What Color is Haitian Jesus?

My favorite scene in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is when, while in prison, he asks the priest “what color was Jesus?” Denzel/Malcolm X goes on to quote phrases from the Bible to indicate that Jesus might not have been white after all (though, I will say arguing over skin color is not likely to go over well with Jesus in the first place). Why this is interesting to me is that Denzel begins this scene by asking “what color were the disciples?” And while the priest responded with a vague “there’s no way to be certain,” his question as to the color of Jesus was met with a definitive “white.”

And so I ask you, what color is Haitian Jesus? That is not to say there are multiple Christian deities. No, I am speaking specifically of how Jesus is depicted in Haitian art. And, before you answer that, I’ll also posit, what color were the disciples? Or how about John the Baptist? The Three Wise Men? How about the Virgin Mary? Take a moment to write down your answers….

Last week I visited the El-Saieh Gallery in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The gallery is formerly the private collection of the current owner’s grandfather, Issa El Saieh, a renowned big band kompa performer in his day. His granddaughter, Sheron, converted the mansion and the collection into a public art gallery, yet the whole place feels like it’s the type of museum Haiti is missing.

Every inch of space within the building is covered in art. Paintings adorn the walls, marking Haiti’s history with each vibrant stroke. The hallways are crammed with paintings stacked one in front the other, and lean next to tables also piled high with unframed paintings. You could spend hours within the gallery and still only manage to have seen a fraction of the art contained within.

Haitian art is as varied as the people. Some art is strongly influenced by voodoo imagery, and looks like it belongs on the cover of a Funkadelic album.  Other art paints in great reverence Haiti’s historical leaders. And some art invokes the tragicomedy that is often the life in Haiti, taking everyday universal scenes and placing them in the Haitian context, such as this one of a woman cheating on her husband with a younger man. And, still, other art tells more when lined up in a series.

In the foyer of the room is one such painting. The Three Wise Men feature prominently on the back wall of the gallery’s main room in the lower floor. An art critic could spend hours or pages describing in detail all the imagery within the painting. For now, to be basic while still maintaining the veil of an art connoisseur , we’ll focus just on the race. In short, the Three Wise Men are Black. Perhaps they’re meant to be a variety of ethnicities representing a historical aspect of Haiti’s culture (the arrival of the first wave of Libyan immigrants, for example?). At the same time, we can be sure that the Three Wise Men, depicted on their own, are not definitively white.

This painting set me on a path to look for more religious imagery, which we find in the image at the top of this article. As is shown, one sees the Virgin Mary surrounded by followers. Everyone in the painting is Black. It’s important to point this out, because in Haitian art, the person being revered or the person in power tends to be white. Whether it’s a depiction of a slave scene or simply of a woman’s beauty, the person at the center of the painting is usually white (or a very fair shade of Black). Yet here, everyone is the same color.

When it comes to Jesus, however, it seems everyone else is Black, leaving Jesus to standout more than what would be normally expected in a religious painting.  My favorite example of this in the gallery is a depiction of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. The scene contains onlookers in the foreground, all Black, as well as John the Baptist, also Black, baptizing Jesus, white. The message is uncanny, but the true gravity of the piece takes a moment to sink in. Finally, it hits: you mean even in a Black country where the people and important figures in religious history are depicted as Black, Jesus still has to be white?

 

For any Christian painting, I imagine the image of Jesus would figure prominently. Yet, this painting has added an extra layer of “heavenliness, ” by depicting Jesus as white amidst a sea of Black followers and a Black baptist.

In another painting, depicting the miraculous catch of fish from the book of Luke, Jesus and the disciples are painted white, though admittedly the fish are a variety of colors. And, after further scrutiny, perhaps Jesus isn’t white exactly? After all, Haiti does boast a sizable and influential Libyan population. Perhaps the images in this painting bear homage to middle eastern influence?

