WNYC’s community partnerships team set out to tell the stories of our communities through the food we share. You can listen to those stories here.
For many people, New Year’s is about watching fireworks or the ball drop in Times Square, and making resolutions. For Haitians in New York City and around the world, Jan. 1 also marks Haitian Independence Day, a commemoration of the 1804 action to declare independence from French colonizers.
For generations, Haitians have been serving up soup joumou, or pumpkin soup, on Jan. 1 to celebrate their freedom. The soup consists of a squash or pumpkin base, pasta, meat, vegetables and a cultural spice blend called épis.
The pumpkin base serves as a reminder of the repression enslaved people faced under French colonialism. During this period, they were not allowed to eat the pumpkin soup they prepared for their oppressors.
It is said that in the genesis of the Haitian Republic, Haitains reclaimed soup joumou for themselves as a symbol of their victory. Eating it at the start of every year is an important Haitian custom. And today, as Haiti is gripped by gang violence and instability, soup joumou remains a symbol of freedom, unity and hope.
Last year, UNESCO awarded soup joumou protected cultural heritage status.
Weeks ahead of New Year’s, on Nov. 18, the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College served soup joumou as part of an event in which Haitian scholars discussed the importance of reparations and restitution to the descendants of enslaved Africans in Haiti.
Participants gathered around a spread of Haitian cuisine that also included broiled spiced turkey, fish in a savory roux, pikliz (pickled carrots and cabbage, pronounced as pick-lees), rice, and griot — a braised and fried pork shoulder.
Marie Lily Cerat, director of the Haitian Studies Institute, said the institute strives to have foods that represent Haitian culture — like soup joumou — at these events to serve as a reminder of how far the Haitian community has come.
“The Haitian Revolution demystified the narrative that Africans were not people, and it was the biggest illustration that Africans were brilliant,” Cerat said.
Pierre Gedeon, the institute’s operations manager, agreed.
“I am proud of who I am because of what Haiti stood up for,” he said. “Haitian independence and boiling pumpkins to eat was a big symbol against slavery everywhere.”
Sharing knowledge of foods like pumpkin soup has also become a mission for Cindy Similien, a Haitian American author based in New York City. She has written several books on Haitian cuisine and culture, including “When Grandma Makes Soup Joumou.” An adaptation of her soup joumou recipe can be found here.
“Haitian cuisine is a way for us to carry on the tradition of our ancestors to remember the struggle they’ve gone through and what we are still going through as a people,” she said.
Similien said her work memorializes these important stories for future generations of Haitian Americans.
Similien grew up in New York City, but much of her family lives in Jérémie and Moron in southwestern Haiti. She said she learned customs like eating soup joumou on Jan. 1 while visiting her grandmother in Haiti.
Similien said the aroma from soup joumou tempts you to want to taste it right away, but she learned early on that you have to have patience to truly enjoy the hearty dish.
“I remember my grandmother would say ‘not yet!’ because you have to let the soup simmer, you have to let all the greens mesh together,” she said.
Ninnette Diogene, a native of Port-au-Prince, said it can take up to nine hours to make soup joumou because the recipe requires many steps, and in Haiti, it’s traditionally made over coals.
“Even with better technology in the U.S.,” she said, “soup joumou still takes up to four hours to make because it’s important to allow the ingredients, especially bone marrow, to simmer into the soup.”
Diogene’s New Jersey-based company, Bon Gou Foods, sells pre-made soup joumou. She said she wants to make it more accessible for people who don’t have the time or don’t know how to make it.
For Melissa Juste, a musician living in Bedford-Stuyvesant, eating soup joumou is a way to stay in touch with her heritage. She said most of her family lives in Port-au-Prince, where gang violence and civil unrest make travel unsafe.
“Eating traditional Haitian food has always been my means to reconcile with the weight my people carry on their shoulders,” she said. “It’s food for my soul.”