Food, glorious food!

This week my attention turns to a subject close to everyone’ hearts: food! When I think of the Caribbean, probably like a lot of people, Lilt cans and Jerk chicken spring to mind. In fact, I used to work in Brixton, and the canteen there used to serve up some mean food including oxtail, fried plantain, rice and beans…all really good. Would Haitian cuisine fit in with this image we have in Britain or would I be in for a surprise?

The first thing to bear in mind is that I am living with a family of 30 children and anything between 6-15 adults (depending who is visiting or working that day) so cooking and preparing food becomes something of a military operation. A small team (all female, I’m afraid to say!) cook up breakfast, dinner and supper each day, with the kids taking it in turns to do the washing and cleaning.

The food is good nutritious stuff and revolving around a lot of carbs. Before I left the UK I binged on pasta, in the mistaken belief that I wouldn’t be seeing it for another 3 months. So it was much to my surprise when I discovered that a typical breakfast here is a huge mound of spaghetti, covered with tomato sauce. It was a bit of an adjustment but actually it’s great; something nice and familiar to start the day, which fills you up til lunch. Often I will get a slice of avocado and/or an egg too and maybe even a mug of sweet black coffee. All in all a pretty good breakfast! On other days it might be a small omelette with a bread roll or a corn dish which has the same consistency as polenta. If I remember, I’ll also take a multi vitamin tablet, just to make sure I’m covered from A to zinc.

Once I’ve loaded up with the carbs it’s off to school, water bottle in hand. I drink like a fish all day long, trying in vain to replace the fluid I lose as sweat. I don’t see locals drinking anything like as much as I do; I guess they are used to it, but I can see from their brows that they are sweating just the same as me. Water comes from the pump and at first I could taste a metallic tint to it, but no more. Perhaps that’s one thing that I have grown accustomed to?

Kids who come to school at Hope House receive a bowl of rice for lunch every day, as do the teachers, and for some this is their main meal of the day. This ‘Manna Pack’ is supplied by a charity called Love A Child, and is mixed up with soya and tiny fragments of veg. If I look closely enough, I’m pretty sure I can make out orange specks that were once part of a carrot! Hopefully I will bring back a few of these packs to the UK to show the children at Bolney how simple this meal is and help them view our Western diet in a new way.

However, an exciting new development is the opening of the new school tuck shop. From a serving hatch at the back of Mr. Jules’ classroom, a wide variety of snacks are on sale for 50 gourde at break time. The obsession with healthy eating we have in Britain doesn’t seem to have caught on over here though, and there are plenty of happy children munching on biscuits, wafers and brightly coloured popcorn as well as more substantial peanut butter sandwiches. I wonder what the children at Bolney would make of that?!

After school, dinner is served at about 4pm back at the house. Much earlier than I am used to back home, but again the food is good and nutritious. It does however often revolve around rice. This can become a little repetitive but there are several different mixes they do, some more moist, others with beans in, and so on. And it will often be topped with a little something such as a tasty fish and onion sauce, a spot of fried okra or even a small piece of chicken. I do tend to get slightly larger portions and greater variety than the kids but not to the extent where I am embarrassed by this kindness. All the same, it does make me realize how well looked after and treated I am here.

Supper, which is served around 8pm, is a simple meal. Often porridge, or sometimes even cereal or a peanut butter sandwich, it completes the topsy turvy menu compared to what I am used to back home. And for those of you who have been counting, yes that’s four meals in a day. Certainly not what I was expected but it’s worth stating again that not everyone in this community is so lucky and for many, the daily bowl of rice, courtesy of charitable donations, remains the cornerstone of their diet.

So that’s a typical daily diet, but let me not go without mentioning the delicious fruit juices you can often find the children preparing on a lazy afternoon, made from guavas, mangos, coconuts or grenadiers. Nor the tradition of coming together as a family for a big meal on Sunday, as we would in the UK. This is a happy occasion at the end of the week involving lots of fried chicken, plantain, potato salad and rice. It shows that food brings people together all over the world, and I feel privileged to be sharing it with my adopted family here in Haiti.

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