“What is that smell?” My poor American friend had no idea tonight was the night my mother was making another batch of Epice. “It’s Epice,” I said. Since the beginning of time, or at least before I was born, Haitian matriarchs have said no thank you to salt and pepper and created their own seasoning. There is more to epice than just seasoning/marinade for me, there are stories and lessons. Let’s go back.
In my younger years, I asked my mother the same question. I was watching television in my room and suddenly it started to smell. The sounds of the blender shortly followed. Seeing as how my spoiled self wanted to watch my scheduled Nickelodeon program sans smell and sounds of the blender, I hopped out of my bed and followed the smell into the kitchen. I found my mother and aunt laughing in the kitchen. “Mummy, what are you making, it’s making my room stink.” “Epice,” my aunt called out. Confused I looked over in the giant pot on the stove to find raw chicken with a green paste on it. “Why are you putting that green stuff on it?” “That’s the epice cherie (sweetie), it’s seasoning, it makes the chicken taste good.” “Tatie (auntie), why does it smell like that?” “Because of all the stuff we blended together to make it, Rachel. Why don’t you sit down and watch so you can learn how to make it?” “I don’t want to, I want to watch t.v.” “Alright,” she said and proceeded to gossip with my mother. I started to leave the kitchen and went back to my room but looking back I can see that cooking was the work and the reward was the conversation between people while making it.
In my teen years my appetite grew bigger, however, my desire to learn how to cook was still nonexistent. My mother always made sure I was fed as soon as I said, “I’m hungry.” I would find her in the kitchen whipping up something that my stomach impatiently waited for. “Mummy is the food almost done,” I asked in the whiniest voice you could think of. When she was annoyed with me, (and frankly I don’t blame her, I was a little turd with a black hole for a stomach who never cooked for her) she would ask, “Why don’t you learn to cook? Then when I’m not here you can make it yourself.” By that time, I would roll my eyes and go back to my room like the little anti-social recluse I was. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother was trying to teach me something. She wanted me to learn how to cook so I would be able to feed myself and my future husband and children. She wanted me to be able to survive when she was not here.
In recent years when I lived with my aunt, Saturday was food prep day. Early in the morning my aunt would start making the food. My cousin would work on prepping the ingredients for the epice which are scallions, onions, parsley, red and green peppers, and garlic. My other cousin would come soon after and play Kompa (Haitian dance music) and blend them all together. It’s a pretty simple recipe: a whole garlic, half a cup of chopped parsley, one quarter cup of diced onions, one quarter cup of chopped scallions, and three quarters cup of diced red and green peppers. After combining the ingredients, you just blend the ingredients up into a paste. That’s it, easy peasy.
If you guessed I was in my room taking no part in the cooking, you are absolutely right. The laughter would be so loud. It was just the right level of loud to lure me out of my room. As soon as I opened my bedroom door the smell hit me like a bag of bricks. I went downstairs to take in the scene. I walked into an in-depth gossip conversation. “That baby isn’t his son! Everybody knows it! He looks just like Frère (brother) Mickey!” Then my oldest cousin jumped up and started dancing because her song came on, garlicky gloves and all. My other cousin joined in and my aunt and I started laughing. Gossiping cousins, messy hands, and comical dance breaks every now and then, it was worth me coming out of my room.
Now, I’ve realized I in fact do want to learn how to cook. My favorite meal involving epice is baked chicken and macaroni and cheese because it tastes amazing and gives me a nostalgic feeling. I used to eat it Sunday afternoon after church in front of the tv like clockwork. There was a feeling of comfort in the expectation of knowing that my mommy’s mac and cheese and cartoons were waiting for me as soon as I got home. I want to learn how to make it and other Haitian meals and pass it down to my future children because why wouldn’t I want them to have that same feeling when they eat the foods I’ve made for them?
My mother and aunt still grill me to this day. “What are you going to do when you get married? What are you going to feed your kids?” I used to say “I’ll learn to cook when I get married. My husband will do some cooking, too. It won’t always be me.” Somehow, preparing epice sparks conversation. What else is there to do but gossip with your family when you’re sitting around making food for the family? The most conversation I’ve had was “keep the change” since I’m always ordering out. There is no laughter, no gossip, and no lesson. I’ve realized you get more than just a cooking lesson with Epice Making 101. You get conversation, laughter, gossip, and eventually a fully cooked dinner you can enjoy with the family where you can continue the conversation.