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8054: Rekindling Haitian cooking traditions (fwd)
Keywords: cooking, cuisine, Liliane Nerette Louis, Miami
Woman rekindles Haitian cooking traditions among group
By Deborah S. Hartz
May 23 2001
The women gather once a month at Liliane Nerette Louis’ home in Miami.
There’s business-like Joanne Hyppolite of North Miami and her ex-roomate from
college, Anita Turner of Pembroke Pines.
In a sling around Turner’s neck dangles 6-month-old Rebekah, who quietly
watches the women cooking in between her stints of napping and nursing.
Fabienne Josaphat of Miami is a late arrival who can’t stay long, but she
dons an apron like the others and starts chopping.
This is a monthly cooking class. Louis uses it to teach these young Haitian
and black women to cook and learn a little of their cultural traditions
Dressed in a traditional Haitian dress with bright head scarf and yellow
rings in her ears, Louis is using tonight’s class to teach the women to make
legume, a common Haitian dish. Of course, legume means “vegetable," but here
the variety of vegetables is rounded out with stewed beef and steamed blue
Louis is the author of When Night Falls, Kric!Krac! (Libraries Unlimited,
1999), a book of Haitian folktales and recipes. She learned to cook as a
child in Haiti, where she would watch her family’s cook prepare meals. At age
5, she had her first experience with legume when she watched a neighbor make
it for a family of six from a penny’s worth of salted meat.
Louis didn’t learn to make legume until many years later when, on a rainy
day, her family’s cook didn’t show up to work. So Louis and her mother made
legume to feed their family of 10.
“Although I am now living in the United States of America, my recipe for
legume has not been metamorphosed. I am committed to preserving the Haitian
culinary tradition just as it was in my youth,” she says in her heavy but
lovely accent. It’s these traditions she’s passing along to the women in her
class. Throughout the evening she peppers her cooking instructions with life
lessons and cultural notes.
“I remember the platique or street vendor selling live crabs in the
streets,” she tells us as she demonstrates how to clean those crabs. “He’d
sell them early in the morning and you’d hear him sing about his crabs as he
went by,” she adds, singing a few lines of his refrain in her sweet, sultry
When showing the women how to pound parsley and garlic in a much-used wooden
mortar and pestle, she explains that you don’t have to follow recipes
exactly. “You have to taste and add as you go along. Writing about Haitian
cooking is one thing, but you have to see it done to really understand that
it takes taste and imagination,” Louis says.
She shows me how to taste a dish — Haitian-style. She hands me a spoonful of
liquid and I sip it from the spoon. Oops, faux pas. In Haiti, she explains,
they pour the liquid into the palm of the hand and lick it off the palm. I
learn quickly as I see the other students tasting this way. As they hold
their heads high and taste the fruits of their homeland, there’s a nobleness
And then Louis explains that Haitian cooking is “fast and hot.” That’s
because the peasants in the countryside cook over three hot stones with logs
between them. They have no way to regulate the heat.
So when the rice cooks and sticks to the bottom of the pan, it’s called
gratin and is considered a treat, not a problem.
“Haitians have to do with what they have,” she says.
While Louis talks, she keeps an eye on her students, who sit around her
kitchen table cutting up onions, cabbage, carrots, peppers, eggplant and a
variety of other vegetables. They work with what look like steak knives
directly on the table surface. No fancy chef’s knives or butcher blocks here.
And nothing goes to waste. Louis keeps a bag to hold the tough outer cabbage
leaves, the ends of the onion and parsley stems. You’d think the end of the
onion and parsley stems would go in the trash, but she’ll put them in the
legume at the end.
In the background, you can hear the beef sizzling in its pot and smell the
garlicky crabs as they steam. Louis takes a moment to talk about her
31-year-old pans. “I don’t have fancy things,” she says. A look at her pot
collection proves it. Even though the handles have fallen off, she refuses to
replace those pots. There are a lot of memories cooked into each one. “My
pots know me and I know my pots,” she says.
Louis then demonstrates how to peel and seed a chayote or mirliton squash.
She quarters it and takes out the core like you would an apple. There’s a
seed in the center of the core called the ke mirliton, or the heart of the
mirliton. She says you can use it in your dish. Then she takes a knife and
slices off the green outer skin from each quarter before cutting the squash
Two and a half hours later, the legume is complete and a pot of Black
Mushroom Haitian Rice, colored with tiny dried mushrooms called dyondyon,
sits on the stove. We are ready to eat.
The women set the table with linen, silver and a candle. We remove the cork
from a bottle of red wine. Louis pours it, turning her wrist so as not to get
a drop on her tablecloth — a practiced skill, you can tell. Always practical,
Louis adds sheets of newspaper and paper towels to the tablesetting. After
all, this is finger food, for in among the vegetables and chunks of beef are
the crabs. Crabs that have to be picked by hand and sucked to get out each
succulent bit of meat. The paper will hold our empty shells.
She says grace and we eat. Serving up the rice, she comments, “In this
country, rice is a little spoonful, but in Haiti, we eat a lot of rice, a big
As we finish our last taste of rice and lick the crab juices from our
fingers, Louis hands us warm, damp towels with a slice of lime. Finger
cloths, a touch of French elegance from this woman who grew up in Haiti, a
land once colonized by the French and a land where the upper class still
Louis then regales us with the Haitian folktale of a man getting married who
used a goat to try to buy his way to a higher station in life. I won’t
divulge if he succeeded, but the name of the story is “Amen.” The perfect
way to end this evening.
At least for the students. Louis still has to make red beans and rice for 50
people to take to church tomorrow.
For a copy of When Night Falls, Kric!Krac!, by Liliane Nerette Louis, call
800-237-6124. The book is $29 plus shipping.
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