In Haiti, the earthquake of January 12, 2010 destroyed numerous lives and many structures, including Petionville’s cathedral and central plaza. Sadly, the people of Haiti still are suffering, from the effects of the earthquake and from a long tortured history. Like so many former French possessions, Haiti—once called France’s “Pearl of the Antilles”—still looks to France for many things, including food. The following story recalls other difficult days in Haiti, the tumultuous months and years after Baby Doc’s flight into exile to France. And how food and hospitality made a hard life more tolerable.
Mezze. Strictly translated, the word means “hors d’oeuvre”, bringing to mind boring little bits and pieces, drooping and dripping, reclining on stale crackers, tasting distinctly of chemical preservatives. For once, let’s ignore the literal translation and immerse ourselves in the words of Claudia Roden:
Mezze are one of the most delightful features of Middle Eastern food – not least because they are meant to be enjoyed in an unhurried way – indeed they are almost a way of life. From the cafés by the Nile to mountain resorts in the Lebanon palatial villas in Morocco and Persia, savouring mezze with an ouzo, a beer, a syrup or a coffee can be a delight approaching ecstasy, part sensual, part mystical. The pleasure of savouring the little pieces of food is accompanied by feelings of peace and serenity, and sometimes by deep meditation. (A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, p. 67-68)
At first, finding mezze in Haiti seemed like an impossible task, even though Lebanese immigrants began settling in Haiti as early as the middle of the nineteenth century. One day, soon after we arrived for a three-year stint, a friend of mine called and relayed some interesting information: did we know that we could find Lebanese food in Petionville, too, along with excellent French cuisine, of course?
Several weeks later, we walked into La Phoenicia. By the time we walked out again, both the food and the owners charmed us and we spread the word about that delightful, dreamy place.
La Phoenicia unfortunately no longer adjoins the plaza in Petionville, Haiti, no longer rests in the shadows of the cathedral where Baby Doc and Michelle Bennett married each other on a carpet of gardenias. The restaurant served excellent mezze in the traditional Lebanese manner. Popular with foreigners and Haitians of a certain class, that is, those with money, La Phoenicia represented the fusion that occurs whenever and wherever French colonialism left tracks, be it Lebanon or the French Caribbean.
Unlike some mezze in Lebanon, where a hundred different dishes with a hundred different tastes spread across the table, the simple mezze at La Phoenicia arrived on a simple-but-large platter. Tabbouleh (bulghur wheat salad with mint and parsley), hummus (puréed chickpeas with tahini/sesame paste and lemon juice), and baba ghanouj (puréed roasted eggplant with tahini/sesame paste), just the basics, with many loaves of soft pita bread. And of course there were sambouseks, or phyllo pastry filled with meat; these I loved when we lived in Honduras, where a large Christian Lebanese population livened up the basic local cuisine of red beans and rice. Kibbeh (ground lamb), too, cooked in a dozen different ways, fried, grilled, stuffed, served with yoghurt and mint sauce.
Five months after Jean-Claude Duvalier stepped on a jet and absconded into exile in France, we found ourselves indulging in Lebanese mezze, along with two of the many USDA or USAID consultants who often flew into Haiti to assist with the farming-systems development project we worked on. It was one of those balmy summer Haitian nights, now filled with widespread civil unrest plaguing Port-au-Prince and Petionville.
Sitting at a large table in the interior patio of La Phoenicia, drinking local beer, dipping freshly made pita bread into the baba ghanouj and the hummus, talking and laughing together, we shared the pleasure that only good food and good company can generate. Hidden away in that oasis – far from the beggars, the lame, the tormented, and the infirm of the Haitian streets – behind those high walls, we forgot for a brief moment the turmoil and suffering going on outside the lacy wrought-iron gates of the restaurant, the trauma we saw every day as we struggled to help the people marginalized by Haiti’s rigid social system, a system that keeps 90% of the population illiterate and destitute: The revolution that never seemed to end, the political unrest that daily felt like an enormous unmoving stone in our guts. In that moment all seemed like a horrible nightmare forgotten gratefully upon an early morning awakening.