Yet, as is always the case in Haiti, there are no stereotypes. In another hallway I stumbled into not one, but two images of Jesus painted Black, both of the same scene: the last supper. In this scene, taken on by two different artists, Jesus is undeniably Black, as are his disciples. Why this is I’m not sure. Perhaps because it’s a scene behind closed doors where no one else can look. Perhaps it’s a moment where Jesus can be equal to his disciples, thus not having a need for whiteness. After all, the disciples were his closest compatriots. What need would one have to “put on airs,” as is often said of those assuming a perceived identity of whiteness around others?

Still, the answer may be as simple as artistic preference. Some artists wish to paint him white, others Black, others a melange of colors. All the same, I find it rather peculiar to paint solely Jesus as white when all those around him are Black.  And yet… I would absolutely buy the painting, if not for the story alone.

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Restaurant Review – Presse Café (Crab Feast!)

This weekend has been about food for me. Friday night I went to the Gout et Saveurs Lakay and indulged in Haiti’s traditional food fares made elegant.  The night before found me at Presse Café’s twice-monthly Crab Feast. Say it with me now: Crab. Feast. Maybe you’d be more impressed if you lived in Haiti.

For starters, you don’t really see crab in the Haiti marketplace. You can go along just about any beach and find a Haitian fisherman selling fresh caught lobster, offering to grill up the still-alive catch for a minimum price if you’re a local and a moderate price if you’re a blan (kreyol word meaning “white” but used for any foreigner). You can also seek fresh lambi (conch or, um, sea snail… it’s truly delicious) or a variety of local fish. But crab, well, that’s just something you don’t see everyday, or anyday for that matter.

From what I’m told, crab is caught off the southern coast of Haiti, near Jacmel, and is then frozen and shipped elsewhere. I suppose Haitian’s don’t have much of a taste for crab. For starters, it’s not easy to eat. It’s the type of food that invites waste, given that the meat is in tiny threads clung together, rather than one large chunk that can be sucked from the shell. Can you tell I’m hungry?

It’s also a negative-energy, or zero-calorie food. This is not in the scientific sense, of course, but in the only sense that matters. How much energy am I putting into eating this thing versus how full I feel afterwards? The answer is really that you won’t get full off of eating just crab, not after having to go through hell and high water to get the meat from the claws and legs. Still, it’s a delicious treat every once and  a while. This is what I presume Presse Café has realized with its offering.

Twice a month, Press Café hosts a Crab Feast, which features an all you can eat buffet of crab, lobster tails, soup, stew, and shrimp au gratin. The restaurant makes a quiet spectacle of all this with its set up. When you walk in, the food is contained within several unassuming chaffing dishes, which you pass by as you’re whisked to your table in the back. It’s here that the showmanship begins. Newspaper is carefully laid out on the table, which is then covered by long layers of butcher paper. The hostess then makes sure you have the proper equipment. Claw cracker? check. Tiny mallet? check. Large hammer? check. Tiny fork-like contraption designed to tease the crab meat from the innermost sanctum of the legs? Check. And most importantly, where’s your lobster bib? You know, the one that they wear in the cartoons just before sitting down to an extravagantly animated feast, much like this one. Ah, there it is. Check. You are now free to feast.

Though I’ve spent most of my life in the southern United States, where shrimp, crawfish, and other shellacious creatures reign supreme in soups, gumbos, or atop a bed of rice, I’ve never mastered the art of eating crab. The claws I can do, especially if it’s a decent size crab. But then, I’ve gotta get the meat from inside the legs? Or should I just crack the legs open and hope for the best? Then, of course, is the question of the head. What’s inside? Do I eat it? What part do I eat? Clearly I’m an amateur. I can tell you though that the claw meat is succulent. Slightly sweet, ultimately savory, and melts in your mouth.

