come together because of the pandemic,” Clerge said.
Others are still grieving the loss of loved ones to coronavirus or related causes.
Marie Charles, a Queens Village resident, said her husband died of heart complications this year. She said he refused to seek treatment at a hospital, fearing he would contract COVID-19.
“This Thanksgiving will not be the same without him, and it is a very sad time for many because of the pandemic,” said Charles, 54.
In prior years, Charles’ Thanksgiving menu included Haitian patties, griot, black rice and macaroni au gratin — a stick-to-your arteries Haitian staple made with macaroni and cheese pie. She also had kremas, the rum-based cream liqueur similar to Irish cream, to wash everything down.
This year, Charles plans to spend Thanksgiving with her mother, sister and brother instead. She plans to prepare Haitian pumpkin soup, soup joumou, for that gathering to add a twist.
“We will thank God because we are grateful to see each other during Covid times,” Charles said.
In Brooklyn, Richard Sam expects only a few family members to come over for a small dinner with his parents and aunt.
Sam, who immigrated to the U.S. at 14, said he’s more fond of the celebrations from his native land and is impatiently waiting for the year-end Vodou rituals. In particular, the 31-year-old looks forward to the cleansing ceremony that prepares practitioners to start the following year renewed.
“We don’t usually have a big celebration for Thanksgiving, so [the state regulation] is something I can accept and adapt to,” Sam said.