I grew up in Barrie, Ont. My dad, born and raised in Jacmel, on Haiti’s south coast, played Tabou Combo cassettes in the car. My grandmother, who lived with us, boiled plantains and made mayi moulin, a Haitian-style polenta, for breakfast. Everyone in my house, including my Scottish-born mother, spoke Haitian Creole fluently. There was no doubt in my mind that I was Black.
At 18, when I moved to Toronto for college, I quickly realized that the grasp I had on my racial identity would be challenged. For the first time in my life, people asked me where I was from or, worse, “What are you?” At first, the questions seemed silly. Wasn’t it obvious? But over and over again people would point to my straight nose and fine hair and tell me I was not Black. Still, I certainly couldn’t claim to be white when at the time most drugstores didn’t carry my shade of foundation. So, what was I?
Without my family around as context, I felt the links to my Blackness dwindle. I felt racially ostracized and lost. I rarely spoke Creole or ate Haitian food. This feeling of otherness went on for a decade until I began actively looking for ways to reconnect with my Haitian heritage. I asked my father to lend me his Haitian cookbook in the hopes that among those recipes lay the key to feeling that family connection. As it turned out, while I struggled to master childhood dishes, it would be learning about my Scottish heritage that would prove most fruitful in my quest to understand myself.
I met my husband, Daniel, through an online dating site where I used the moniker Voodoo Haggis. When prompted for a sobriquet upon signing up for the site, a nickname from a co-worker popped into my head and just felt right. Both voodoo as a religion and haggis as a food are misunderstood elements of my dual heritage that people have strong reactions toward but seldom know much about. I wanted to pique someone’s curiosity and invite them onto this journey with me.
Daniel is a chef who grew up in a Scottish household. He spoke about fond memories of eating haggis on Robbie Burns Day and I was both intrigued and ashamed. Even though I was half Scottish, I had never heard of Burns, the famed Scottish poet. Nor had I heard about Hogmanay, the annual New Year’s feast featuring potato scones, Scotch eggs and bridies, delicious hand-held meat pastries I would come to love.
Dating Daniel served as a primer on all things Scottish and the more I learned, the more I saw parallels between Haitian and Scottish traditions. Hogmanay and Haitian Independence Day, for example, are food-heavy celebrations that occur on Jan. 1. While the former is about the arrival of the winter solstice and the end of yule, the latter honours the slave revolt that culminated in Haiti becoming the first Black republic to gain its independence. It is cathartic to know that on the first day of the year, the two halves of my family are whole and feasting in celebration.
After a year together, Daniel and I began a communal dinner series that would morph into a monthly supper club. In May, 2013 we hosted our first three-course Haitian and Scottish fusion dinner for 25 strangers; the event was called Voodoo Haggis. Because both cuisines are nose-to-tail, the combinations of rich flavours and tangy notes worked together beautifully. The menu read like a love letter to myself. Hickory-smoked haddock with Haitian-style cabbage pikliz (pickled slaw) and fried plantain. Citrus-marinated braised pork shoulder (known as griot) with haggis and mayi moulin. Lavender-lemon scones with clotted cream and coconut tablet cocoyé, a coconut sugar disk.
During one dinner last year, we shared stories about Haiti and Scotland as a way to demystify the two countries and reveal their intersections. Guests were curious about how the food pairings and histories would intermingle, so we discussed the ways peasant and working-class life influenced food culture in both lands. For example, many Haitian households experience rolling blackouts; due to the lack of consistent refrigeration, they rely on daily trips to the market and the heavy use of vinegar and lemon in meat preparation. In Scotland, haggis is an inexpensive dish made of ingredients available in most homes (oats, onions, spices and dried fruit) combined with offal. In earlier centuries, the sheep’s stomach served both as a sac to keep off-cuts fresh on the journey home after a hunt and as a temporary casing for cooking the ingredients once they were minced and mixed together. Two countries that seem to have so little in common were explored as one – and I finally felt whole, seen and understood.
As Canada takes steps to reopen, I plan to resume these dinners, galvanized by the groundswell of racial activism that has taken hold. I want to continue to encourage people to tell their stories, to listen and learn from each other. The key to justice is through empathy and understanding. Where better to find that than across a table, where food has the power to unite.
Plan your weekend with our Good Taste newsletter, offering wine advice and reviews, recipes, restaurant news and more. Sign up today.