Even with all of the disruption of this past year, I plan to spend January 1 the same way I spend every New Year’s Day: eating three, four, or possibly five bowls of soup joumou, all filled to the brim, carefully passed so as not to waste a single drop. It will be savory, and a little sweet, with just a bit of spice. It will also be what it always is: a symbol of liberation, community, bravery, and retribution. Soup joumou is a soup, but it is also the most badass historical culinary metaphor in existence.
Broken down to its component parts, the recipe for soup joumou is a seemingly straightforward combination of beef; root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, or yucca; broth; aromatics; and pumpkin. But despite its incredibly simple ingredients, soup joumou is not a humble dish. Some call it revolution soup and others call it freedom soup, but regardless of what you call it, soup joumou is a symbol of strength for Haitians all over the world. In fact, this very hearty soup pumped through the bodies of my liberated ancestors right after they defeated the French and declared independence on January 1, 1804. Since then, we’ve had it every year, as a reminder of everything we won.
Each ingredient in soup joumou was methodically chosen by Empress Marie-Claire Heureuse Félicité, the first and only empress of what was then called Hayiti, Empire of Freedom. This is a dish that gives strength to the body and the mind. Everything in the dish serves a culinary purpose, as well as a symbolic one. Prior to the revolution, colonizers forbade slaves, my ancestors, from any food that might be considered “good,” and instead fed them leftover scraps. The slaves learned how to coax maximum flavor from discarded beef skulls and shanks. They farmed the vegetables and developed a connection with the land. And they grew the most important ingredient: the joumou itself. The French forbade the very slaves who grew the squash from consuming it, and it took on the allure of a forbidden fruit. In her soup, Empress Félicité deliberately included joumou as a symbol of our victory, and revenge against our oppressors.
What most people don’t know about the soup joumou tradition is that it’s not only about consuming an unimaginable amount of habanero-perfumed magic; it is really about the custom of sharing with the community. We send our soup to neighbors, friends, and family with positive energy and well wishes. Soup joumou is about coming together as one, as our foremothers imagined. Empress Félicité cemented the tradition of having soup on New Year’s Day, as she personally served it every year from January 1 to 7, throughout the nation, until she died. Sharing soup was a symbol of solidarity: When one person eats, we all eat. It’s no mistake that our flag reads, “L’union Fait La Force”: Unity makes strength. (Today, Haitian historian Bayyinah Bello follows Empress Félicité’s legacy with the Fondasyon Félicitée, which raises money to distribute soup to over 9,000 people all over Haiti each year. Through sharing, our history is preserved.)
As an angsty teen who had just moved to America from Haiti, I admittedly once took this soup for granted, not knowing the depths of meaning behind the tradition. But now, on New Year’s Day, I look forward to the thunderous laughter, quick slurping sounds, and blasting konpa music, as my family share their hopes for the future over soup. We speak positive affirmations into existence, and, from generation to generation, the message of resilience proliferates.
January 1 was a fresh start for the liberated slaves, and now it is a chance for us to recalibrate so we, too, can fight through another year. And this year, it feels like I need this soup more than ever. When my mom joked that we’d drink it to fight COVID-19, I took it seriously. This is the enrichment I crave after a year of plague and disaster. We can’t gather as a family, but we’ll drop off soup on cousins’ stoops, tagged with notes saying, “You got this!” For one day, anyway, we can push down our worries and remember that our strength comes from unity.