By J.O. Haselhoef | Haiti Travel & Nonprofit Columnist
The many ingredients for soup sat not on the counter but in the spaces available in my tiny kitchen — on top of the refrigerator, between the dishes in the cupboard, even on the floor.
My friend from Haiti was soon to arrive. This was one of his first visits to the United States. American food made him feel ill. I chose this celebratory cuisine because I wanted to give his digestive tract a break. I was ill-prepared for the culinary effort the Haitian Independence dish would take. I’d only eaten the pumpkin soup once and never prepared it.
I think, though, the need for a distraction was the real culprit.
For some time, I’d been preoccupied with a puzzling issue that came up as our nonprofit worked with a group of educators in Lamontay, the farming region southwest of Jacmel. This forward-thinking board of mostly headmasters met regularly. They discussed their problems, and they shared their resources.
We had worked with the committee for two years. Using their priority list during the first, we built a pair of two-hole latrines, bought classroom materials for six schools, introduced a pilot agronomy program and provided five days of teacher training to the area’s 60 teachers. The committee members saw to the details of each project neatly and effectively.
The second year, the committee met and gave priority to another year of teacher training as we transferred funds to their account.
Our organization’s Haitian manager said while Skyping, “The second year will cost almost twice the amount for the same program the year before.” Apparently, attendees the first year complained about the volunteer-prepared lunch. The board planned to hire the cooking class at the Catholic high school to cater the five days of training. The luncheon cost was the inflation factor.
The conundrum: food versus training
Our small nonprofit had limited money and the area schools’ needs were many. I didn’t understand why the board would spend money on food instead of training.
I spoke to one of the committee members. He couldn’t account for the rest of his colleagues, but he was the only one of seven that voted against the expenditure.
I spoke to a friend who ran a nonprofit near Les Cayes. She told me she had experienced a similar disconnect with her Haitian board. She called the members “spendthrifts.”
I spoke to our organization’s co-founder, who handed me a study from the University of Chicago, which said a continuous lack of money can affect decision-making.
Opinions and data be damned! None of the explanations fit these board members, who I knew to be capable, responsible and logical.
I asked the education board if they could find a way to keep the costs per attendee the same as the previous year. Our nonprofit manager told me the next day, “The committee did respond. They chose to keep the catering and cut the training from five days to three.”
I was shocked. The future of our relationship seemed vulnerable with this decision. Our manager agreed and suggested we tighten the guidelines for future funding. But something wasn’t fitting — didn’t feel right.
By then, my Haitian visitor arrived, and I began cooking soup joumou. I admit, I didn’t read the recipe carefully.
I placed the meat in the lime juice and food-processed the onion, Scotch Bonnet peppers, scallions and seasonings until the mixture resembled a paste. Then I marinated the meat with it.
Meanwhile, I considered the education committee’s decision from its viewpoint. What were the members really wanting for their region?
Soup joumou sheds some light
My countertop measured roughly 18-by-24 inches. The food processor and miscellaneous utensils halved that space. I cut the squash into sections, scooped out the seeds from one and accidentally nudged the others off the counter. I rinsed the squash wedges and placed them on top of the meat, added water and set it to simmer.
I thought about my own limited knowledge — both of Haiti’s education and its culture. I hadn’t grown up there; my father was from Suriname, my mother, Spokane, Washington.
My guest watched from afar. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I tried to keep up a running dialogue while I diced and chopped the potatoes, carrots, celery, turnip, leek and bell pepper. Sharing with him what was on my mind, I told him about the high caliber of people on the committee — all lifelong educators, who were also parents and leaders in their communities.
“At one point,” I said, “the Haitian Minister of Education recognized this school board as a group ahead of its time, a model to be followed.”
I brought the soup to a boil, decreased the heat, stirred in the remaining lime juice. I also told my guest that when I was in Haiti last, I happened upon one of the newer headmasters. I asked if he had heard about the school committee. It had been five years since I’d been in touch and wasn’t certain if they continued to meet.
“Yes, I’m a member,” he said proudly. “We continue to meet — successfully.”
I added the cabbage and pasta and let it cook until the pasta was al dente and the cabbage tender.
Finally, I dipped in a spoon, blew it to cool and tasted. It took only a millisecond before I felt my tongue explode from the intense spicy heat and I spit it into the nearby sink.
“Discard the thyme bouquet and the Scotch Bonnet pepper,” said the last direction of the recipe. I had added no Bell pepper but two Scotch Bonnets — one of the hottest peppers known. And I hadn’t added them whole, as indicated, but chopped, releasing their capsaicin, the active heat ingredient.
There I stood in my one-butt kitchen, Haitian pumpkin soup ingredients all around, but nothing to show for it. I had engineered a mess.
I was blinded by my limited vision and drowning in my own process. I knew better. The knowledge is there — find it.
I asked my guest what he would do to save my too-hot-to-eat soup joumou, “I’d double the recipe,” he offered. “Spread out the heat of the peppers.”
I thanked him for his brilliance through experience and then recognized the committee members’ wisdom — catering meals for 60 teachers for three days was, for those high school students, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A school system could offer nothing better to its graduates heading for the real world.
I carefully placed the third Scotch Bonnet pepper to the side and cleared off the counter for a second try with soup joumou.