Freedom and Community in a Bowl of Soup
Debra Schrishuhn for the PDA National Team
It Takes a Village to Make and Consume Soup Joumou, Haiti’s Emancipation Culinary Tradition
As 2021 winds down, we take a break from domestic politics and find inspiration both looking back and going forward.
2021 was devastating for Haitians—the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7 and ensuing political instability, a 7.2 earthquake centered 80 miles west of the capital Port-au-Prince on August 14, followed by drenching rains from Tropical Storm Grace two days later. By September, thousands of Haitian refugees had massed under the Del Rio International Bridge connecting Texas and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, causing an immigration crisis in the U.S. Some were allowed to request asylum; many were perfunctorily deported.
In the wake of these tragedies, Haitians received some good news. Their iconic dish, soup joumou,marks Haiti’s first entrance on UNESCO’s prestigious list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage refers to cultural practices and expressions that are not physical items to be collected and stored, but rather exist intellectually, such as festivals, dance and musical expressions, craft traditions, sporting events, and culinary practices. Only a select group of foods, cuisines, and culinary traditions have made it to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. These unique practices and know-how are often passed through generations. The process and cultural purpose of the food is as important as the food itself. Examples include Korean kimchi, Neapolitan pizza-making in Italy, and Arabic coffee-making as an act of hospitality. Until this year Haiti was absent from the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Soup joumou is a spicy blend of turban squash (a kind of pumpkin), potatoes, carrots, pasta, and meat. Under French colonialism soup joumou was made for the French rulers by enslaved persons, who were forbidden to eat it because it was thought to be too sophisticated for mere slaves.
After 13 years of revolution, Haitians declared independence on January 1, 1804, changing the colonial name of Saint Domingue to its Indigenous place name, Haiti. Soup joumou was proclaimed the national dish of Haiti, to be shared by all. In marking Haiti’s first entrance to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list this month, the UNESCO statement describes it as a “celebratory dish, deeply rooted in Haitian identity, and its preparation promotes social cohesion and belonging among communities.”
It is a national symbol of liberation from slavery, of self-determination, and of the importance of community, hospitality, and sharing. Soup joumou stands for rejection of oppression and discrimination, represents the struggle against colonization and racism, and encourages social cohesion as an expression of the dignity of the Haitian people.
So, congratulations to our brothers and sisters in Haiti and in the diaspora. As you prepare, eat, and share soup joumou on January 1, New Year’s Day and Haiti’s Independence Day, do so with hope and joy for the coming year. We are with you.