For The D.C. Region’s Haitian Community, Soup Joumou Is More Than A Meal

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For many Haitians, soup joumou is more than just a food dish, it’s a symbol and embodiment of freedom from enslavement.

Typically, it can be prepared with onions, peppers, celery, herbs, and lots of other ingredients, depending on who’s making it. But it’s centered on winter squash – a crop that Africans were forced to grow during the rule of French colonialism.

Back then, they not only had to work the land but also prepare soup joumou, which they were prohibited from eating, for their French oppressors.

“They could lose their life if they were caught eating those types of food,” says chef Roberto Massillon, who was born in Haiti and now owns Port-au-Prince Haitian Cuisine in Silver Spring, Md.

On Jan. 1, 1804, Haiti declared its independence from French colonialism following a successful uprising that was led by former slaves, including Toussaint Louverture. As a result, Haitians were able to eat soup joumou and celebrate their freedom. Today, many Haitians around the world and in the D.C. region eat the soup every year to honor their ancestors and culture.

“Every time we are celebrating our independence, we have to have this soup. It’s really something very – it’s holy for us,” says Massillon.

On Wednesday, dozens of people gathered as a community at Port-au-Prince restaurant to not just commemorate their history but to fundraise for Hope for Haiti, a nonprofit based in Florida that has a presence in the D.C. region. It partnered with Chef Massillon to prepare more than 100 bowls of soup joumou – the funds from their sale would be used to support health care, education, and business grants in southern Haiti.

Maritza Dietrich, an events manager for Hope for Haiti, says she wanted the event to create a space for the local Haitian community to come together and also to welcome people of different cultures – especially, those who’ve never had soup joumou before.

Chef Roberto Massillon, who is also a U.S. Army veteran and a linguist in the U.S. State Department, says he feels like a kind of “ambassador” who gets to represent his culture and cuisine within the D.C. region.Héctor Alejandro Arzate / DCist/WAMU

Marcel Pean, left, who describes himself as first generation Haitian-American, sits next to Roddy Denor, right, who was born and raised in Haiti.Héctor Alejandro Arzate / DCist/WAMU

According to Chef Roberto Massillon, Port-au-Prince Haitian Cuisine in Silver Spring, Md., is one of the few Haitian restaurants in the region and offers soup joumou on most Sundays.Héctor Alejandro Arzate / DCist/WAMU

“That’s such a great way to connect with the people in the DMV community,” says Dietrich, who was born in Haiti and lives in Silver Spring. “It’s very important for us Haitians to find our community because we draw strength from togetherness and being united.”

Like Massillon, Dietrich says she feels honored to be able to eat and share the hard-won Haitian dish with others. “What was once forbidden is now ours because we’ve worked hard for it. And so in drinking soup joumou or eating soup joumou, we’re reminded of the sacrifices that brave men and women made for us so we could be who we are now.”

According to Dietrich, the soup is truly meant to be shared with others. She recalls that when she was growing up, it was tradition to prepare it at home and then go from neighbor to neighbor to try their version.

“It’s that sense of community that we’re finding here,” says Dietrich. “And it’s like a pillar.”

Among those who stopped by the restaurant was Dietrich’s neighbor, David Blay. He says he wanted to come to support the fundraiser and the community, and it was also his first time having soup joumou.

“You know what? It tastes very good,” says Blay, who was born in the Ivory Coast. “Like a hint of ginger with some carrots. Very different I would say, but good.”

Silver Spring and the surrounding area are home to a diverse array of businesses representing African and Caribbean cultures – including Port-au-Prince Haitian Cuisine and nearby Ethiopian restaurants and cafes. For Blay, that calls for celebrating twofold.

“It shows to me how much of a community downtown Silver Spring is. You meet people from all different countries, all over Africa, the diaspora. And it’s a beautiful thing to see,” says Blay.

Loide Jorge, who is married to Massillon, helps serve soup joumou to customers.Héctor Alejandro Arzate / DCist/WAMU

“It’s very important for us Haitians to find our community because we draw strength from togetherness and being united,” says Maritza Dietrich, an events manager for Hope For Haiti.Héctor Alejandro Arzate / DCist/WAMU

“It shows to me how much of a community downtown Silver Spring is. You meet people from all different countries, all over Africa, the diaspora. And it’s a beautiful thing to see,” says David Blay, who was born on the Ivory Coast.Héctor Alejandro Arzate / DCist/WAMU

Marcel Pean, who describes himself as first generation Haitian-American, says he grew up speaking Creole and eating his grandma’s soup joumou back in Memphis, Tenn. But it wasn’t until he got older that he began to better understand the history and politics of Haiti.

He says he’s glad he stopped by for more than just a familiar bite.

“That’s really inspiring for me to see how many people are actually connected and involved in the Haitian community,” says Pean, who lives in D.C. “It’s not just Haitians that are here. There are people from all over the place.”

Chef Massillon, who is also a U.S. Army veteran and a linguist in the U.S. State Department, says he feels like a kind of “ambassador” who gets to represent his culture and cuisine within the D.C. region. For him, that’s especially important because, he says, Haiti is oftentimes overlooked and reduced to a single image.

“It’s not always like the poor country. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Because if you look at Haiti, it’s a rich country. It is rich in culture. It is rich in history. There’s so much people can learn about Haiti.”

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