If you’re tired of the puzzle that is a crab, try the tomato soup. It’s savory, warm, and goes great in between tiny forkfuls of crab meat. Or you can shovel through the seafood stew, brimming with potatoes, carrots, and crab meat.  A Joe’s Crab Shack this is not. That’s your mother’s recipe on that plate and it’s delicious. The buffet also boasted two varieties of smaller crabs, one in a creamy white sauce the other in a savory brown sauce. If they had been large enough to crack open the claws and legs, I would have gone for them. As I said before, I don’t know how to eat the main part of a crab. Of all the options, the shrimp au gratin was perhaps everyone’s favorite. Maybe because we thought it’d just be potatoes. Who knows, but you couldn’t keep it away from our table.

And for dessert? a simple slice of pound cake topped with Grand Marinier. Divine.

Press Café also sets the entire experience to a soundtrack. The meal is accompanied by a live troubadour band playing wistfully on stage, yet pleasantly in the background, hidden behind mouthfuls of soup and tangled under discarded crab legs.

What really makes this experience, though, more than most restaurants, is the company you keep. Coming to Press Café’s Crab Feast with a group of your closest friends is tantamount to having a private party in Narnia. It’s there, it’s right there, but it feels like only you and the people you like know about it. And that’s what makes it all the more fun. Who wants to spend an hour or two in Narnia with people you barely tolerate? Or worse, who wants to go there alone? No, come to Crab Feast with your friends. Good friends. And enjoy the merriment.

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A Taste of Haiti

“Was that pig ear?” I exclaimed to my colleague. He nodded yes, and I reflected for a moment… “that was DELICIOUS.”  Last night we found ourselves at Gout et Saveurs Lakay (“Taste and Flavors of Home”) , an experimental expo created “to promote and bring value to Haitian culinary art.” As we strode from sampling table to sampling table, it was easy to forget you were in Port-au-Prince. That is, of course, until someone explains the delicacy they’ve just ladled onto your plate with such delicate precision  is a pig ear stew. I’m sure there was additional information that went along with that, perhaps an explanation of how the rosemary accentuates this and that. I kind of lost focus once I learned it was pig ear.

Gout et Saveurs Lakay is a deliciously (pun intended) simple concept. Take ordinary Haitian cuisine and make it fancy. Or, I’m sure there’s a better-suited term. Classy? Four-star-restaurantish? Delicassy-esque?  Hmm, perhaps fancy is the best word, which is apt because most cuisine by nature is not fancy. Most people don’t come home and throw together a serving of saffron rice topped with braised oxtail and drizzled with what-have-you (my own technical term for any sauce that’s not immediately identifiable). No, we make meals out of convenience and sometimes add a touch of oohs and ahs. That’s why we go to fancy restaurants; to get what we normally can’t get at home. And yet, do you ever imagine that you could sit down to one of these same fancy restaurants and be told they serve exclusively Haitian food? That’s the underlying notion behind Gout et Saveurs Lakay.

Haitian food has the same potential as any other food. Throughout the night we sampled pig ear stew, some sort of au gratin served with roast pork and topped with a spicy slaw, passion fruit parfait, and many other foods I honestly didn’t even bother to ask about. I simply piled them on my too-small serving plate and enjoyed the flavors. Oh, and there was alcohol.

Haiti is known for its Rhum Barbancourt, the 5-star version of which is internationally acclaimed as one of the world’s best aged rums. At the same time, not many people are aware that Haiti boasts several other rum masterpieces. We ordered a re-invented version of the rum sour, named anAmelie, from the Rhum Labbé table. While sipping on that we sampled some liquers from Ivresse des Tropique,which boasted flavors such as cherry and apricot, an amazing feat since I’ve yet to see one apricot in Haiti. The winner, of course, remained Rhum Barbancourt, which transformed into everything from a mango infused mai-tai inspired cocktail to a Haitian Cuba Libre to a cocktail adorned with chunks of fresh pineapples.

Haiti is versatile. This is what I took away from the evening, and the message Gout et Saveurs aimed to show the world. Notice of the event made the front page of the local newspaper, Le Nouvelliste. If only we can transfer that same local notoriety to the front pages of the New York Times.

