Norwich — Soup joumou has survived as a holiday tradition for more than 200 years in the Haitian culture.
During French control of the island nation, enslaved African Haitians were ordered to make soup joumou, a favorite delicacy, for the masters. It’s a pumpkin/squash soup, with beef, chicken or other meat, beef broth, vegetables and spices. The enslaved workers were not allowed to eat — or even taste — the soup.
Black Haitians launched a successful revolution in November 1803, and when independence was secured on Jan. 1, 1804 — still celebrated as Haitian Independence Day — “The first thing they did was say, ‘Now we can eat the soup!’” said Stephanie Simplice of Norwich. Simplice was born in Port au Prince, Haiti, and moved to Florida as a teenager with her mother.
Haitians did more than eat soup joumou. They claimed it as their own, adding African spices, vegetables and varieties of foods and spices they prefer, said Fabienne Brutus-Chiocchio of Norwich.
Brutus-Chiocchio, too, was born in Haiti and moved to Florida after graduating from high school. She graduated from the culinary school at Kaiser University in Tallahassee, Fla., and has created her own secret spice blend, called epice, for her soup.
Soup joumou symbolizes independence, strength and unity for Haitians everywhere. It is an essential dish for New Year’s Day and Independence Day celebrations, and a staple at other holiday, church and family gatherings.
It’s also a very practical, hearty dish for Haitian Independence Day, a culmination of weeks of holiday party tradition for Haitian families, Brutus-Chiocchio said.
“People have been partying all December, so they need that soup to recover from all the parties,” she said. “You need something to pick you up.”
The big party, Reveyon, starts Christmas Eve with food, American and Haitian Christmas music, dancing, games and, of course, drink, until dawn. The kids are awakened at 5 or 6 a.m. to open presents. In Haiti, Simplice said, families don’t put gifts under a tree, but children wake up and find gifts beside them or in their room. Then, after church, the party and feasting continue through the day and into Christmas night. On Dec. 26 and 27, people might rest up to get ready for the big Independence Day celebration, she said.
A favorite Haitian Christmas drink, cremas or kremas, sometimes is compared to eggnog. “It doesn’t taste like eggnog. It’s better. It’s thicker,” Simplice said, and spiked with Haitian rum. She offered one recipe that called for two cans of sweetened condensed milk, one can each of evaporated milk and cream of coconut, one teaspoon each of nutmeg, cinnamon, anise extract, almond extract, vanilla extract, lime juice and one cup of rum, preferably Haitian Rhum Barbancourt.
Simplice, 36, still misses the revelry of a Haitian Christmas. As a child in the early 1990s, she recalled, her neighborhood in Port au Prince was full of lights, color and cheer during Christmas. Everyone decorated for the holiday.
“When I came here, I cried for two years,” Simplice recalled. She complained to her mom about their Florida neighborhood, “Where are all the lights and decorations? There’s nothing.” Her mother just answered, “It’s different here.”
Soup joumou takes center stage
Simplice owns multiple businesses in Norwich centered at her Steflorah Beauty Salon at 91 Franklin St. She also has a beauty supply store there, and an accounting service next door at 93 Franklin St. that also provides translation services and assistance with electronic services. Her husband, Lonord Simplice, owns Lonord’s Barber Shop up the street at 126 Boswell Ave.
The couple, with their three children, daughters, Kaira, 13, and Steflorah, 10, and son, Noah, who turns 7 on Dec. 26, live in an apartment above Steflorah’s Beauty Salon.
For big holiday gatherings, Simplice clears out the beauty salon, and it becomes a giant dining hall, with interior decorating help from her cousin, a designer from New York.
Simplice’s signature main dish for festive occasions is rice and beans, with chicken or goat meat and Haitian black mushrooms. Another Haitian holiday favorite is macaroni gratiné, a baked macaroni and cheese but not American-style, she said.
As New Year’s Day approaches, soup joumou takes center stage.
Brutus-Chiocchio, 42, said when she was a child in Haiti, her grandmother, Tiolene Elesidor, who died in 1985, would make giant batches of soup joumou. Her grandmother owned a large metal container with stacked separate compartments. She would pour the soup into each compartment and deliver batches to various family members.
“I want one of those containers!” Brutus-Chiocchio said.
Brutus-Chiocchio lives in Norwich with son Leonardo, 11, daughter Francesca, 13, and adopted nieces Melissa, 22, and Zoe, 3. Her ex-husband, Tim Chiocchio, who works at Electric Boat in Groton, remains close to the family.
Brutus-Chiocchio works as a long-term substitute teacher at Uncas Elementary School in Norwich. She also is active with the parental involvement effort at the school. This year, the school is compiling an international cookbook with favorite recipes from families. Brutus-Chiocchio submitted her recipe for soup joumou, made with butternut squash, meat, celery, turnips, watercress, spinach, russet potatoes — boiled separately to keep the starch out of the soup — and pasta, also cooked separately then added to the soup. And her special spice blend.
“If you want it, you have to order it from me,” she said, showing a photo of a small jar of spices.
Brutus-Chiocchio said she graduated from Kaiser University in 2008. She then studied international affairs, thinking she would follow her father’s footsteps and work for the United Nations, or possibly pursue a career in the hospitality industry. But she kept turning back to food, she said.
“I feel like food brings people together,” she said.