“In Haiti the rule is simple, boys don’t belong in the kitchen.” Ronald Glemaud made that statement as he stood in the dimly lit kitchen of his one bedroom apartment in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
The pan sizzled as Ronald added olive oil, onions and peppers to the fryer, preparing one of his famous breakfast meals.
“What are you making?” I asked. “Morue ak banann,” was the response. I couldn’t wait. This dish of codfish (morue) and plantains (banann), is one of my favorites.
When Ronald placed the plate of fish and plantains with a side of watercress in front of me, I felt like I had been transported back to Haiti. His flavors were mild, yet distinct. Thyme, scotch bonnet peppers and parsley were all in evidence, yet nothing dominated the dish. The light tomato sauce was heavenly.
Listen to Nadege Fleurimond talk about Haitian male cooks on the Fi2W podcast:
At 47, Ronald is known as a master chef in his community.
“How do I get the rice and beans to be more red?” and “Ron, any tips for getting rid of that funny smell from the goat?” are typical questions Ronald frequently answers for his friends.
“His food is absolutely amazing. He has found a way to make all the dishes I hated as a child come alive for me. His mayi moulin, his famous cornmeal with mixed vegetables, is the best I ever had,” said Gracie, one of Ronald’s faithful friend-followers.
Ronald is a rarity. Ten years ago, you were hard pressed to find a post-pubescent Haitian male who thought it was acceptable for a man to cook.
Most Haitian men go from being fed by their mothers to being fed by their wives. For Ronald, that changed when he moved to the U.S.
“Marriage made a cook out of me, and divorce made me even better at the craft,” Ronald explained.
“When I arrived home one day from work to find my wife who for months had been on hiatus from work, I thought it a natural question to ask, ‘what’s for dinner?’ The answer I received was a diatribe about how she was not my maid and I better not expect her to monte chodye – cook – every day. From that conversation I took the cue that I better fend for myself,” Ronald told me. “So I started cooking. By the time we divorced years later, I had already become the head cook in the household.”
As Ronald’s story shows, the stereotype of the kitchen as an exclusively female domain is changing as Haitian men find themselves immersed in American culture. A few Haitian male cooks have even become celebrity chefs as they break down the kitchen barrier, like Ron Duprat and Stephan Durand. It’s been a significant transition, for both male and female Haitians.
“My mother made it her business to ensure I did not enter the kitchen,” recalled Donald Toussaint, a 42-year-old resident of Newark who grew up in Haiti. He continued:
“I loved going in there because there was always such good cheer and camaraderie in the kitchen that I wanted to be part of the action. However, my mother said that this was not a place for boys. Hence, I never learned to cook. I never had to. My mother cooked and then my girlfriends and later wife cooked. I am almost sad at times I never learned because it is now my wish that I could cook my mother a meal the way she has cooked one for me all my life.”
I initially started thinking about this issue a few years back when I was hired to teach a cooking class at Tilden High School in Brooklyn, which has a large Haitian student body. This was a voluntary program, so I figured I would see more girls than boys. Boy (pun intended) was I wrong!
The kitchen filled with all types of young men, from football players to nerds. Seeing these boys with aprons in the kitchen was, for me, a Haitian woman, culture shock.
As they sautéed vegetables and decorated their plates, they executed their culinary tasks with grace and meticulousness. Even the girls in the class did not demonstrate the same level of enthusiasm, possibly because some young Haitian American women resent the assumption that women belong in the kitchen.
Cawalla Charles, a 25 year old female Haitian college student, confessed her fear to me: “I never learned to cook because I figured as soon as I learned, I would be doing it for the rest of my life,” she said.
“Haiti, like many other Caribbean nations, still holds on to traditional values as the expense of advancement,” said Fabienne Blanchard, a Haitian immigrant who lives with her husband, Randel Berha, in New York.
Do the old rules of home apply in the U.S? Not according to this pair, whose friends refer to as the “ideal couple.” They have been married 12 years, have two beautiful children and both work full time.
So who does the cooking? “The everyday cook is my husband, said Fabienne. “I cook on special occasions such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Berha explained the distribution of labor: “While we both work hard, I realized that my work schedule allowed more time in the evening hours for me to cook dinner. It wasn’t an issue of a man or a woman thing. It just made sense.”
Let me tell you, it might “make sense” to Berha, but this notion would be rare in Haiti.
Berha has gotten so comfortable cooking that last year he even entered and won a male cooking contest on Father’s Day. “My mango and beet salad is what I think gave me the edge in that competition,” he said with sheepish, yet proud, smile. As he placed a small plate of it in front of me to sample, I had to admit, it was delicious. These Haitian men can certainly cook.
Red Snapper in Créole Sauce, by Ronald Glemaud
· 2 lb. Red Snapper Fish Cleaned
· 2 cups water
· 2 limes
· 1/2 cup Basil
· 1 Medium Onion (½ chopped ½ sliced)
· 1 clove garlic minced
· 1 table spoon of tomato paste
· 1 tsp. Parsley minced
· 1 tsp. Thyme
· Salt, black pepper, and hot pepper to taste
· ¼ Cup of White Vinegar
· 8 tablespoons of oil
. 1 whole scotch bonnet pepper (Optional)
Clean fish and ensure all scales are removed. Cut limes in 3’s. Squeeze juice of limes into a cup.
Use remaining lime shells, wash the fish. Rinse with cold water then pour in and wash the fish with the white vinegar. Place the basil, garlic, parsley, the ½ chopped onion and 4 tablespoons of oil in a blender and mix, adding ½ cup of water and previously squeezed lime juice. (You may also simply buy Green Seasoning)
Take blended mixture or Green Seasoning and pour on top of cleaned fish. Ensure that fish is well coated with seasoning. Leave in refrigerator for 2 hours or overnight.
In a sauté pot, on low heat, add 4 tablespoons of oil (canola, corn, or vegetable), then the tomato paste. Add your fish into the pot. Add remaining water, thyme and the optional whole scotch bonnet pepper.
Cover pot and let simmer for about 7 minutes.
Uncover pot and taste for salt and seasoning. If to your satisfaction, cover again and let boil another 8 minutes. Add the other ½ sliced onion and whatever missing ingredient your palate calls for and then let simmer for a couple more minutes. Turn off the fire, and let the pot cool off before serving.
Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund. Fi2W podcasts are supported by WNYC, New York Public Radio and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.