Below are a few of the treats at Gout et Saveurs and contact information if interested in knowing/tasting more:

 

Folies Gourmandes Pâtisserie-Service Traiteur (Pastry Catering)

Peché MignonGâteaux faits sur mesure pour toutes les occasions (Tailor-made cakes for all occasions)

Sawa Restaurant – Tapas | Sushi | Kebab

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Haiti in Photos – “Paquita” Ballet

Saw this photo a few weeks ago and thought I would share. It’s an image of Haitian ballet dancers backstage preparing for a performance of the ballet Paquita. Given everything I’ve written about Haiti, particularly how the country will always challenge one’s preconceived notions, the photo shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Nonetheless, the sheer beauty of the photo captivated me.

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CDC Health Clinic at Rose Mina Orphanage

Often times, navigating the 1,500 or more NGOs and other organizations in Haiti is a bit of a labyrinth, to put it lightly. Maybe you start by calling one organization, and are directed to another, then find yourself emailing a third and tweeting a fourth, all to get answers about the first one. This is not intentional. It’s simply part and partial to the patchwork nature of NGOs within Haiti, where unless you know someone in that organization personally, it can be very difficult to figure out just who does what and where the resources lay. Still, sometimes you get lucky and find a group of friends and colleagues with resources who are eager to dive into a situation and help. Today, I just came back from an impromptu health clinic at the Rose Mina Orphanage, hosted by volunteers from the U.S. Embassy’s Center for Disease Control (CDC) office. As someone who can’t differentiate Advil from Tylenol, I spent my time handing out paper and crayons to children to keep them preoccupied until it was their time for a check-up, or, as I like to call it, I served as “Le Directeur de l’Art.”  In between admiring the children’s creative masterpieces, I wandered around to observe the CDC doctors and other volunteers.

This makeshift health clinic was, for many of the children, their first time receiving an actual check-up. Something as simple as checking heartbeats, blood pressure, and asking a few questions helped the doctors to identify cases of anemia, iron deficiency, and, in the case of one child, a hole in the heart. The doctors prescribed, and provided, medication for each child. They also  created files for each child, making it easier for the orphanage to know each child’s condition and what medication that child should be taking.

Although the clinic, by anyone’s standards, can be labeled a success, everyone there had the same question on their mind: what next? The volunteers agreed that once a month follow-up clinics would be possible, but what about children that needed more detailed medical assistance? For the boy with the heart condition, what would be his options? Is there a cardiologist in Haiti that can perform the needed procedure? If so, who would pay for it? If not, would he have to go to the United States? What about the Dominican Republic?

Or even on a more simple, day to day note, how does one ensure that the children are eating enough vegetables to prevent anemia and iron deficiency? Certainly the children are receiving enough calories on a day to day basis, but keeping them healthy was another issue entirely.

And so we return to the issue of navigating the ocean of NGOs within Haiti. The resources are out there to help the children at Rose Mina orphanage, and one does not need to look outside of Haiti for a sustainable solution. Yet, one has to be proficient in the art of communicating with multiple organizations at once for very specific requests. Getting vegetables from this one, baby clothes from that one, free surgery from another one.  It’s an exhausting discussion. Still, the success stories are there and they make the red tape worthwhile. After enough time and wading through the possibilities, I hope the entirety of the Rose Mina orphanage can be a success story.

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How to Make Soup Joumou (Haitian Pumpkin Soup)

There are two culinary masterpieces in Haiti that define this country for me. The first is side-street chicken, which I’ll describe in a future post. The second, is soup joumou, Haitian pumpkin soup. I’ve made this soup a few times, using a combination of ingredients grown in Haiti, as well as some that are imported and found in just about any supermarket on the island. It’s important to note, though, that the best soup joumou I’ve ever had can be and IS made solely with ingredients local to Haiti.

The dish deserves the qualifier as “Haitian,” to distinguish it from any other variety of pumpkin soup, for very specific reasons. On an aesthetic note, Haitian pumpkins are different from the ones we get in America. In the check-out line at the supermarket, a woman noticed two Haitian pumpkins in my shopping cart and my distinct inability to speak kreyol.

