For so many immigrant kids and immigrants’ kids living in the U.S., the traditional foods eaten at home are reminders of a place that holds the possibility of belonging. For me, at least, my mother’s and grandmother’s riz djon djon, banan peze, poule en sauce, and griot were my tethers to Haiti, a place I loved but could never truly call my own. Before I recognized them as such, though, the dishes were food; a few years of playdates and sleepovers at my American friends’ homes taught me they were special. In those early years, skeptical looks from my friends made pizza a staple for playdates at my place, but one dish that could reliably sate my judgmental elementary school comrades was my mom’s spaghetti.
To outsiders, my mom’s recipe broke with tradition by incorporating hot dogs and topping the finished pasta dish with ketchup. But for Haitians, it was our practice of eating it for dinner that was new. It wasn’t until I left home and ached for my mother’s food that I learned that her spaghetti wasn’t just hers, it was all Haitians’. And I wasn’t the only kid from the diaspora feeling nostalgic about it.
Traditionally eaten for breakfast, Haitian spaghetti is made with the familiar boiled noodles that are, though recipes vary, often tossed in a frying pan with tomato paste or ketchup; onions and garlic; the chef’s choice of spices; and hot dogs, Vienna sausages, or herring. The result is salty, savory meal that fills your belly for the long day ahead. It’s a beloved Haitian food that, nevertheless, begs the questions: How did a traditionally Italian food become Haitian? And how did it come to be eaten for breakfast? As I came to learn, the closely held creation is a testament to Haitian culinary ingenuity that has little to do with Italy and almost everything to do with American imperialism.
Haiti became the world’s first postcolonial independent republic back in 1804, and since then, communities from countries like Germany, Syria, and other Caribbean nations have immigrated to the island in significant numbers at one time or another — but not immigrants from Italy. Rather, as South Florida-based food scholar Carlos C. Olaechea has found, it was America’s hostile and sometimes violent occupation of the black nation from 1915 to 1934 that planted the seeds of Haitian spaghetti.
Through gastronomic research and interviews conducted on and off over the past 10 years, Olaechea found that American troops’ influence on Haiti’s cuisine were similar to the effect they had on other countries they occupied, like South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and Hawaii. “If one examines the cuisines of these countries, American processed foods such as Spam, hot dogs, Vienna sausage, canned corned beef, and American cheese feature sometimes quite prominently,” says Olaechea. “In many of these countries, Italian-style pasta products were also introduced by Americans, who had adopted this food from Italian immigrants in the United States. Ketchup was also something that Americans introduced to the countries they occupied, which is another key ingredient in Haitian spaghetti.”
But Olaechea also notes that pasta’s appearance in Haiti isn’t as easy to pin down. “Throughout Latin America there were trends from about the ‘20s on, especially around the middle part of the 20th century, of spaghetti, macaroni, or macaroni products becoming a part of local gastronomies,” he says. Indeed, the U.S. presence in Haiti coincided with an explosion of pasta consumption in the Americas, as detailed in Silvano Serventi and Françoise Sabban’s encyclopedic book Pasta: The Story of a Universal Food. From the early- to mid-20th century, pasta consumption and production was going strong in South America, particularly in Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, but also further north in Latin America.
Either way, the era began Haitians’ continuing relationship with spaghetti, and the dish of Haitian spaghetti itself is a souvenir of one of the first times Haitian and American culture came together so dramatically. The next times would happen on U.S. soil beginning in the ’70s, when significant numbers of Haitians started immigrating to the States. The number of Haitian immigrants living in the U.S. has grown from about 92,000 in 1980 to over 600,000 today. The New York and Miami metro areas are home to about 240,000 and 360,000 people of Haitian descent, respectively.
Why it’s eaten for breakfast is less easy to explain, but the most accessible answer is that it’s simply a filling and easy option for mornings — it’s primarily a dish found in home kitchens, although a few restaurants and street vendors in Port-au-Prince offer it to morning customers. Chef Stephan Durand, president of the Haitian Culinary Alliance, an organization that promotes Haitian chefs and cuisine, says one hotel in Jacmel, La Jacmelienne, even made it a signature dish. “That was one of the dishes they were very famous for,” the Port-au-Prince- and Miami-based Durand says. “They served it with Haitian hot chocolate in the morning. It’s not a dish that you’re going to find for lunch or for dinner.”
