Letter from Haiti: Gingerbread Houses and Soupe Joumou

The recently restored Maison Chenet (photo: Veerle Poupeye)

This post was originally published in the Jamaica Monitor of January 16, 2022. The original full version of the article is reproduced here.

As I write this column, I am nearly halfway through my five-week stay in the country, to work on a project for Le Centre d’Art. To visit Haiti at this time is interesting, to say the least, and many people in Jamaica anxiously advised me not to go, because of what has been a wave of kidnappings and other forms of gang-related violence, the breakdown of government, and poor Covid-control practices. The problems are very real and have, for instance, curtailed our ability to move around, as traveling outside of Port-au-Prince and to certain parts of the city is not recommended. There are however efforts to restore law and order, and on those few nights that we have been out, we saw more police patrols and checkpoints than I have ever seen on the roads in Jamaica.

Being here has also driven home that the reporting in the international media presents a one-sided and often-sensationalized picture, which is a long-standing problem with how external perceptions of Haiti are shaped. Not as commonly reported on, there are many things that are going well in Haiti, with the bustling Centre d’Art as one example, and many areas of life where a determined sense of normality prevails. And despite all the challenges and disruptions, Haiti continues to be a cultural powerhouse in the Caribbean and Haiti’s culture is one of the country’s main sources of resilience. “Art is the heart of Haiti” asserted Marie Gerald, a Haitian artist who makes drapos (Vodou flags) and other textile products and who is working with Jamaican artist Miriam Smith-Hinds during her residency at Le Centre d”Art.

Soupe Joumou (Photo credit: Aliceba – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66772482)

There is also a healthy and widely shared respect for, and pride in, the country’s history and cultural heritage, which is supported by well-informed action, such as the inscription of various aspects of Haitian culture on UNESCO’s and other world heritage lists – a strategy which has, among other things, helped Haitian cultural organizations to attract major international grants. The “Soupe Joumou,” a hearty pumpkin beef soup traditionally eaten on January 1, Haiti’s Independence Day and symbolically associated with Haiti’s revolutionary quest for liberty, was recently inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. We had the opportunity to taste it on our arrival in Haiti and it is a recognizably Caribbean meal soup with a unique Haitian flavour and history. Food can indeed be about far more than nutrition. Perhaps the relevant Jamaican authorities need to have a look at the cultural and historical significance of signature dishes such as ackee and saltfish.

The grand entrance of our temporary home, a gingerbread mansion in the district of Pacot (Photo: Veerle Poupeye)

Our hosts had the inspired idea of putting us up, with appropriate security of course, in a gingerbread mansion in the Pacot neighbourhood. The house is part of so-called Gingerbread District of Port-au-Prince, which stretches, roughly, across the communities of Bois Verna, Turgeau and Pacot. Haiti’s gingerbread houses, which can also be found in other Haitian towns and cities such as Jacmel and Cap Haitien, are well recognized as an important and defining part of the country’s architectural heritage. They are a source of national pride, a tribute to Haitian craftsmanship and creativity, and a reminder of a more affluent past that affirms that better futures are possible. The Port-au-Prince Gingerbread District was in 2010 added to the World Monuments Watch List, a process that had been initiated several months before the earthquake, and this turned out to be an inspired move as it set the stage to receive international assistance with the restoration of what was already before the earthquake threatened heritage (the district was again added to the World Monuments Watch List in 2020). Some gingerbread houses suffered serious damage, and had often been neglected over the years, but most performed much better than their concrete counterparts, which also illustrated that traditional, tried-and-proven technology is often more resilient in such circumstances as it is adapted to the demands of the environment.

While comparable in form and style to other gingerbread styles in the Caribbean, Jamaica included, the Haitian buildings stand out because of the hybrid, playful, at times gravity-defying designs that give some such buildings a surreal, fairy-tale like quality. The structures are timber-framed, typically with thick brick and stone walls on the ground floor and wood on the upper floors. Elaborate carved wood decorations, such as fret- and lattice-work and carved cornices, and elegant forged and cast metal work are also common, along with pressed metal ceilings. Despite the thick walls on the ground floor, the structures are very open and airy, with high ceilings, louvred doors and windows, multiple porches and terraces, and excellent cross ventilation, but they can also be closed securely with heavy wooden shutters.

The Oloffson Hotel (Photo credit: Ketounette, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most well-known, and one of the oldest such structures, is the storied Oloffson Hotel, with its ethereal, lace-like fretwork. Presently closed, the hotel has during its heyday accommodated many celebrity visitors, with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, and Mick and Bianca Jagger, and was once the site of lively entertainment, from the famous Vodou-inspired floor show to the Thursday-evening performances by the RAM band, which was led by the hotel proprietor and musician Richard Morse. The hotel had in the 1960s served as the inspiration for the Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene’s The Comedians (1966), an acerbic narrative about Haiti during the violent dictatorship of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The 1967 film version headlined Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Cicely Tyson, and James Earl Jones, but was filmed in Benin because the deteriorating political situation in Haiti, where the book was furthermore blacklisted by the Duvalier regime.

When the Soupe Joumou was declared by UNESCO, the Haitian novelist and poet Lyonel Trouillot wrote a scathing rebuttal for the Guardian in which he cautioned against romanticising Haiti’s history and culture at the expense of recognizing and substantively tackling its very real social and political problems. This word of caution also applies to the Gingerbread house heritage. Haiti’s Gingerbread houses are a rightful source of national pride, and several of the structures have been put to public use in ways that are beneficial to the broader community, such as the Maison Dufort, which serves as a facility for art events and exhibitions, and the Maison Chenet, which will become a library. Both were restored by FOKAL, an influential Haitian civil society organization which is deeply involved in social and cultural development projects.

We should however not gloss over the gingerbread mansions’ association with wealth and privilege, as such houses were built for and owned by wealthy merchants, agricultural entrepreneurs, politicians and professionals, and also embody the postcolonial class structures and deep social divisions that have plagued Haiti since the Revolution and continue to trouble its social and political life deeply. The houses are often named after the prominent families that owned them and several of those names, such as Oloffson and Larsen, are notably un-Haitian. This reflects the inflow of European migrants who were in search of business opportunities in Haiti in the 19th century and early 20th century. And this, in turn, connects Haiti to Jamaica in sometimes unexpected ways: Jamaica’s first photographer, the engraver, lithographer and printer Adolphe Duperly, was a Frenchman who had come to Jamaica via Haiti, where he had moved in 1823, to teach at the Lycée National.

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