“Those aren’t American pumpkins,” she warned, with a distinctive American accent of her own.

“I know,” I replied with a smile, thinking well of course they’re not! I’m not planning on making jack-o-lanterns this week! Instead, I told her I planned to make pumpkin soup, Haitian style, which is the only style I know. She smiled and walked away.

But Haitian pumpkin soup is about more than just the type of pumpkin used. It carries with it a history and tradition that is uniquely Haitian and at the same time ties it to the larger history of the African diaspora.

Soup joumou for many years was illegal. That’s right; soup as contraband. During the time of French colonial rule, Haitians were permitted only a bland bread soup. It was not until independence that Haitians invented soup joumou as a symbolic meal to represent its freedom. Today, soup joumou is traditionally eaten in Haiti on New Year’s, which is also the anniversary of Haiti’s independence. It’s also a Sunday dish, served on special occasions and meant to be the highlight of such occasions.

Once more, I must qualify the recipe with the fact that it is my own take on soup joumou. It is not, by far, the best soup joumou there is to have in Haiti, it is simply my own experiment with a dish that I fell in love with. A more classic recipe can be found here.

Ingredients:

– 1/2 Haitian pumpkin 
– 5 cans chicken stock
– 1 whole white onion
– 1 whole garlic
– 2 peppers (scotchbonnet is preferred)
– 2 carrots
– 1 can coconut milk
– 2 tablespoons curry powder
–  1/2 pound of beef, chopped into cubes
– 1 lime
– salt/pepper to taste
– olive oil as needed

First, peel, de-seed, and chop the Haitian pumpkin into large sections, then boil on high heat in a large pot with 3 cans of chicken stock. While the pumpkin is boiling, drizzle some olive oil in a frying pan, and chop half the white onion, half the garlic, and one of the scotchbonnet peppers. Stir them into the frying pan on high heat until well-browned. Remove from heat.

Once the pumpkin is soft and can easily be pierced with a fork, remove from heat and let cool. Blend the pumpkin, chicken stock, and contents of frying pan until you have a smooth mixture. Add additional chicken stock as needed to ensure the entire mixture remains a good consistency (not too solid, yet not fully liquid).

Next, pour olive oil into a tall stock pot and chop the rest of the onion, garlic, and the second pepper (remove stem and seeds if needed to reduce the heat). Fry these in the pot on high heat, along with one table spoon of curry powder. Once well-browned, reduce heat to a simmer and add the contents of the blender.

Peel and chop both carrots, adding them to the soup.

Add one can of coconut milk, slowly stirring the contents into the soup.

Add salt and pepper as needed.

While the soup simmers, season the chopped and cubed beef with salt, pepper, and curry powder. Add to the soup and let the entire contents simmer on low heat for 20 minutes. Taste , and add salt/pepper as needed.

Squeeze one lime into soup.

Serve hot. Makes 8-10 servings.

This recipe differs from traditional Haitian pumpkin soup in several ways. Most noteably: there’s no cabbage. Soup joumou traditionally consists of both carrots and cabbage as ingredients. Quite frankly, I don’t care for cabbage, so I don’t include it in my recipe. But, if you want to be traditional, add the cabbage.

I also opt for a more simple soup, as that I fear my soup becoming too busy by my inability to distinguish proper ingredient proportions. Proper soup joumou also calls for cubed potatoes and spaghetti. Yup, spaghetti.

Also, I’ve added my own preference for curry powder and coconut milk. Again, soup joumou doesn’t call for these ingredients. This is me trying to paint my own rendition of an already fantastic soup.

If you want the real REAL soup joumou, then make this recipe WITHOUT the curry powder and coconut milk, and add cabbage, spaghetti, and potatoes. It will take some time to get the proportions right, but it’s worth it.

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So…. How’s, um, Haiti?

This is my first extended trip outside of Haiti since arriving eight months ago, so I’m getting a lot of questions on a regular basis that I’m not used to answering.  There are a few that always pop up.

