Back in the day, when I was a children’s mental health caseworker, we were trained that culture was the sum of a group of people’s beliefs, habits, customs, relational patterns, celebrations, and foods. I never fully appreciated why “food” was pulled out as its own category until I got married. I remember during the first few months of the marriage, I made a pot of homemade spaghetti sauce. I had gotten the recipe that had been in a buddy’s Italian family for four generations. I started with fresh tomatoes and spices and hour and let it simmer for hours.
Instead of the enthusiastic response I was anticipating, I was met with “can you make it more of the consistency of Prego next time?”
I might have snarled. One doesn’t aspire to imitate factory made sauce.
What I didn’t realize in the moment that we were experiencing a clash of cultures. I grew up in an intact family where homemade meals were more common. And then I spent the majority of my twenties single, with far too much time on my hands. I used some of that time to discover I loved to cook. My wife, on the other hand, was the child of divorce. Her mom worked full time, was raising three kids, and did the best she could do get dinner on the table. More times than not, that meant Prego.
Food is one of the keys to decode a culture.
So I decided to start cooking some Haitian cuisine for myself and the boys in preparation for a missions trip that my fifteen-year-old and I will be making in February of next year. I started with three simple dishes: Poule en Sauce (stewed chicken), Diri Ak Pwa (rice and beans), and Salad Zabok (Avacado Salad). Here’s what I made, I want I learned, or a was at least reminded of about Haitian culture.
Poule en Sauce: I found myself wanting to “fix” this recipe I went. This is a stewed chicken dish that reminded me a lot of the Creole cooking found around New Orleans. The Haitian recipe called for a few tablespoons of tomato paste, but I wanted to substitute a can of stewed tomatoes. I wanted my boys to experience Haitian cuisine and at the same time, I wanted them to be nourished. For a moment, I felt the tension that a Haitian parent must feel three times every day. That said, I was shocked at how tasty the dish was, despite the meagerness of the sauce. The Haitians have learned to make do with little. They are masters at using spices to make simple foods taste like five star meals. A little online research taught me that Haitian culture is a fusion of French, Spanish, Lebanese, and African cultures. In their kitchens, this diverse heritage results in some amazing flavors.
I also learned that Haitians wash their poultry in lime juice to kill bacteria before they cook it. Their resources are limited, but their resourcefulness is not. As a result, it’s impossible to recreate an authentic Haitian chicken dish without first washing the chicken with the juice of a few limes and then rinsing it with hot water.
Diri Ak Pwa: I love rice and beans, although I eat this dish less frequently since I adopted the Paleo diet for myself. Again, the creativity of the Haiti palate surprised me. The recipe combined the heat of scotch bonnet peppers (I substituted a habernero since it’s what was handy) and coolness of coconut milk. That’s not an unusual combination. You’ll find that combination in dozens of Thai recipes. However, the recipe called for cloves, which added a complex earthiness to the recipe. This dish is an artifact that points to the nation’s storied history, including slave trade and French Colonization. This small nation has been touched by so many nations and cultures in its tumultuous history.
Salad Zadok: I have to admit, I didn’t pick up any cultures about the culture from making this dish, other than noting the availability of the fruit on the island. This dish is similar to guacamole and was quite tasty. The boys turned their noses up at this dish, so the leftovers ended up in an omelet the next morning.
If you want to know more about my trip to Haiti and how you can become a partner, click here.