If you live in my Miami, you are Haitian in some way. You’ve eaten griot or diri ak djon djon (Haitian fried pork or black rice). If you’re like me, maybe you love pairing Haitian food with wine - Chef Creole’s fried fish dinner with an Alsatian Gewürztraminer, Cava or even a sweet-spiced Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley.
Maybe, you’ve listened to that Kreyol drawl as its skids across its French base like a Porsche on a slippery mountain. You hear it in the grocery lines, at the doctor’s office, at the Flea Market and pulsating from your neighbor’s house. Maybe, a Haitian nurse is caring for your elderly mother. Maybe, your mayor is Haitian. Maybe, the old lady you buy sugarcane from on Northeast 54th Street and 2nd Avenue is Haitian. Maybe, the valet guy who parked your car at the Hard Rock Seminole Casino is Haitian. Maybe your cardiologist is Haitian. Maybe, the nerdy girl in your Poli Sci study group is Haitian. Maybe, you’ve danced with the sea of gyrating, red, white and blue flags during the Compas Festival. Maybe, you didn’t know that the gorgeous, peacock-colored mermaid hanging on your wall was painted by a Haitian artist.
Or maybe, you’ve rolled your eyes as a Haitian flag-flanked Hummer zoomed by you during Haitian Flag day (If they’re so damn proud, why don’t they move back). Or maybe, you’ve silently cursed out that Haitian woman whose Kreyol-soaked accent makes it difficult for you to understand what she’s saying about your checking account or your student loan. Maybe, back in the days, you used the phrase, “Cat Eater.”
In Miami, Haiti is not a country. It is a rhythm - a tireless, rhythm, a sexy music, a provocative painting and a relentless cause. For some, it’s a strange voodoo, an uncomfortable feeling, a torn anthem and an invasion. Haiti is an acquired taste some are still trying to acquire. But why is that?
I recently had lunch with a friend (Roy) - a New York-based geographer - to discuss the matter. I told him how when I first started pitching stories to food magazines about Miami’s Haitian culinary experience, they seemed unnerved. One editor told me she didn’t think any of the reputable magazines would be interested.
As Roy and I chatted, it was clear he was uncomfortable with his glass of 2005 Robert Mondavi Winery Napa Valley Chardonnay. His eyes squinted like he bit into a lime. He couldn’t swallow. He even grunted a little, but he was so determined to like it. “It’s good,” he said.
I liked it - apple crisp and papaya aromas romped with Madagascar vanilla cream flavors that ended in a jalapeño finish. The aftertaste was a little weird, but the lush, creamy body was yum.
It annoyed me that Roy would rather struggle through his Chardonnay ordeal than just say that he didn’t like it, that he’d rather a Guinness. I knew he wanted to impress me, but nothing is sexier than the truth. Or do I really believe that?
As we sipped, CNN dropped more earthquake fatality numbers, and we were now at 200,000. I thought about my friends’ missing families - bodies swallowed by an earth they trusted. Roy and I continued our conversation:
“What do you think about what that minister-guy said about the Haitians and the pack they made with the devil regarding getting the French off their land?”
“I think he’s insensitive. P.S. If I was a slave, I’m quite sure I would have made a few pacts.”
“How’s the vibe been in Miami?”
“While I was in a public bathroom, a woman asked me how my family was. I immediately and curtly responded, ‘I’m Jamaican.’ I felt weird about my answer. What difference does it make?”
“But you’re not Haitian?”
“But, aren’t I? I look at those women, and I see my aunts, my grandmother, my mother…I’m ashamed of being so categorical - black, white, Haitian, Irish. Categorization just deep throats humanity.”
“Only writers can getaway with saying s#!& like that,” he laughed.
One day while I was at North Miami’s Crown Wine & Spirits, a white couple was discussing the Haitian earthquake occasionally looking back at me as they chose their words carefully:
“Did you hear about that Haitian thing?”
I sipped wine with the disheveled, maltese-looking chap positioned at the wine sample station as usual - his conversation deep, his gums deep purple. He said he hated Merlot. Said it was too bitter, yet there we stood drinking Merlot together.
“So, are you Haitian?,” he asked.
A dame, a bottle and a story.