You might be inclined to panic if a cop knocks on your door at 1:00 a.m. on New Year’s Eve, but not me! Because as it happens, one of my besties, Mimi, is not only NYPD; she is also Haitian, so a knock on the door in the early hours of the New Year from her can only mean one happy thing: soup joumou.
Those containers of still-hot soup, full of pumpkin stock, beef, cabbage, root vegetables, pasta and herbs, contained more than just a tasty gesture to a friend. Soup joumou is history in a pot and freedom in a bowl. To taste it is to love it. To know it is to nourish your spirit.
You might know of Haiti from tragic earthquakes, or the political rollercoaster it seems always to be riding. But the Haitian people have a remarkable history and it is represented in this iconic soup.
Back in the days of colonialism, Haiti, a Caribbean nation of mountains and seashore that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, was under the thumb of France from 1697 on. In the late 1700s, the primarily African-descended population, which had been forcibly shipped out from Africa to do the heavy labor, revolted. They got France to abolish slavery in 1793, but the revolution continued. Under the leadership of Jean-Jaques Dessalines and Henry Christophe, a Black Haitian army forced the surrender and withdrawal of the French from Haiti in 1804.
During the long years of slavery and exploitation, the colonialists had added an excruciatingly French insult to the injury of forced migration and enslavement. They denied the enslaved people the right to eat soup made from the indigenous pumpkin called giramoun or joumou. The Black chefs made it for their enslavers, but it was illegal for the chefs to sip it themselves.
So, after Haiti declared independence on January 1, 1804, soup joumou has been on the menu every New Year’s Day.
Today joumou soup is on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which said, in part, that “its preparation promotes social cohesion and belonging,” from the locally harvested vegetables and meat, the artisan-made pots and utensils, the children preparing the ingredients and the women putting it all together. The native peoples used to cultivate the pumpkin and the enslaved Africans invented the soup, making the dish symbolic in every way possible.
If you aren’t blessed to have a bestie like Mimi in your life, Marie Michelle Destil makes soup joumou for special occasions at her charming Huntington Station restaurant, Gingerbites Haitian Bistro. And she’ll soon feel like your bestie too.
“I try to have fun in anything I do,” Destil says as she brings pumpkin broth—seasoned with Maggi seasoning, Lily Chaloner butter spread and garlic—to a lively boil and begins adding in the chopped vegetables in careful order that I try hard to track as she shares a stream of information about each ingredient: leek, celery, parsley, lozey (a.k.a. sawtooth coriander or culantro), potatoes, carrots, cabbage, green and red peppers (“The peppers are mostly for the color,” she says), malanga (taro root), yautia (also a taro), and, towards the end, turnip and parsnip (“You don’t want them to get bitter by overcooking them,” she says). Then there’s a bit of macaroni (she prefers ziti), a handful of spaghetti and, when it’s all al dente, she drops in a bright red piment pique (scotch bonnet) “You have to drop it in whole; if you pop it, things get dangerous,” she says, then adds mischievously, “Should I pop it?”When she ladles out bowls of the completed soup, it is a glorious bright orange color, studded with carrots and potatoes, draped in cabbage, and punctuated with the green and red peppers. The scotch bonnet is there too, winking a challenge. Destil breaks it gently with a spoon and lets some of the fruity heat escape into one bowl, then retrieves the pepper and swirls it in the other bowls, for a pleasant burn that balances the hearty vegetable sweetness.
By now, any Haitian reading will be howling in protest: “Where is the meat!?!”
Destil has answers.
“Soup joumou is made with beef bone: meat and the bone broth,” she says. “But here at the bistro we have a diverse population that doesn’t always want meat. If it’s for every day, you want to be more inclusive.” So when she has it on the menu, it is vegetarian.
But fear not, when January 1st comes around, she makes vats of soup joumou the traditional Haitian way, with all the meat and plenty of bone.
“To me, soup joumou is when the family gets together,” Destil says. “We eat the soup all day long, in the morning, at noon the second time, at someone else’s house in the afternoon, at 4, at 5, at 6, at 7. And then you are always fighting with your brothers and sisters, to see who gets the bone.”
No matter who gets the bone, anyone with a steamy bowl of soup joumou—the soup of freedom—on New Year’s Day, is the winner.
Gingerbites Haitian Bistro is located at 730 East Jericho Turnpike in Huntington Station, New York.