Growing up as a child of Haitians living in the States can sometimes feel a little strange. Like any first generation American, you have one foot in the country you and your family moved to and the other back home. And sometimes it feels like you’re not enough of either. But even as we struggle with what it means to navigate these two worlds, our parents and other family members still share a bit of their culture with us. And what I quickly learned was that there are three Haitian essentials: coffee, peanut butter, and tea.
One of my favorite memories as a child is going to my aunt and uncle’s house in Little Haiti and being greeted by a nice, hot cup of coffee. I was literally 4 or 5 years old, drinking a full on cup of joe. I preferred mine black with lots of sugar and no cream. My great-aunt would specifically make coffee using Café Bustelo. A coffee known by Cubans but originating from Colombia, enjoyed by a Haitian family. Talk about global?
And yes, I acknowledge that it might not be the best thing for a small child to drink, but it was very much a part of my childhood. And I remember going to Haiti when I was just a year older and being served the very same thing without any hesitation. It’s a part of the culture. Besides, I came out all right! *twitch twitch*
Haitian Peanut Butter
And the one thing that I almost always ate while sipping on a hot cup of coffee? A peanut butter sandwich. One thing that made this simple meal so special was when it was made with Haitian peanut butter. Slightly spicy and more liquid-y in consistency than American peanut butter, peanut butter from Haiti is sooo good. I remember always getting excited when my mom or gramma would return from a trip back home with a suitcase full of goodies: cassava bread, tablet (or peanut brittle), and liquid-gold also known as Haitian peanut butter.
Peanuts are a staple in the diets of Haitian people and we talk all about it in our book Dear Haiti, Love Alaine. There’s a very interesting history between the US and Haiti regarding peanuts and it’s definitely not pretty. The short of it: the selling of peanuts are a major source of revenue for many people on the island and in an attempt to feed children in need, the USDA worked to send very large shipments of the legume to the island. Some people argued that this would disrupt the market and cause many people to lose their livelihoods.
I didn’t know the history of this until Maritza and I started researching for our book. And while it’s not the happiest story, I’m grateful that I learned this. My sisters and I have been enjoying this yummy treat from the motherland for as long as I can remember and yet we never knew the impact that it had on the island.
The final Haitian essential is definitely tea. As a child, my gramma would have some tea ready at a moment’s notice to help cure every possible ailment. And of course she still makes it ‘til this day. If you have a headache, you could bouyi kèk fèy zoranj (boil some orange leaves) to help. Or maybe it’s that time of the month and your cramps are keeping you down? Try some citronelle or lemongrass (hot or cold, hot is better). Ginger tea is also great for cramps and if you’re feeling any pain in general. To make it, get some ginger root, wash it, and remove the peel. Chop it up as finely as you can or even blend it. Then, boil it very thoroughly and once the tea is a slight brown color, drink up.
There’s a tea for everything and some are definitely tastier than others. And there are even some that you must take with extreme care or it could make you very sick or even worse. Yes, that sounds a bit dire, but when you think about how most people in Haiti don’t have access to great healthcare, then it makes sense. Lack of resources requires people to be more ingenuous with their remedies. Tea is very much a Haitian essential and ingrained in the culture. Check out Nadege Greene’s story for NPR where she talks in depth about asosi. A bitter tasting tea that is great for basically everything.
And there you have it! Three Haitian essentials: coffee, peanut butter, and tea. What’s another staple that you think is synonymous with Haitian culture? And if you’re not Haitian, what are some of the go-to items from where your family is from? Share them in the comments!