The Salt
5:39 am
Sun January 1, 2012

Haitians Mark The New Year With A Belly Full Of Soup

Originally published on Mon March 31, 2014 5:36 pm

Nine years ago, on New Year's Day, David Gunther faced a mini-epidemic. He's a family doctor, and at his old job in Somerville, Mass., just north of Boston, many of his patients were from Haiti.

"Ten or 12 patients all complained of pretty similar symptoms – belly pains, including some diarrhea," he says. "They weren't terribly ill, but it was clear that there was some kind of a pattern."

Gunther almost alerted the Department of Public Health to this mild gastrointestinal outbreak. But then, one of those patients with the stomach trouble figured out what was going on.

She explained that most likely they were all suffering from the same problem: upset stomachs related to eating too much of a holiday soup. Nothing infectious — just a squash soup overdose.

"We eat a lot of it," Marie Romelus, a Haitian who lives in Somerville, says. "In Creole, they call it soup joumou."

During France's rule of Haiti, this soup was off limits to the slaves, Romelus says. "The soup was considered superior," she says. "The slave – they were considered as lower class. So when we get our independence, we were free to have a soup."

Haiti gained its independence on Jan. 1, 1804, and so Haitians now eat soup joumou every New Year's Day. It's a mix of squash, potatoes and meat. Romelus likes to add some spaghetti to hers. "It's really energetic — like, it's a combination of everything," she says.

She eats the soup four times on New Year's Day, but that's not as often as some. She thinks that overeating may have caused the GI outbreak at the clinic nine years ago. "You have to space yourself, not to eat everything at once, you know?" she says.

"Whenever I eat it, I always think about my great-grandfather," she says. "They used to be in slavery. So I feel like I am free. And when you have the soup, you really feel full."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The meaning of all kinds of cultural traditions can get lost in translation. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro unearthed the story behind one in this report on holiday foods in the Haitian community.

ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Nine years ago on New Year's Day, David Gunther faced a mini-epidemic. He's a family doctor, and at his old job in Somerville, just north of Boston, many of his patients were from Haiti.

DR. DAVID GUNTHER: Ten or 12 patients all complained of pretty similar symptoms - belly pains. They weren't terribly ill, but it was clear that there was some kind of a pattern.

SHAPIRO: Gunther almost alerted the Department of Public Health to this mild GI outbreak. But then, one of those patients with the stomach trouble figured out what was going on.

GUNTHER: And she explained that most likely they were all suffering from the same problem: stomach upset related to eating too much of a holiday soup.

SHAPIRO: So, nothing infectious - just a squash soup overdose.

MARIE ROMELUS: Yeah, we eat a lot of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That's Marie Romelus.

ROMELUS: I'm from Haiti.

SHAPIRO: In her cozy kitchen in Somerville, she pulls out a hefty stainless steel pot. In two days, it'll be brimming with her squash soup.

ROMELUS: In Creole, they call it soup joumou.

SHAPIRO: During France's rule of Haiti, this soup was off limits to the slaves.

ROMELUS: Because we were in slavery, so the commander never let the slave have the soup. The soup was considered superior. The slave were considered as a little lower class. So, when we get our independence, we were free to have soup.

SHAPIRO: Haiti gained its independence on January 1, 1804, and so Haitians now eat soup joumou every New Year's Day. It's orange and it's a mix of squash, potatoes and meat. Romelus likes to add some spaghetti to hers.

ROMELUS: It's really energetic. Like, it's a combination of everything. If you taste it, you will like it also.

SHAPIRO: Romelus eats the soup four times on New Year's Day, and that's not as often as some. She thinks that overeating may have caused the GI outbreak at the clinic nine years ago.

ROMELUS: You have to space yourself, not to eat everything at once, you know?

SHAPIRO: So, when you eat it, what does it make you think about?

ROMELUS: Whenever I eat it, I always think about my great-grandfather. They used to be in slavery. So, I feel like I am free. And when you have the soup, you really feel full.

SHAPIRO: Full of freedom. For NPR News, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.