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Convenience



haitian boullion cooked over a fire convenience by quiara pinchina

Lately, it's been raining almost every day. The entrance road to our house is filled with black, soupy, stinky, mud. It looks toxic! The other day I was on foot and had to wade ankle deep through the stuff. There was no way around it, and every time you go out, you see people everywhere, picking their way around puddles, sometimes just slogging through holding up the bottoms of their pants or their sandals in their hands.


One thing that's really made worse by the rain is Port au Prince's trash problem! We are relatively privileged. We have a big yard for Haitian standards, and when we got married, Zèzè had some guys dig a big hole in the back. We've dumped our trash in there and burned it ever since.


The only problem is some trash doesn't burn. What about all the evaporated milk cans, glass ketchup bottles, and tomato paste cans? By now, the hole is full! Someone is going to have to clean it out, and their only choice will be to go dump it in the street somewhere.


Yet we are the privileged ones. Some don't really have a place to try to burn their trash, so they may do it in a little pile in the street in front of their house. Or they may just dump it on one of the many gigantic piles you see littering the streets, often with a spray painted sign above, "Do not dump trash here." The rain makes this worse, as soggy trash is washed up onto curbs or gathers in pot holes. And on a windy day, your yard could soon be littered with empty water bags that you didn't ever drink.


Looking around you, you despair as you try to imagine a way that this city could ever be clean.


I also just finished an audiobook: Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss. I don't usually read "health" books like that, because I do feel like eating healthy is a privilege that so many people don't have. So my viewpoint is this: if you can eat healthy, by all means do, but don't be snobby about it.


This book is a bit different because it is actually a history of processed foods. The industry began when American women started working and needing convenience. And truly I was very horrified about all the ads big food companies have done targeting little children and teens, focusing on getting them hooked on Coke or other sweet drinks and cereals.


Then there is all the false labeling, such as "natural fruit juice" when there are only 2 Tbsp. of juice in a Capri Sun. There are cereals with prizes to make kids beg their moms to buy them. It's truly quite terrible! We hear it all the time that America is run by consumerism, the desire to have more! newer! shinier! faster! but I've understood that a lot better after stepping away from it.


Some things I hope I would never forget if I ever moved back to North America:

  • Hearing these words from random people around noon, "I haven't eaten since yesterday." It happens surprisingly often, and not just with beggars or the obviously poor!


  • The roaming Coke vendors, rice bags filled with ice cold soda on their heads: they are everywhere! Sometimes we've been out for the day with no money to buy food and bought Cokes just for something "to amuse our mouth" as Haitians always say. Then later you buy a few crackers or a piece of bread just because you want something. And at the end of the day, you go home and cook a package of spaghetti because there is no other quick Haitian meal. But when you feel sorry for yourself, you think of having to start a charcoal fire, or not having at least a half an onion and some blended epis in the fridge. It's made me realize that healthy eating is actually a privilege. Junk food is often the cheapest, and there are so many Haitian children going to school with a lollipop or package of crackers in the morning instead of eggs and fresh fruit.


  • Opening the fridge sometimes out of boredom or old habit, and realizing that no, this is Haiti and I probably won't find much in the line of fruit to snack on, cheese to slice, or even leftovers. I've slowly adopted the Haitian way of coffee and bread in the morning, a big lunch, and then the rest of the day you clean out the lunch food. When it's gone you're done... unless you're husband gets a craving and heads out to buy street food. Then you relish every bit of the fried meat and plantains! Or you may go fill your glass Coke bottles at the neighbor's store, again just to "amuse your mouth," or maybe make a smoothie or some sandwiches. But never 3 full meals! It would take way too much effort and also cost too much!



  • The hours in the kitchen making meals truly from scratch! Small batches of pizza sauce concocted from epis, fresh basil, coarse rock salt, vinegar and tomato paste. BBQ sauce consisting of seasoned tomato paste, vinegar, and sugar with a bit of precious American liquid smoke. And white sauces like gravy seasoned with a big of black mushroom bouillon or cheese sauce made with just a triangle of Laughing Cow cheese - they all start with fresh garlic and onions sautéed in margarine, a bit of flour, and a can of evaporated milk. You make the sauce while your pizza dough is rising, and then there are veggies to chop, your tiny bit of meat to add, and an even smaller amount of cheese for the topping.


