Monthly Archives: October 2011

Joumou Conquers Detroit!

Le premiere joumou de Detroit

Fittingly perhaps, on a day set aside to commemmorate (if not exactly celebrate) the first landing of Cristobal Colon and his three-ships-full of conquistadores, somewhere in the Bahamas, Chef Geraud has harvested his first Detroit-adapted Haitian joumou squash. And a fine, hale and hefty squash it is, me hearties!

We watched & worried over the joumou all summer, as the running tips reached a few extra feet each day (it seemed), and the sun-bright female blossoms slowly birthed dark green belly-bubbles, and the little dark green bubbles blew up into pale, striped, heavily pregnant orbs.

So today Chef Geraud, midwife to our food, delivered the first of the crop. I wonder about its ancestral migrations, its origins and wanderings. But, as Duryodhana says of Karna in the ancient Indian epic story of India’s birth, the Mahabharata, “Birth is obscure, and men are like rivers, whose origins are often unknown.” And so it is for squashes, as for men.

Varieties of squashes (genus Cucurbita)  originated, botanists say, in Mesoamerica, where they were first cultivated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, where they wound their  tendrils greedily up corn stalks and into the hearts and bellies of the first American people, who honor them as one of the Three Sisters of cuisine: maize, beans, and squash.

I imagine these hardy edible seeds, prized also as medicine, tossed out everywhere the squashes were cut open to be cooked fresh or dried, or carried as a snack, like we do now, trail food for long hikes and water voyages, wending their adaptable way throughout Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, then north into North America, to the Odawa and Potawatomi and Ojibwe people of Michigan, borne by people, or birds, or like Karna, borne by the waters to their new home.

Karna, the generous warrior

And so the Chef and I are re-telling an old story, as old as Karna, the warrior abandoned as a baby in a basket among the reeds, as old as the Mahabharata story of the battle for the Ganges River valley. As old as the chinampas of Mexico, and older. We are handmaidens to the Squash Story, wet-nurses to the Second Sister, helping her spread her restless tendrils into our Zone 6 front yard in Detroit. No matter our status is lowly; we are well rewarded. Bring on the Soup Joumou!


Joumou! Joumou!

It’s always time to think about cooking up a big pot of Soup Joumou for the New Year–or whenever the sky is grey and cold breezes blow, and we have a couple of hours to devote to soup-making! Thanks to two friends, Jacques and Kate, who brought back genuine joumou seeds from Haiti, these squash vines have commandeered our front and side yards this summer. Now, Chef Geraud is gently tucking the fruits under boxes on cold nights, and anticipating the day he can use real Haitian joumou squash in his soup joumou.

Squash joumou

Haitian joumou is a Haiti-adapted Cucurbita (C. maxima or C. moschata) that is named for and possibly adapted from the French giraumon squash, looks like a small striped green watermelon on the outside, and inside looks and tastes like a pumpkin squash or butternut squash, to which it is closely related. Normally, Haitians in the U.S. or Canada use pumpkin squash  or butternut squash for soup joumou. Here in Detroit, we can sporadically find a dried-out hunk of joumou for sale in one of the local Mexican markets, but both availability and quality are erratic. And, as they say, there’s nothing like the real thing!

And what’s so special about authentic Haitian joumou?

As the story goes, enslaved Haitians were not allowed to eat soup joumou under French colonial rule. Evidently the squash was too rich and aromatic, or too scarce, or simply too, well, French, to be considered appropriate food for enslaved African Haitians.  Ironically, of course, squashes are native to the Americas, perhaps as old as 12,000 years, and were taken to France by early returning invaders of the Americas, then returned back to St. Domingue with the French invaders of that island. During slavery, the French told the enslaved Africans that joumou was not meant for Black people—that God had given it to the French, so God would punish the enslaved Blacks if they ate it. But the slaves knew that God did not want them to be slaves, so they mounted a rebellion in 1791 that became their 13-year-long war of independence–after which Haiti became the second independent nation in the Americas (after the United States), and the world’s first Black republic.

Jean Jacques Dessalines

According to Chef Geraud, In 1804, the first year of independence, Haitian leader General Jean Jacques Dessalines said that what the French had told the Haitians was a lie—“Eat all the joumou you want,” he said (in Kreyol, of course), “Take a shower in it!” Haitians say when Dessalines read out the Haitian Declaration of Independence on January 1 in Gonaives, that everyone shared soup joumou from public kettles, as cannon boomed and bells pealed.  So, now, Haitians thank God every Independence Day, January 1, by cooking, eating, and sharing soup joumou.

In Haiti, joumou can grow in warmth until a December harvest; here, we are hoping it can conquer our cool days and cold nights through all of October. We are crossing our fingers for an edible crop. But, in any case, our Detroit-hardened plants should yield plenty of naturally selected seeds for next year’s crop.

runner tips

The thick vines and large, white-mottled leaves have long ago conquered our front and side yards, climbing hungrily up and around the lilac and spruce trees, rewarding us as well as curious, smiling neighbors and passers-by with intense yellow blossoms every sunny day. Were we living in Oak Park, surely we would have aroused the wrath of the City Officials with our vegetable-covered lawn! Chef Geraud dismisses the idea of using the blossoms as food–clearly a Mexican and European concept not a part of his family’s Haitian heritage. But, both he and our Cameroonian friend agree that the fresh runner tips make a delicious green vegetable.

Soup Joumou

  • 1 lb beef stew meat with bones, cleaned well in limes and hot water*, and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • water and 2 cubes chicken bouillon (Maggi cubes)**
  • 1 and 1/2 lbs pumpkin squash or butternut, peeled & diced
  • 2 small turnip, 2 small white potatoes, 1 malanga, and 3-4 carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 small cabbage or ½ large, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 sprig parsley, 3-4 scallions, & 2 sprigs thyme
  •  4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • ¼ to one habanero pepper, without seeds, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3/4 cup vermicelli, snapped into 2”-3” pieces (or other pasta if preferred)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp butter

 In large pot, cover beef generously with water and bouillon, bring to a boil  and  simmer about an hour, until tender. Bring 3-4 cups of the water to a boil;  add squash, roots, cabbage, onions, parsley, thyme, scallions, and garlic.  Simmer  until squash is tender (15-20 minutes). Roughly mash squash. Add  milk, cloves, butter, and pasta. Cook until pasta is al dente. Season with salt  and pepper to taste. Serve hot with rice or bread and fresh fruit.

* Probably because of the tropical heat spoilage risk, Haitians clean all meat thoroughly before cooking, using limes and hot water. When Chef Geraud and his friends came to the USA from Haiti, they were appalled that we often cook meats without washing them thoroughly first, or drop meat directly into a fryer, then eat it still red at the bone.

** Maggi cubes, thyme, clove, and garlic constitute the “holy quartet” of Haitian seasonings. Many recipes also include tomato paste, habanero peppers, and onions.