Finding solace in a bowl of soup | Cookup

We may scarcely appreciate the nostalgia, the comfort, and the utility of Caribbean soups. Vaughn Stafford Gray explores their abiding power to soothe us, ground us, and connect us — both to our past, and to our people

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Picture it: 1999, and there’s a hotel ballroom filled with high schoolers celebrating graduation. As the excitement gets controlled, they finally sit at 10-seater tables. However, as the first course — soup — was served, there was a commotion. The person beside me shouted, “Wha dis? Why is it cold?” And the discontent wafted through the room like bad perfume.

I was on my graduation ball (prom) committee, and when we got the menu options from the hotel, I immediately vetoed the cantaloupe soup. Despite my obsession with cooking and then burgeoning knowledge of food, I was outvoted, and the committee chose the melon soup. 

Not since the Trojans accepted a wooden horse as a gift was a worse decision made. Pandemonium. 

Luckily the venue’s events manager had two other functions that evening, so she found alternatives for us. Leftovers, dear reader. But beggars can’t be choosers. So, they ditched the melon soup, and the kitchen staff reheated cauldrons of cream of pumpkin and cream of red peas soups. When served, these hit the mark. 

I wanted to say, “I told you so” — but focused more on a crisis being averted. 

But you must be wondering why folks had such a visceral reaction to a bowl of soup. Simply put, there’s a lot of nostalgia and comfort attached to soup, especially for Caribbean people. And for us, as delicious as they may be, cold soups are not our ministry.

For many of us, soup is a comforting dish that brings back memories of family and home. When I moved to Toronto from Jamaica, I yearned for my mother’s red peas soup with pigs’ tails and spinners. 

I could find nothing as comforting until I discovered Vietnamese pho, Japanese ramen, and Jewish matzo ball soup. Yes, wildly different from the coconut milk-laced soup full of ground provisions. However, I could find solace in these bowls of warm love, especially on winter days. 

Each culture has its “main” soup. Besides those named above, the United States has chowder; Spain, gazpacho; and Hungary, goulash. Each is meaningful and tied to a bit of history. But in the Caribbean, there’s one that takes it a step further, with over 200 years of liberation as a main ingredient — soup joumou.

In Haiti, you can’t ring in the New Year without soup joumou. The hearty pots of cabbage, beef, pumpkin, carrots, and potatoes commemorate Haiti’s liberation from French colonial rule in 1804.

“Enslaved Haitians were not allowed to have this delicious and aromatic pumpkin soup, a favourite of the French who held people in slavery,” says Haitian-American chef Nadege Fleurimond. “On Sunday 1 January 1804, when the enslaved gained their freedom, they celebrated with music and food in the Place d’Armes, in the city of Gonaives. And what better way to celebrate than to eat the very thing they were unable to eat under slavery?” 

Not quite the idea of a celebratory food we picture, but retrospection and liberation bubble in those pots. With one sip, Haitians are connected to their ancestors. And, despite what’s happening around them, their hearts can dance as their forefathers did in the Place d’Armes. Soup is the epitome of comfort.

Were you to poll your friends and family about their favourite comfort foods or dishes, I doubt soup would make the top five. Scratch that — top 10. I wouldn’t fault the findings because how could soup compete with Guyanese pepperpot, coconut bake and salt fish, doubles, stew peas, or curry duck? Well, let me tell you, it can.

Few foods provide the same emotional and physical comfort that soup does. Stews are very close contenders. The term “comfort food” is widely misused. It often refers to food we gorge on when stressed or sad, which tends to be unhealthy, carb-heavy and laden with fat, sugar or salt. Or all three. 

A 2011 study noted that comfort food serves as a “social surrogate and as a cognitive/emotional representation of others”. In other words, soup brings nostalgia to the table.

Soup and other comfort foods are often associated with relationships; they can reduce feelings such as loneliness. They connect us to times in our lives, especially childhood, when we felt loved and cared for. “This is because comfort foods give rise to relationship-related thoughts and concepts,” said the researchers. 

Soups have always been a big part of Caribbean cooking and have been passed down from generation to generation. In addition to being easily customisable, they are great ways of using up whatever is left over to create something nourishing. They stretch budgets.

But there’s something poetic about our Caribbean soups. They reflect who we are, our cultures, histories, and kinship. As cookbook author Molly Steven says, “Soup is a lot like a family. Each ingredient enhances the others; each batch has its own characteristics, and it needs time to simmer to reach full flavour.”

Now that I’m back living at home in Jamaica, my relationship with soup is different. It’s still comforting, but instead of alleviating pangs of homesickness, it now grounds and soothes me. 

The act of peeling dasheen, turnips, pumpkin and cho-cho (christophene); holding too many pimento seeds in my palm; dropping in the Scotch bonnet pepper and the contents of the cock soup packet when everything is bubbling connects me with who I am. 

Coming home after over a decade of living abroad, I felt disconnected. But confidence and pride poured out of me by mastering the dishes of my family’s matriarchs, especially red peas and cow skin soups. They gave me solace.

Always remember that soup has a long job description. But at the top of the list is filling our stomachs and fulfilling our need to belong. 

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.