It’s not really pleasant to think that while you’re perusing Edible’s lavish collection of recipes, dooo dee dooo, planning your weekly shopping, fa la la, that a child in Haiti may be eating a mud cookie made of dirt, water, shortening and lemon juice for sustenance. But we all know these realities exist side by side.
Some of us hold this tension more closely than others on a day-to-day basis. For Fofo Voltaire, Haitian-American, founder of Hands of the Caribbean, chef, and lover of Caribbean food, this tension is front and center, a constant pulling.
Fofo’s goal is to affix Haiti in our mind’s eye, not as just a passing cause celebre after the earthquake of 2010, but as a constant presence. She uses her gift of infusing sultry and polychromatic Caribbean flavors into local cuisine to raise money and draw attention to her home country.
Bio: Fofo has lived in Albuquerque since 1982. You may remember her flash in the pan restaurant Caribbean Temptations or her Caribbean Temptations spice mix when it was carried by Costco. She now owns the Event Palace on Eubank and San Pablo, sells her wares at the Tuesday (Academy) and Thursday (Nob Hill) growers markets, and online. All of the proceeds from her stand go to support Hands of the Caribbean, her nonprofit dedicated to bringing new hope and new opportunities to Haitians.
Haiti Today: When Fofo visited Haiti this past February, a full three years after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake had left the country in shambles, she was horrified to see women still living in tents without access to clean water. This included breastfeeding mothers whose babies were “sucking on air.” “You see people in tents with no limbs…things that hurt you, that you cannot help.”
Fofo also recounts her experience stepping off the plane in Port-Au-Prince and being approached by young men who hoped she was bringing in condoms. “Safe-sex is also an issue.”
It’s hard to imagine what isn’t an issue there where resources are concerned. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere–half of the population lives on less than one dollar per day. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, “6.7 million people (out of a population of about 10 million) are considered food insecure, and over half of the food consumed is imported – including more than 80% of the rice.”
Hands of the Caribbean: On that same visit to Haiti, a young man approached Fofo asking for money. She refused a straight hand-out but offered an alternative: if the young man could find a trade school, she would pay his tuition. Fofo suggested a degree in plumbing or culinary arts–highly employable skills in that part of the world, snatched up by hotels, cruise lines and restaurants. Her 501c3 organization Hands of the Caribbean, launched in 2008, has since helped three other students go to trade school at Centre D’etudes Professionelles de Carrefour. Some of them have sent graduation pictures to Fofo on Facebook.
Fofo has more plans up her sleeve. She wants to bring Haitians to the U.S. to study at an American culinary school or local trade school such as CNM. Fofo says she will try “all the culinary schools in the U.S.” until she finds one who is willing to partner. “Teach them how to fish versus giving them fish” is the cornerstone of the organization’s philosophy.
In short the mission of Hands of the Caribbean is to “increase access for women to receive an education by providing women necessary assistance to attend trade school and provide them with a birthing kit.”
Which is not to say the nonprofit solely helps women–25% of the students have been men. The cost from start to finish, including transportation to school and housing, is about $1,200 per student.
If you’re interested in supporting Hands of the Caribbean you have a few painless, and actually pleasurable, options–attend one of the monthly fundraising Caribbean-island-themed dinners (first one is November 30), buy Fofo’s products at the growers market or order a Caribbean Temptation holiday gift basket for your Christmas giving this year.
Fofo says Hands of the Caribbean is also accepting donations of used cars either to sell for funds or to ship to Haiti. Cash donations, of course, are always welcome as well.
Product: Fofo can be found holding down the fort behind large barrels of herbed fruit drinks and arrays of homemade pies at the Tuesday (Academy) and Thursday (Nob Hill) grower’s markets. Her wares include peach pie, sweet potato pie, green chile cornbread, and New Mexico pecans roasted with red and green chile powder, lightly sweetened with agave nectar. Also on hand–her beloved spice mixes for seafood, poultry and jerk chicken.
What Fofo Misses Most About Haitian Food: Though Talin imports a raft of equatorial ingredients, one thing Fofo really misses is fresh conch…yes the mollusk plucked from that iconic, ruffly, spired shell is pounded, filleted, boiled then eaten. Fofo likens the texture to clams. “Caribbean men love eating that fish,” says Fofo. One only needs to glance at the conch shell to guess why it’s assumed to have aphrodisiacal qualities.
She also misses morue, or salty codfish. And, of course, imported fruit can’t compare to what you pick fresh off the islands trees. Still, Fofo is happy for the frozen guanabana at Talin.
Favorite place to eat in Albuquerque: Le Paris French Bakery for their French bread and French sandwiches.
What She Loves About New Mexican Produce: “I really do like the New Mexican peaches!” Fofo has a sweet little deal with another vendor at the market–they’ll supply Fofo with seconds–damaged peaches that they can’t sell–and she’ll supply them with a pie. “I make peach pie and turn it into Caribbean pie.” (She won’t reveal her secret, but she says the transfiguration comes in the way the peaches are processed and that “the flavor of the peach changes.”)
Caribbean/New Mexican Fusion: Fofo delights in the exotification of New Mexican food products. She enlists New Mexican sweet corn to make a extremely popular Haitian breakfast drink of fresh grated corn and coconut milk. She has also made corn meal ice cream, another Haitian treat, out of local meal.
Chicken burritos become Caribbean burritos under Fofo’s hand, a feat accomplished with the addition of Caribbean spices and her traditional Caribbean method of cooking the chicken. And Fofo does like green chile. “I like flavorful food not ‘spicy’ food.” As we all know, a green chile can be hot but lack flavor.
On the Fork: Caribbean-Style Vegetable Potpourri. This is a prime example of Fofo’s aptitude for taking familiar produce and converting it for exotic dishes. All of the main ingredients are local–eggplant, snowpeas, garlic, eggplant, onion, jalapeno, apple. The rosemary comes from her garden (in Haiti one would use water cress for the rosemary and sweet peas instead of snow peas). The jalapeno would be a habanero, the green apple, guava. Fofo likes this recipe because it is simple and healthy. The eggplant is robust and meaty, the apple adds a faint sweetness and fruit note, the tomato softens to a light sauce. The veggies should be cooked but still firm and full of juice. Serve warm on a baguette or over steamed rice.
Then take a moment to be grateful for your food. From deep gratitude springs action. In the words of Henri Frederic Amiel: “Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”