  • This way of cooking leads me to laugh sometimes at my "spice" cupboard. I've managed to clean out a few bottles of spices in the past year, but most are just sitting there, caked together and actually looking completely unappetizing. And the Ranch packets need milk and Mayo, which are expensive. The chocolate chips mean actually making a dessert, so instead I snitch handfuls every once in a while on long, hot afternoons. Then my mom-in-law brings me more powdered spices when the place she works is getting rid of expired things, because they are perfectly good and she doesn't want them to be wasted. And surely all Americans cook with powdered spices!


  • A party for 50 people with only one trash bin filled with Coke bottles.. But every single plate and piece of silverware in my house is dirty! Even other people have brought plates from home so we have enough. There are a few Styrofoam plates only if someone happened to have them.


  • Surprisingly having only one trash can full a week. It gets nasty and full of ants because we don't buy trash bags, so I try to dump all my food scraps in the back to improve the dirt for my few struggling plants.


  • I still have half of my original box of tin foil. And I actually didn't buy it at all till I had American company at Christmas, six months after we were married!


  • Storing everything in empty yellow margarine bowls and peanut butter jars. Reusing Ziploc bags forever.


  • That meat I bought in market that was almost thawed and buzzing with flies? By the time I get home it has a very interesting smell. So I just wash it carefully using the correct Haitian process, douse on some extra vinegar, and say a prayer to avoid food poisoning.


  • Buying a huge bag of "fab" or powdered soap and using it do wash dishes, cars, and clothes. I've definitely longed for specific cleaning supplies sometimes, but I make do with "Mistoline" a lavendar scented liquid cleaner, fab, Clorax, and my bar of lye soap. IF my husband hasn't stolen the lye soap because he ran out of soap in the shower.


  • And... I've gone through exactly 1 1/2 bottles of shampoo/conditioner since being married! Haitian ladies obviously don't wash their hair every day, and I've relaxed on that too. My shaving cream is long gone, and I just suds up with a bar of soap, which is really our only other shower necessity.


  • I've sewed one dress since I've been married, only because I didn't have proper Haiti funeral attire. That's not Haitian culture... my husband has more clothes than you can imagine! But over here I personally don't feel the need for more and more clothes! As long as I can get the stains out with my bar of lye soap and the fabric holds out, I'm good. There's not endless social deals, and it's so hot that lots of times I don't wear a dress at all when I'm at home. So when would I wear them? (YES... I'm thinking of the day we teachers easily rounded up 100 dress to bring for the 100th day of school. I've had quite a switch in social pressure from Mennonite teacher life!)

Whoa! I'm sorry. That got long!


I'm not trying to say that you all need to follow the zero waste movement, or go off the grid and raise all your own food. But I have learned a lot from not having cheap, quick, convenience at my finger tips.


I don't know what I would do if I was suddenly back in North America. I don't know if I would continue making my own BBQ sauce. Maybe that's a bit idealistic. But the foods I miss from USA are things like a bowl of strawberries and yogurt in the morning instead of coffee and a piece of bread. I miss grilled steaks with fresh green beans and new potatoes from the garden. I miss buying a whole bag of green grapes for under $5.


And while I have a suitcase in the back bedroom half-filled with various American processed foods, such as a few boxes of instant pudding, powdered sugar, and some half melted marshmallows, they don't really give me joy.


I feel joy when I walk into my kitchen with my market bag overflowing with fresh grapefruits and sour oranges - ready to squeeze and mix with water, ice, and raw sugar. I feel joy when I cut open a papaya giving to me by a friend, or blend up a bag of cherries from a neighbor's tree to make juice.


I feel joy when I rub my kettle of chicken legs with limes and rock salt, then "epis" made from blended peppers, onions, and garlic, and finally just a tiny squirt of mustard and soy sauce. The smell as they simmer away on the back burner is irresistible to my husband, and he's sure to make appearance, hoping to snitch a few of the plantains or breadfruit I'm frying.


And even though you may have to work harder, it's the simple food and the simple life that brings joy. Not convenience.


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