But for most, it’s simply a hearty and convenient home-cooked option. “It’s easy to cook, it doesn’t take a lot of money to cook, and also it’s very cheap,” says Ruben Joseph, sales and marketing manager and assistant general manager of ITALA, a spaghetti brand and factory in Haiti that employs about 300 people. He says ITALA is one of at least three spaghetti companies currently holding it down in a country that imports 50 percent of its foods. “People, when they are sending their kids to school, they can just cook one meal every morning and that’s it,” he says. “That’s why spaghetti is the most go-to food in Haiti, after rice.”
Durand had a less explanatory answer, but one that also made sense: “That’s just the way it is. It’s a breakfast dish.” Indeed, his answer is what many Americans would say when asked why we eat bacon and eggs in the morning.
American troops officially ended their forced occupation of the island in 1934, but their legacy remained. Haitian spaghetti stayed a popular breakfast food, at least in urban areas. Its ubiquity was helped later down the line when, thanks to the country’s complicated relationship with foreign food aid and the fact that it had one of the lowest import tariffs in the region, other carbohydrates that have been traditional to Haitian diets, like bulgur wheat and cassava dishes, began to be supplanted and fade away.
Still, the richness of traditional Haitian cuisine endures, and the dishes are something that each generation of Haitian diaspora carries with them. Haitian spaghetti is not as revered as other dishes in the culture, but it remains a closely held comfort food. “It doesn’t fall really in traditional dishes of Haiti. It’s something that happened by accident,” Durand says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s one of my favorite things to eat.”
And in recent years, the American culinary world has started to give Haitian cuisine some of the attention it deserves. Celebrated chef Ron Duprat is one Haitian in the American culinary world taking note. “Many chefs, including myself, are continuing to expose the U.S. to Haitian food and include Haitian influence in our cooking,” he says. Since the century’s last turn, American restaurant-goers have started becoming more and more familiar with Haitian cuisine. Haitian restaurants are getting national recognition, like Brooklyn’s Grandchamps and La Caye restaurants, Montreal’s Agrikol, Fritai at St. Roch Market in New Orleans, and Miami’s Tap Tap Restaurant. Non-Haitian restaurants are trying their hands at incorporating dishes like griot and banan peze. And Haitian and Haitian-American chefs have been featured on hit food shows like Top Chef and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
“Now you have more and more Haitian chefs who have taken on the promotion of the cuisine,” Durand says. “You’re gonna see really the whole array and the varieties that we have in our food that you may never have seen.”
That sense of pride in Haitian culture has been a long time coming. Haitians in the U.S. were subject to immense discrimination in the ’80s and ’90s as thousands immigrated to the neighboring world superpower. The title of “first black republic” was effectively obscured by epithet “the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere” in media coverage. It wasn’t so long ago when when Haitians were classified by the CDC as being particularly at risk of contracting HIV and, in the early ’80s, excluded from donating blood. This recommendation would last until the early ’90s, just after my mother and I settled into our new lives in the States.
Today, although Haitians in America still have to contend with ignorance, there’s a new American fascination with Haitian culture that is, though still in its infancy, a sign of more interest and restaurant opportunities to come. But dishes like Haitian breakfast spaghetti will remain primarily for Haitian homes and mom-and-pop shops catering primarily to Haitian customers. H&R Grill in Sunrise, Florida, for example, is one of the few places with the dish on their menu; Elza’s Restaurant Cafe Grill in East Orange, New Jersey, is another.
For me, the dish will always be a reminder of the home I returned to after a long day in a world blind to the most foundational part of my identity. That home that was 100 percent Haitian, like me, but shaped by America in ways I can’t always comprehend. Haitian spaghetti may not be on the menu at the new Haitian restaurant opening soon near you. But that’s okay. There are those few foods that are “comforts” — forever beloved by the people who make them.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot is a writer based in North America.
Editor: Erin DeJesus