Food is a large part of our lives, cultures and identities. Each culture has its own set of unique ingredients, cooking techniques and dishes that distinguish them and set them apart. It is those elements that let us feel closer to our families and ancestors. It is also the taste of those things that give us a sense of belonging and home.
I’m willing to bet there is one dish your parent would cook for you, that only they could make just right, or one that you always got from a restaurant, where everyone spoke the same language you heard growing up, that will take you back.
Now imagine not having that, being disconnected from that part of your identity. That is the feeling I felt in the fall of 2017.
I had been displaced from Jamaica, Queens to Baltimore for Hopkins. I was feeling homesick, as all freshmen do. That homesickness deepened when I tasted the FFC’s “Caribbean rice and peas.” It became almost bottomless when I opened Google Maps, typed “Haitian food” and received no relevant results.
For the past two-and-a-half years, I’ve resolved myself to going back to Queens to connect with my culture. That was until Sobeachy opened in Cross Street Market, run by Leo and Chanel Fleurimond. Leo, himself a Haitian immigrant like both my parents and born in Port-au-Prince just like my mother, built the stall himself, using large food pans behind glass to hold food hot, reminding me of the Haitian restaurants I left behind.
Last weekend, some friends and I finally got the opportunity to try the food. I had initially tried to go during the opening but a line that stretched out the building put my plans on hold.
I had the two-piece chicken with white rice, plantains and pikliz (pickled peppers). I also got the island lemonade.
Going in, I was hoping that Sobeachy, as literally the only Haitian restaurant in all of Baltimore, would connect me back to my culture. After tasting the food, I found it did more than that; it connected me all the way back to my childhood.
Trying the island lemonade’s sugary mix of lime and lemon juice brought me back to when my mother would make lemonade for me as a kid and would leave the lemon and lime rinds in the jug. The tender chicken fell off the bone as I picked at it, reminding me that as a child I would just pull the bones out before even starting to eat. The plantains were fried but still retained their sweetness.
I got the opportunity to talk with Leo and asked if he had any patties (puff pastries filled with meat, vegetables or fish) or saus pois (bean sauce). Sadly, he was still making the saus pois and had sold out of patties earlier in the day. One of my friends got the poisson rouge, which is a whole fried red snapper, another popular staple of Haitian cuisine.
So popular, in fact, that instead of frying to order, most Haitian restaurants fry it all at the beginning of the day and keep the fish wrapped in foil under a heat lamp. It was a particular favorite of my mother, who would share it with me when I was younger. Looking at the menu brought back more memories, like legume (dark leafy greens stewed with beef) being my sister’s favorite, and my dad drinking kremas (eggnog and rum drink) during the holidays with family and friends.
Sobeachy now serves as a hub for the local Haitian community in Baltimore, which isn’t as small as I thought it was during my freshman fall. I heard people speaking Creole around me, something that hadn’t happened since high school. Leo shook my hand and asked if I would come out to events and show the rest of Baltimore how large and proud its Haitian community is. As long as Leo and Chanel keep serving delicious Haitian food, they can count on me being there.