Only now do I realize just how happy the owner of La Phoenicia was to see us sitting at his table, the snowy white cloth covering it catching our bread crumbs and dribbles from the greasy kibbeh. No doubt we resembled strangers happening upon an isolated Bedouin tent in a Middle Eastern desert.
When we arrived, he did run to greet us, his actions recalling those ancient words hospitality found in Genesis 18:1-5:
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mare; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing down to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves. …
That night no other guests appeared. Only us. In the cool patio of the restaurant, with its pale and irregularly shaped stone floor and colonnaded archways, shaded by giant flame trees bursting with red blossoms, we felt as if we were dining in a palatial villa, straight out of a dreamy Walt Disney world filled with trickling fountains and sweet-smelling breezes.
And as for the grease spots we left on the white tablecloth, those could be considered our signatures in the owner’s guest book. According to Daniel S. Wolk (“And He Ran to Greet Them”, Hospitality issue of Parabola, p. 80),
Among certain Bedouin tribes it is customary, after dinner, for guests to wipe their hands on the sides of the tent. The hand marks of grease are not cleaned, and as the number of fingerprints accrue the host points with pride at the canvas guest book surrounding him on every side.
Just as we finished dragging the final fragrant kibbeh through the last smears of yoghurt sauce, the owner once more came running to meet us. Only this time, his red face and flustered hand movements warned us that his words would not be ones of calm, peace, and welcome.
Jabbing the index finger of his right hand at his watch repeatedly, he gasped out the words, “You must leave, you must leave. Now! Now! Curfew in 5 minutes!”
Curfew. Violators shot on sight. No questions asked. No one immune from the sudden violence, no one free from on-again, off-again martial law or the whims of angry mobs.
Not needing more prompting, we jumped up in unison, throwing handfuls of brightly colored Haitian money, gourdes, on the table as we ran out of the restaurant. Faces blanching, the USDA consultants frantically fumbled in their pockets for the keys to the project jeep. They faced the furthest, and the most dangerous, route to safe haven. Four minutes remained until 8 p.m. Would we all make it unscathed?
We fled, blood vessels pulsating in our throats, eyes bobbing right and left checking for armed soldiers, looking constantly at our watches, willing time to slow down, hoping we would make it to the sanctuary of our house, our own equivalent of a desert tent. Up and up the narrow, winding rocky mountain road we drove, the wheels of the Isuzu Trooper smoking and spinning as they flew over the gravel and potholes. At our house, we roared through the open gate, and the Wackenhut night guard quickly slammed it shut behind us. For the moment, hyperventilating, trembling all over, we just sat there, unable to move, speechless.
That night, that time, everyone made it safely.
Yes, many things comprise mezze. But in our minds, mezze will forever be associated with that impromptu curfew.
Whether it comes from words or guns, violence always demonstrates its incompatibility with hospitality.
Baba Ghanouj (Eggplant and Sesame Paste Dip)
A delicious dish, very appropriate for Ramadan with this year’s terrible, challenging heat.
1 eggplant, slender (fewer seeds), ideally grilled over a barbecue until charred and tender*
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup sesame paste (tahini)
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and minced finely
½ t. ground cumin
½ t. salt or to taste
Paprika and cayenne, for garnish
Flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped, for garnish
1 T. extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish
Peel the charred eggplant, removing any tough parts, and remove seeds. Squeeze gently over a strainer to remove as much of the bitter liquid as possible. Chop roughly and put eggplant in a blender. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the oil, paprika, cayenne, and parsley leaves. Purée. Place purée in a flat shallow dish and garnish with remaining ingredients. Sprinkle with the paprika, cayenne, and parsley, and dribble the oil over the top. Serve with warm pita bread.
(If you cannot grill the eggplant, you may broil it.)
For more about the Lebanese diaspora, including emigration to France, see:
The Lebanese Diaspora: The Arab Immigrant Experience in Montreal, New York, and Paris by Dalia Abdelhady (2011)
The Lebanese and the World: A Century of Emigration, by Albert H. Hourani and Nadim Shehadi (1993)
Arak and Mezze: The Taste of Lebanon, by Michael Karam and Norbert Schiller (Oct 1, 2008)
Hybridity: The Cultural Logic Of Globalization, by Marwan Kraidy (2005)
© 2011 C. Bertelsen