On the first day of the year in 1804, at the Place d’Armes in the dusty city of Gonaïves, gazing out onto the turquoise waters of the Golfe de la Gonâve off Haiti, a 46-year-old military leader who had been born into slavery on a plantation near Grande-Rivière-du-Nord unveiled a text that still cries out from across the centuries.
“Citizens,” it began,
it is not enough to have expelled the barbarians who have bloodied our land for two centuries; it is not enough to have restrained those ever-evolving factions that one after another mocked the specter of liberty. … We must, with one last act of national authority, forever assure the empire of liberty in the country of our birth; we must take any hope of re-enslaving us away from the inhuman government that for so long kept us in the most humiliating torpor. In the end we must live independent or die.
Independence or death… let these sacred words unite us and be the signal of battle and of our union.
With those words, Haiti declared its independence from France after a 13-year war of liberation and abolished slavery, the first nation to do so. The military leader who had overseen this victory, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had taken up the torch of Haitian liberation after its after its most charismatic initial proponent, Toussaint Louverture, was kidnapped by the forces of the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte and died in a lonely prison cell in the Jura Mountains (a fate possibly abetted by Dessalines’ own political maneuvering). The formerly French colony of Saint-Domingue would heretofore be known as Haiti, its original Taíno name.
Hardly alone in his campaign against what was then one of the world’s great military powers — marked by victories such as the Battle of Vertières, outside of modern-day Cap-Haïtien (known then as Cap-Français), in November 1803 — Dessalines was aided by a now-mythic cast of characters. There was Henry (often-written Henri) Christophe, an English-speaking former slave, likely born in Grenada. There was Alexandre Pétion, son of a wealthy French father, and free women of mixed African and European heritage who narrowly avoided death as an infant during a 1770 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince. And, deceased on the long road to liberty, were patriots like Suzanne Bélair, better known as Sanité Bélair, an “affranchi” (free person of color) who took an active part in combat against Napoleon’s forces and became a lieutenant in Louverture’s army. When she was executed by the French she cried “Viv libète! Aba esclavaj!” (Long live freedom! Down with slavery!)
Tradition has it that in celebration of their victory, the victorious Haitian forces sat down to “soup joumou,” a fortifying soup hinting at the promise of abundance that the hideousness of slavery had denied Haiti’s people and which earlier this year was given the distinction of being part of “the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” by UNESCO. The soup itself — an enticing and filling mélange of squash, onions, peppers, beef and pasta — not only has historical resonance but also offers a tantalizing introduction to the rich and varied cuisine of Haiti, something I was able to experience firsthand during several years of living there and a quarter century of visiting the country.
“It is an ode to freedom, a ritual that we participate in saying we believe in a better tomorrow and coming together,” says Dominique Dupuy, Haiti’s delegate to UNESCO. “When you go through this cascade of traumas, resilience comes at a cost, but let’s recognize that we ourselves have the power to push through. We’ve had bad years, but we’re a great people.”
Beset by plotting from foreign powers and what the Haitian author Frédéric Marcelin would later characterize as “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries … and idolatrous militarism,” Haiti would soon fall into violent political factionalism. After declaring himself emperor, Dessalines would be assassinated at present-day Pont-Rouge in Port-au-Prince in October 1806. Civil war would break out, with the country divided between Henry Christophe’s Kingdom of Haiti in the north (where Christophe declared himself King Henry I) and Alexandre Pétion’s Republic of Haiti in the south. Following the deaths of both Christophe and Pétion, the nation would finally be reunited under the rule of Pétion’s successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer.
“The revolution is often told in only a victorious narrative, but it involves a lot of bloodshed and intra-group fighting,” says Yveline Alexis, an associate professor of Africana studies at Oberlin College. “But this also not only tells us about how unity and disunity can exist while fighting oppressors but how, in the end, Haiti will be left standing.”
But the dream of Haiti and the singular heroism of its initial accomplishment — defeating a colonial power and eradicating an infernal system — never died, and as the heavy winds of the country’s political struggle blew forward, the people of Haiti — “les enfants des héros” (children of heroes) as the author Lyonel Trouillot called them — carried on that legacy with their food.
When I worked as a journalist in Haiti in the early 2000s, one of my favorite things to do at the end of the week was to leave my flat in the bougainvillea-draped neighborhood of Pacot and head to the Portail Léogâne, the outdoor transit hub used for traveling south out of the city.
