Inside La Talaye, a Haitian bistro on Haverstraw’s Main Street, there are three or four tables, colorful paintings and pillows made by Rockland County Haitians, kompa music playing overhead, a long wooden bench along one wall and a wooden serving counter in back. High above the counter, on a shelf behind decorative vines, there is a photograph of an old Black woman with short white hair, dressed in white, faintly smiling and gazing to the right.
La Talaye’s chef and owner Michelle Timothee came out of the kitchen carrying two bowls of the bright orange Soup Joumou, glanced up at the photo and uttered to herself, “Gran Rosena,” the name of her maternal grandmother.
She set the bowls down; the aroma of sweet pumpkin floated over the table and she said, “Rosena wouldn’t have made the soup like this with beef; she was a vegan — not that she knew what that was. Everything she ate came from her farm. She would have just puréed the joumou (Creole for pumpkin), along with vegetables and epis (a ubiquitous Haitian spice paste).”
The version Timothee made had stewed beef, penne, pureed butternut squash, pumpkin, cabbage, epis, and her Haitian confi (fermented hot sauce) made with ghost peppers. It was creamy, spicy, sweet, delicate, and savory — complex and comforting, in taste and meaning. It was a French dish that plantation owners forced slaves to make for a hundred years without letting them taste it — from the time France acquired Saint-Domingue from Spain in 1697 until Black Haitians revolted in 1791 and declared Haiti an independent republic in 1804. Then, as a Haitian woman named Rose Moise later said at Spring Valley’s Haitian American Cultural & Social Organization (HACSO), “We said, ‘Now we can finally cook our soup, and eat it, too!’”
“Rosena inspired me a lot,” said Timothee. “Growing up in Port-au-Prince, my parents would send us to my Aunt Sesie’s house in Saint-Michel-de-l’Atalaye in the summer — a city in the countryside surrounded by farmland and distant mountain peaks — not far from Rosena’s. Sesie’s house was filled with mahogany furniture from the 1800s, and there was a big yard. Farmers would come on horseback from far away to get married there. Sesie offered the food, the drinks, and the house at no cost. Guests brought fresh beans, plantains, and provisions from their farms.”
Timothee continued: “Sometimes Rosena would walk an hour and a half from her place in the countryside to Sesie’s to bring food and visit us. But usually we would walk there — my brother carrying me on his shoulders when I got tired. Rosena would see us coming through the front gate and say, ‘Wait a minute!’ and she’d grab sweet potatoes and other food from the field and cook it right then. She was a big farmer. She grew millet, beans, sweet potatoes, everything. She would often make tchaka (a dish of corn and beans) for us in a big pot and we’d sit around while she told stories or talked about politics, even when it was very dangerous to talk about those things because of Papa Doc. She experienced a lot. She wanted change, but things just got worse. She lived to be 106.”
From the late ‘50s into the ‘70s, while François Duvalier (Papa Doc) and then Jean-Claude Duvalier (his son, Baby Doc) reigned, speaking ill of their administration could mean a visit from their enforcers, the Tonton Macoutes. Many people were jailed or disappeared for mere suspicion of disloyalty.
Many middle- and upper-class Haitians came to Rockland County during that time, and their population grew in the following decades, as we found out at HACSO. Timothee left Haiti in her mid-20s, as there were not enough medical resources to care for her son, who had intensive needs. Her brother and mother were already settled in Rockland.
When she arrived, she started a catering business, and just before the COVID pandemic, she opened her first stateside brick-and-mortar restaurant. While there are close to two dozen Haitian buffets in Rockland County, La Talaye is one of the few sit-down places, and perhaps the only one with a strict farm-to-table ethos. Every weekend you will find her at farmers markets, either selling food or procuring it for the restaurant. She said: “My brothers and sisters tell me, ‘You’re just like Aunt Sesie!’ because I get everything from the farmers. But really, when I think of cooking, I think of Gran Rosena.”
As Timothee and others at HACSO spoke about Haiti, their eyes lit up with energy and excitement when relaying fond memories of their proud culture; the same eyes drifted down and away with sadness at the thought that they may never return. Since Haiti’s beginning, slavery, exploitative foreign intervention, domestic corruption and terror, deforestation, and natural disasters have stood in the way of progress and self-determination. The recent assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July (which occurred after this article was written), is another chapter. Timothee remains hopeful that she’ll return one day.
“Actually, I think Soup Joumou symbolizes our independence,” said Timothee, “but maybe tchaka represents our comeback. Because tchaka (a stew of corn and beans) represents the Kombit (the Haitian tradition of sharing food and farm labor). We need more love for each other. We need to be one, to have power. If we got out of slavery in 1804, we will get out of this. It is a question of time. I will go back. I tell all Haitian people to stay strong.”