Haiti, it is said, is the place to discover how much can be done with little.
~ Wade Davis
Like Julia Child with her sole meunière at La Coronne in Rouen, I remember the first meal I ate in Haiti.
Flickering lights in the darkness below outlined the curves of Port-au-Prince, a backward-facing crescent. Sounds of clapping and the singing of Haitians, happy to be coming home, drowned out the drone of the plane as it circled over the sparkling blue water of the Bay of Gonâve.
After a short flight from Miami’s chaotic international airport, I walked down the stairs of the airplane at the François Duvalier Airport on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, stunned by both the humidity and the heat and the darkness. And the quiet crowds milling outside the chainlink fence, who caught my attention, too. Men wearing blue denim shirts and red neck kerchiefs ambled close to the fence, rifles held close to their sturdy bodies, the glare of the security lights glinting off their aviator glasses, mirroring the faces of the people behind the fence.
I knew who those men were, thanks to Graham Greene’s The Comedians, a satiric rendition of Haitian life under the brutal dictator François Duvalier. As I stared into the face of one man, his eyes hidden by the signature mirror-lens aviator sunglasses even at night, I remembered reading of Tonton Macoutes in Greene’s brutal, seductive novel. About Haiti under the dictatorship of Papa Doc Duvalier, it chilled me to the bone as I read it again and again over the years. Banned by a furious Papa Doc, the book nonetheless nestled among my pots and pans in my air freight shipment, hidden among my many cookbooks, its cover ripped off, replaced with that of a book I don’t recall the title of.
Inside the deserted François Duvalier Airport, another half dozen armed men in blue-denim uniforms milled about aimlessly, dark aviator sunglasses covering their eyes despite the late hour.
Nothing good would come of it if I looked suspicious or said something wrong. I edged away from the men as I grabbed my suitcases from the dilapidated baggage cart and shepherded my seven-year-old son to the passport control desk. An old gentleman manned the desk, his sparse white hair jutting out from the top of his head, a smoldering cigarette hanging from his lower lip.
“Bonsoir,” he mumbled, as he thumbed through our passports. “Bienvenue à Haiti!” With those words of welcome and the stamp of approval, we followed the rope line to the exit.
The night was humid, bats flying under the dim lights of the streetlamps, the air misty. A driver sent by the project waited for us, holding a crudely worded sign etched with our last name as he flicked his cigarette to the ground, smoke from the acrid tobacco hanging in the air like a tiny ghost.
“Oú voulez-vous aller?” he asked. “Where to?”
“Turgeau,” I said and handed him a piece of paper with the address.
“OK.” He gunned the gas pedal, the motor screaming like a beaten dog as we dodged people, donkeys, and more blue-denim-clad men with guns.
“Where will we be staying?” I’d asked Mike. He and the Chief-of-Party went house-hunting and signed an agreement for a house I’d never seen. But that was the way it always was with these projects in all these places: someone else told us where we would live, like it or not.
“Not to the house, to the project apartment in Turgeau, at first,” Mike told me, reading off the address of the project apartment over a very expensive international phone call from the project office in Port-au-Prince.
Winding up the mountain road, we passed through several dilapidated-looking neighborhoods bursting with pastel-hued houses, pink, blue, green, yellow, purple, looking for all the world like eggs in an Easter basket. Once we passed that section of Haiti’s capital city, the streets led into a very different world.
A world where denuded mountaintops melted into cloudless blue skies most days, where the air cleared as if a giant fan suddenly burst into life and the humidity dropped to that of a spring afternoon in Wisconsin.
Turgeau. Petionville. Laboule. Kenscoff.
An island wholly apart from the chaos below.
Peeling my nose away from the taxi’s window, I noticed all the greenery, tamed in its wildness by teams of gardeners.
“We’re here, ” the driver said, as he swung his legs out of the door of the taxi, popping open the door for me, then running to get our luggage.
We walked through the lush vegetation, large elephant-ear-sized leaves swaying above, the sound of chattering parrots streaming from the shaded darkness. The project’s apartment in Turgeau, a spacious, three-bedroom place with a wide balcony, overlooked leafy flame trees studded with red flowers, the azure deeps of the Bay of Gonâve framing them from behind.
The very first night, Celeste the cook enchanted us with a typical Haitian dish―red beans in their own sauce―along with spicy fried chicken and fragrant white rice. Comfort food for many Haitians.
It soon became one of mine.
Especially when doused with a hefty spoonful of epis, similar in concept to Italian soffrito, Spanish sofrito, Cuban recaito, and New Orleans’s Holy Trinity.
Sos Pwa Rouj (Red Beans in Their Own Sauce)
2 cups small red beans, soaked and parboiled in 6 cups of water for 2 minutes, left to sit 1 hour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced
½ cup flat-leaf parsley, minced
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Epis, on the side, for flavoring
Cook parboiled beans in the water until tender, about 2 hours. Drain beans into a large bowl, reserving 3 cups of the cooking water. Take 1½ cups of beans and blend in a blender with some of the 3 cups of reserved bean water. Add puréed beans to remaining beans. Heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and parsley―cook slowly until the garlic loses its harsh odor. Be careful not to let it brown or burn. Stir in beans and heat through, adding more bean liquid to make a creamy mixture if necessary. Season to taste with fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve over rice or cornmeal mush.
Epis (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)
Makes about 2 cups
1 cup chopped parsley
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 cups chopped cilantro
2 green bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1 Scotch bonnet pepper, seeded and finely chopped
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 teaspoons chicken bouillon extract (or 2 Maggi cubes)
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, stemmed
15 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white vinegar
Sea salt to taste
Mix everything together. Can be refrigerated for up to a month. Or freeze in batches. And of course, you can use a blender, too. Serve with meats and poultry, dollop into soups, drizzle over fried cassava. Use like any other salsa.
Marché de Fer, Jacmel, Haiti