So, how’s Haiti?
I don’t know if there’s a terse way to answer this that fits within the bounds of normal conversation.  Implicitly what people want is something the same length of “How are you? I’m fine.” A brief, one breath sentence that allows both parties to continue moving forward with their daily routine, satisfied that societal niceties have been adequately established. But asking “how are things in Haiti?” is akin to asking me to throw whole books of conversation at you.

What people really want to know is how are things after the earthquake.  I don’t travel much to New York, so I don’t know if New Yorkers often get asked “how are things after 9/11?” or if Virginia Tech alumni are asked “how are things after the incident?” What is an appropriate response to that? “Things are… good” said with an appropriate pause to demonstrate that I’ve allowed proper time for inner reflection and mourning of lives lost?

The fact is, everyday I talk to at least one Haitian who lost a family member or friend in the earthquake, and the statement is always made with a straight face; I can’t read the emotions.  The emotions are there, hidden behind the taut facial expressions,  sun-darkened skin, and eyes wearied, yet full of boundless energy.  Nonetheless, I can’t read the extent of the emotional trauma that exists behind such expressions.

In all practicality, it’s been almost 18 months since the earthquake. While for those of us looking from the outside the earthquake is the singular most recent and significant event we have to identify with Haiti and thus is the focus of our inquiry, for Haitians, it was a very very bad day 18 months ago. The effects were devastating and many are still affected today. At the same time, Haitians, for lack of a less didactic phrasing, have had to live in Haiti everyday since. We have not. For Haitians, the facial expressions worn on the day of that tragedy have been slowly caked into the past by the humdrum of day after day of life.

This fact doesn’t lend itself to an appropriately brief response. “How’s Haiti, you ask? Well…” I really don’t know where to begin. I suppose the most appropriate response given that the question is likely never meant to be answered in full to begin with, as is the case with our cultural niceties, is “it’s moving along.” And in the end, that’s what people want to hear. Too many details are confusing. How am I? I’m fine. How’s Haiti? It’s moving along. That’s all people want to know. And, well, yes, I assure you the country is moving along.

How’s the rebuilding going?
And then sometimes there’s a follow-up. How’s the rebuilding going? I never know how to respond to this.  My first reaction is to lob a joke into the conversation. Well, they’re working on building a second Pinkberry, so it’s sorta rough until that’s finished.  That one often gets blank stares that belie an inner monologue that I imagine consists of “really, there’s a Pinkberry in Haiti?”

Again, the reality is that what we see and hear of the reconstruction efforts in Haiti are not what Haitians see and hear.  We turn to C-Span and hear reports of slow progress, filth on the sides of the road, and only X percent of the rubble being removed. Haitians get up in the morning and go to work, stepping past filth (which was there long before the earthquake), side-step rubble where it exists, and continue their day to day existence. Most Haitians in Port-au-Prince (for it’s important to remember the earthquake affected mostly the capital) don’t quantify relief efforts by how much rubble has been removed from the side of the road.  Roadside rubble is aesthetic.  Do I have a job? Can I feed my family? Do I have somewhere to stay? These are checklist questions that determine one’s appreciation for any visible relief efforts.

Can you get things in Haiti?
When people ask this, I know what they mean, I really do, but I can’t help but smile when they ask.  Can I get things in Haiti??? Can I get things? I want to shout What CAN’T I get in Haiti??  Sometimes I wish I could stop getting things. It would boggle my mind to drive down Route Frere, one of the main roads, and not be bombarded with offers for fresh baked bread, car accessories, sunglasses, bootleg movies, household plants, cell phone minutes, and any and everything else I might need but really don’t need at that moment.

But what people are really asking is, can I get the same things in Haiti that I can get in the United States.  And the answer is yes.  My favorite example is that the main grocery store, Giant (not to be confused with the U.S. supermarket) sells approximately nine different types of Cheerios.  Nine. Extrapolate from that and you find that most things you purchase in the U.S. are in fact readily available in Haiti.

For my expatriate and/or Haitian-American friends, what other questions do you get when you tell people you live/work in Haiti?

 

 

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