There, one could easily find a tap-tap, as Haiti’s brightly colored shared passenger vans are called, heading for the neighborhoods of Martissant, Carrefour and Mariani (a journey that is now very perilous because of the nonstop fighting of politically aligned armed groups called “baz,” or base). After hopping on board, sensuous kompa music playing from the tap-tap’s sound system, one would sail past dilapidated hotels that hark back to the days when Haiti was a tourist destination with outdoor markets where vendors sold their wares under the open sky.
When the tap-tap pauses briefly at a crossroads before continuing south through mountains often fecund after rain and dotted by rainbows, market women run up to the vehicle’s sides, offering travelers tasty snacks such as “douce macoss,” an overpoweringly sweet tricolored candy that, along with Faustin Soulouque, who ran the country first as president and then as emperor from 1847 to 1859, is perhaps the most famous product of the nearby city of Petit-Goâve, a once-beautiful city devastated by Haiti’s January 2010 earthquake. Or they would offer “tablet pistach,” Haiti’s version of peanut brittle.
After an hour or so of the tap-tap’s negotiating serpentine mountain roads, the southern city of Jacmel, where South American liberation hero Simón Bolívar was given shelter by Haiti’s rebel leaders (no one else would take him), appears below, glittering like a jewel next to the tumbling surf.
Once in Jacmel, I would disembark and transfer to a moto taxi to travel the 10 or so miles to the beach cottage that I was renting. There, one could splash in the surf under the gaze of the brooding inland mountains and feast on exquisite “lambi creole” (conch with a uniquely spicy Haitian sauce) and “langouste” (lobster prepared with a distinct smoky flair). In Jacmel itself, on a weekend evening, citizens and stray foreigners would go to and fro between the restaurants and music clubs, the streets lit by the flickering orange glow of the kerosene lamps of the vendors as they offered “griot” (fried pork) to passersby. As the sun set, it was customary to pour a libation of Haiti’s exquisite rum, Barbancourt Cinq étoiles (still, for my money, the best rum in the world) or, for the more adventurous, to sample the various strains of “tafia,” the highly potent raw rum sold in jerrycans at roadside stands (though the best tafia is widely considered to be consumed in the temperate climes of the mountain town of Kenscoff, above Port-au-Prince).
Over the two-and-a-half decades I’ve spent visiting Haiti, the majesty and ebullient tale told by Haiti’s rich cuisine has accompanied me every step. Haiti’s food evokes its sophisticated and varied roots, from the Parisian-style boulangeries that one can find in the tree-draped squares of areas like the Port-au-Prince suburb of Pétionville to the unpretentious “lalo,” a spinach stew served over white rice and often bought from large pots along the road. And if you have never bought some “marinade” (a seasoned batter patty) from a woman selling them roadside, have you ever lived? The same question could be posed if you’ve never enjoyed delicious “poulet boucané” (smoked chicken) on the terrace of Kay Foun, overlooking the busy street in Saint-Marc, accompanied by a Prestige beer so cold that ice still clings to the glass of the bottle, or eaten “pintade créole” (guinea hen in a spicy sauce served with fried plantains and beans and rice) on a (relatively) cool autumn evening.
Regional dishes also abound, from the unique use of coconut around Jacmel in the south to “poul an sòs ak nwa” (cashew chicken) in the north, where one can eat it during an evening of carousing along the Carenage Boulevard that abuts the ocean. In the morning one can take in the stirring sight of Sans-Souci and the Citadelle Laferrière, a palace and fort combination built by Christophe with views across the plains of northern Haiti. Popular in Jérémie, a lovely town on the northern shore of on the northern shore of the Grand’Anse department and known as “la cité des poètes” (the city of poets), one finds “tonmtonm,” a filling breadfruit-based dish.
Haiti continues to struggle with its demons, systemic and structural problems greater than any one politician or political party. When Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse was assassinated last July — the fifth president from the country’s north to be killed since independence — and as gang wars and narrow political infighting continue to rack the capital, it’s easy, particularly for outsiders, to forget this culinary lineage, which in a real way has freedom and a revolutionary heritage in every morsel.
“The Haitian kitchen is a concentration of our Afro and European influences,” says Paul Toussaint, a Haitian chef and restaurateur whose restaurant in Montreal, Canada, Kamúy, mixes traditional Haitian cooking with international elements. “When I am cooking Haitian cuisine, I feel like I am combining those heritages. It’s a love story with our history, and there’s a lot of meaning in our food.”