By Larisa Karr
Dixie Sandborn, a Michigan professor, knew nothing about Haitian culture until she began raising the two children she adopted from Haiti. Soon enough, she became very familiar with Haiti and a culinary hallmark: soup .
Now, the soup recipe she’s been practicing for six years makes an appearance at every local potluck the family attends and, of course, on January First, Haiti’s Independence Day.
The soup dish has gained increasing popularity in recent years, particularly as a result of social media. Earlier this month, a Bon Appétit recipe that did not incorporate many of the original ingredients stirred up much controversy and revived spirited discussions online and offline about the significance of the soup.
“When I take the soup to an international dinner, I follow it exactly, because I want it to be authentic,” said Sandborn, who resides in East Lansing. “I decided to write about it because I had a connection to it through my kids and it has a lot of history.”
A taste of history
The dish dates back to 1804, when Haiti declared independence from French colonists, who forbade them from eating soup. It incorporates an array of hearty ingredients, including cabbage, potatoes, meat, Haitian epis, and the squash called “joumou,” Creole for pumpkin. Experts said the soup was originally conceived not just for its enjoyable flavor, but also for health.
As the soup continues to gain a fan base outside the Haitian community, many Haitian-Americans are creating everything from books to hoodies to tell the story of the soup. And with the New Year approaching, people both in the diaspora and in Haiti are planning to hold events to share the soup with their community.
Bayinnah Bello, a professor of history at the State University of Haiti whose courses include “Women and Society” and “First Peoples Civilization” explains why soup joumou holds such significance to Haitians.
“When Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité Bonheur Dessalines created the empire of Haiti with her husband, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, her worry was what people could eat to survive, no matter what happened after independence,” Bello said. “She came up with the soup to make medicine and to treat tuberculosis, along with other illnesses.”
Through her organization, Fondasyon Félicité, Bello plans to make the soup with volunteers from all over Haiti this year and distribute the dish to more than 10,000 people.
Preparing the soup is an extensive process. First, the meat must be marinated overnight and then placed in a stockpot with water until it evaporates. As the meat is cooking, the vegetables, including the pumpkin, are washed and cooked over heat for an hour in a ot. Spices, as well as pasta, are then added, then the soup must simmer some more. Finally, the meat can be combined into the soup and it is ready to eat.
Chefs emphasize that while there is a standard recipe for soup joumou, ingredients do vary based on tradition.
“I love the potatoes, carrots, and cabbage,” said Lamise Oyugi, a health administrator and YouTube influencer who has uploaded a soup j recipe on her channel. “Everyone makes it differently, and ultimately it’s the way your parents taught you.”
Nonetheless, many felt the Bon Appétit recipe was too different to pass as Soup Joumou. Chef Marcus Samuelsson incorporated ingredients that are not found in the soup, including candied, spiced nuts.
The outcry about Samuelsson’s take on the recipe prompted Bon Appétit to issue an apology and change the name of his recipe from “Soup Joumou” when first published to “Pumpkin Soup With Spiced Nuts.”
Still, tempers boiled over in many circles. Some people wrote that Samuelsson’s recipe minimized and downplayed the significance of the soup in Haitian culture.
“I know how proud Haitians are of our soup because it’s one of the things that binds us,” said Gina Athena Ulysse, professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who wrote Liberate Soup Joumou! Why Haitians Care on Medium in response.
“None of them took a Haitian voice and perspective into consideration and that’s why I specifically wrote what I did,” Ulysse said.
While the Bon Appétit controversy might have ignited the widespread dialogue in the mainstream, experts say it is only part of an ongoing conversation about the role and significance of soup in Haitian culture.
“To consume, to participate to make soup is to recall the past, enact a present form of resistance, and also to foretell the future,” said Myron M. Beasley, an associate professor of American Studies at Bates College.
“It’s the notion that this food item that was forbidden became the emblem of victory,” Beasley said.
Soup joumou fandom
Although it has been a few weeks since the initial cultural appropriation outcry, scores of people continue to take to social media to educate non-Haitians about the soup dish and its place in history. And with Haiti’s 217th Day of Independence coming up, people seem receptive to learning more than ever.
“I post it online to make sure everybody is familiar with it, as well as telling my coworkers about it,” said Billy Delatour, a DJ and clothing designer based in Roselle, N.J. “Most of my friends love it because it’s different and it’s not your typical chicken noodle soup.”
Soup j merch is even available now, as Haitian-Americans use this opportunity to tell the story of the soup and its cultural importance.
Emmanuel Pierre-Louis, a Queens-based DJ who eats soup joumou with his family, has produced hoodies.
“I feel that it’s important to have it on clothing because if someone has never heard of the name or seen it, they will ask what it is,” Pierre-Louis said. “This will be an opportunity for me to teach them the meaning and significance behind it.”
The brouhaha also cements the need for more books, which are being written to share the story of the soup for future generations of Haitian-Americans and non-Haitians.
“I was in a room with my children, getting ready to read them a bedtime story, and I realized that I did not have any books that represented who they are,” said Carline Smothers, who has written a book about soup joumou that she sells through her clothing business, Zoe Beautee. “People are now making it a family tradition by taking pictures of my book with the soup and that’s been very rewarding for me.”