This post is also available in: Kreyol
This post is also available in: Kreyòl
It’s time to shred a t-shirt, and stretch your gouyad muscles
It’s time to shred a t-shirt, stretch your gouyad muscles, buy some ear plugs and oil your limbs. There is no party like Carnival in Haiti. Nowhere. You are not the everyday you, struggling for a couple gourdes to rub together for the tap tap or the everyday you, so wealthy you vacation daily. You become a gyrating, nearly deaf from the music, sweaty, nasty mess of complete joy. Carnival is chaos. Carnival is connection. Carnival is celebration.
Carnival gives us Mardi Gras, the last day of eating meat before the 40 days of penitence, Lent. The word Carnival means “good bye meat”. This is the Catholic tradition. However, Carnival stretches even further back. The tendrils of its roots dig into the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia which was created to invert social classes. There was only feasting and fun that were allowed. There was no work.
My first Carnival in Port-au-Prince was in 1976. There were gorgeous women in gowns on delicately decorated floats waving and throwing candy into the crowds. I stood in the luggage rack of our metallic blue Volkswagen beetle with my dad’s strong hands holding my chubby 3 year old legs steady so I wouldn’t tumble into the crowd. All the children were in costumes. We watched each other. It was a spectator sport. My last Carnival in Port-au-Prince was 2000. There was noise. The floats had just become speakers lashed together, the more, larger, louder, the better. Piles of speakers with too many people perched on top of them. The masses formed a dense snake that slithered through the streets. My friends and I tried to hold hands to stay together. It was impossible. Once we became part of the crowd, we were serpentine cells integrated into the snake. I lifted my feet and was just carried half a kilometer by the bodies pressed around me. My rib cage rattled in rhythm to the music. There were no costumes. There was only noise and bodies and sweat and fear and excitement and complete dissolution of self. It was life; pure and raw. Once my friends and I had been spit out by the snake, we met each other, hungry. Nearly every country (come on, North America! Get with it!) has a tradition of street food. China is probably the one with the greatest variety. However, who needs variety when you have fritay?
who needs variety when you have fritay?
After losing your identity and being squeezed so tightly by strangers, and screaming your favorite Carnival song so loudly, your voice leaves and your legs become as hollow as a Jacamelien papier mache mask. A machann slips a sheet of paper with a mountain of fritay under a mound of pikliz into your palm, and you are reborn. The heat of fried pork or beef and plantains and sweet potato and herb rich dough and manioc fritters and super spicy coleslaw pulls you back to yourself. Through the weight of a hefty portion made even heavier with a degui, you remember your strength. The paper gets translucent as grease saturates it, leaking through and down your arm. The smell of the food mingling with the smell of the fat that has been bubbling for days in the cauldron makes all the water in your body pool in your mouth. The first taste hits your tongue: salty, greasy, spicy, crispy, tender and everything that food should be. And you eat. And you eat. And you eat. And you pause to laugh at some joke that some stranger who is now your best friend has made. When you eat fritay on the street together after dancing for hours, you’re family.
Some tips on Fritay:
Fried foods are universally delicious. It’s something about the salty fattiness. When you fry things at home, you make them a far healthier treat if you use the right fats. Think animal fats. Any oil that is liquid at room temperature is too fragile to be heated turning whatever you’ve fried into a health destroying food. Use duck fat, lard, tallow, chicken fat, bacon grease and sometimes coconut oil. These heavily saturated fats can stand up under all that heat and won’t hurt you. Done using these fats, you can easily incorporate fried foods as a treat every couple weeks or so and not have it negatively affect you. If you are using vegetable oil, corn oil, olive oil, please, for me, the girl who dances next to you in the crowd screaming at the top of her lungs to some song about “bounda”, just don’t.
Get the right fats heated in your pot. Slice some meat or starchy vegetable. Fry it right up. Enjoy it!
See you in the crowd!