by Michael Hogan
Joanne Coriolan, 32, is a woman with a delightful smile and eyes that sparkle when she speaks of the passion for her family, her cooking and the history of her Haitian culture. Joanne is clearly a woman on a mission. Born in Haiti, she moved to Brooklyn, NY, when she was five. The oldest of four children, she spent most of her time helping to care for her family. She speaks tenderly of her memories of those times, especially in the kitchen, recalling the smells of fresh spices and herbs. “You learned everything in the kitchen. Everyone gathered in the kitchen,” she says fondly.
“Haitian cooking is all about simplicity and preparation,” Joanne says. “I always want to stay true to the process, the fresh ground spices, the local produce. Traditionally, what we ate and how we prepared it depended on the region of the island where we lived. There was never much, but it was always fresh.”
A typical Haitian staple meal was polenta with bean or creole sauce. Meat dishes were celebratory and would be prepared well in advance. Without refrigeration, clever ways had to be found to cure the meat. One such dish was Griot; cubes of pork shoulder marinated in a parsley-based Creole sauce and sour orange, giving it a distinctly Haitian flavor.
After graduation from the State University of New York, Joanne moved to Chestnut Hill with her husband, Mark, a graduate student at Temple University. Joanne herself is now a graduate student in Business Administration at Chestnut Hill College. She also works full-time at Wells Fargo Bank.
It was at her home in Chestnut Hill Village where she began a cooking club with other Haitian-American women (they called themselves the “Cooking Divas”), and found her calling to teach others all that she had learned about Haitian cuisine, culture and history.
“Let me tell you about pumpkin soup,” she says with the intent of a teacher who truly cares about her subject. “In 1804 the people of Haiti paid the French government $1 million and gained their independence. Every January 1st we celebrate that independence by making pumpkin soup.”
She goes on to explain how the French had ravaged the land, so very little could grow, and the livestock were too ill to breed. Wanting to celebrate, however, the people threw what they could into a pot. Most families only had pumpkin and squash, so to this day Haitian families make pumpkin soup on the first day of the year, although it has become a friendly community contest to see who can make the best. “As long as you start with pumpkin and squash, you can add anything you like,” Joanne explains.
The CHC grad student learned most of what she knows about cooking from her grandmother, although, she adds, “My dad also loved to cook, and he had the best recipe for red snapper!” She loves to talk about the time spent in the kitchen with her family; the conversations, the laughter and the amazing aromas. She remembers the jars of pickled herbs, the watercress, rice and peas with jerk chicken, root vegetables, okra, yucca, mint and ginger.
“I am not a chef,” Joanne says enthusiastically. “I just have a passion for cooking and teaching.” Indeed, she does. Out of those early years in the kitchen with her family and then her cooking club, has come her latest venture, Island Flavor Cuisine, a catering company she owns and operates in Mt. Airy. She also teaches Caribbean Cooking classes through Mt. Airy Learning Tree and Abington Adult School.
She is currently working on a book with her mother that will combine Haitian and family recipes with cultural and historical thoughts about her homeland. Her 10-year goal is to open a Haitian restaurant in the area. Obviously, Mrs. Coriolan has a lot on her plate. When you meet her, you’ll realize that she’s more than capable of keeping all those fires going without burning a single dish.
Joanne now lives in Mt. Airy with her husband Mark, their two sons Matthew, 7, and Justin, 9 months, their dog, Baxter, and a goldfish. When I ask Matthew what his favorite food is that his mom makes for him, he says with a big smile, “Milkshakes!” Joanne laughs and says, “Well, at least my husband and my dog like my cooking!”
Joanne Coriolan can be reached at email@example.com or through Mt. Airy Learning Tree. Her MALT classes will be held Oct. 6 and 13, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, 6511 Lincoln Drive. Register at 215-843-6333 or online 24/7 at www.mtairylearningtree.org.