A neon, red sign in cursive, lights up the face of Le Foyer Bakery in Mattapan, Massachusetts. The short, tan building stands in an open lot around a metal gate. I walked inside the bakery and was met with the smells of pastry dough and sugar. The chairs and tables are stacked away, due to coronavirus restrictions and take-out dining options. At the counter, there are display cases of sweet coconut deuces, vanilla-chocolate mille fleurs, and “langue boeuf”–translated to “beef tongue” in English from Haitian Creole–which have nothing to do with the animal and everything to do with the layers of bubbled, crisp, pastry lined with sugar crystals. The pastry’s namesake refers to its textured surface. Le Foyer opened its doors in 1976 by Edna Etienne. Even as it closes in ten minutes, customers still trickle in until the clock turns to the closing hour. The Nation of Islam’s “Final Call” newspaper is perched by the door, as the neighborhood delivery remains tall, in a neat pile. A picture of Etienne and Marty Walsh, the former Mayor of Boston, are perched above the coconut sweets on the glass. Le Foyer is most famous for their Haitian pates, savory pastries with beef, chicken, or herring fillings surrounded by warm, flaky cocoons. The restaurant preserves a sweet slice of Haitian culture within the Massachusetts community as Haiti goes through great turmoil.
I had come to Le Foyer as part of a tour of Boston-area Haitian restaurants—one inspired by a quest to better understand the Haitian community and capacity for resilience. Haiti holds the distinction of being the only country in the world, formerly known as a Black slave colony, to gain its independence as a country. From August 22nd, 1791, to January 1st, 1804, Haiti fought France, the world’s most powerful army at the time, and won their independence, creating the world’s second republic. Haiti’s landscape is green and mountainous but, due to their location, they have suffered catastrophic natural disasters such as a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in 2010. Haiti has also experienced political upheaval such as a coup led by the U.S. in 2004 and a forced exile of President Jean-Bertrand Astride. Today, Haiti is experiencing turmoil both economically and politically with the recent assassination of the former President, Jovenel Möise, along with an effective state collapse, internal corruption, and lost capital from the decades long “double debt” which was enforced by the French. Haiti is overrun by armed gangs, is experiencing a cholera outbreak, and shortages of food, clean water, and oil resources. These armed groups are even preventing doctors from practicing and treating their patients. The instability of both past and present has forced many Haitians to leave home in search for a better life and opportunities. Around 84,000 Haitians end up in greater Boston, which hosts the US’s largest Haitian diaspora after Miami and New York. Due to this immigration, the Haitian culture remains ever present in Massachusetts through pockets of neighborhood eateries dishing out Haitian delicacies and classics.
But why do Haitians come to Massachusetts in the first place? What inspired Haitian emigres to launch food businesses in this state? How are Haitians able to preserve their culture in this country as ongoing conflict occurs back home? As a first generation Haitian-American and one who has grown up consuming Haitian food, I decided to visit three restaurants I grew up eating with my own family.
Three established Haitian food business owners started out as immigrants in different professional fields but have all made their space in Massachusetts through their businesses. In their own unique ways, I’d learn, they are each representative of the resilience of Haitian people.
Let Me Try to Help Myself
On a November afternoon, in a tucked away corner of Hyde Park, two television screens stream the 2022 World Cup as customers line up and order bowls of Bouillon soup and fried seafood specials at Las Vegas Seafood Restaurant. The owner, Jean-Claude Dieudonne, walks from the back kitchen to the main counter, in a maroon shirt and apron, with containers filled with food for customers. The savory smells of griot–fried pork– and the acidity of vinegar in pickliz–a combination of pickled carrots, cabbage, and hot peppers– are commonplace within this restaurant that brings a small piece of Haiti to the Hyde Park community.
Jean-Claude Dieudonne was 28 years old in 1992, when he came to Massachusetts. Like most people, he came in search of a better life. Dieudonne worked at a restaurant in Massachusetts and recalled that he made good money. His boss overheard him talking about the money he was making and “he decided to cut my pay in half,” Dieudonne said, “I was upset so I thought, ‘let me try to help myself.’”
In 1998, Dieudonne left his former job and decided to charter his own path. Just two miles away from Mattapan, while Dieudonne was walking in Hyde Park, he noticed the building of a former pizza establishment listed for lease adjacent to a church. He inquired and toured the place with the real estate agent later that afternoon. The next day, on April 16th, he placed a $4000 down payment for the building and soon opened the first Las Vegas Seafood Restaurant. With a red door, green awning, and black & white checkered floors, the space is quaint but booming with clientele stopping by for lunch and dinner orders. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays–the busiest days for Dieudonne and his employees, he has around 400 customers. On his lighter days, he expects around 250.
Dieudonne said that his clientele is a mix of both Haitians and Americans. He loves all of his customers but attributes much of his success to his Haitian brethren who support him and his business everyday. Years later after the first opening of Las Vegas, Dieudonne’s commitment and success rates remained evident as he opened a second Las Vegas location in Mattapan Square. When asked about the importance of Las Vegas Seafood Restaurant, he smiled as he said, “My life is my business, my business is my life. I love myself the way I love my people.”
A fresh start and then a pandemic
Mercy Raymond-Olivier opened Oasis Caribbean Cuisine in Norwood, MA, January 19th, 2019, a year before the coronavirus pandemic when the world went into lockdown and businesses would struggle to stay afloat. Olivier was devastated as Oasis was her main stream of income after she quit her job six months prior. When I visited Oasis on a chilly November day, she told me, “I had nothing. I had no money and I used all of my savings to open the restaurant.”
Olivier came to the United States from Haiti in 1974. Her mother was already here working as a housekeeper in Boston and brought her to the states. “In those days,” Olivier said, “one family member would come [to the U.S] and then the whole family would join.” At the time, Olivier said that the government was unstable. In 1974, Haiti was run by a dictator named Jean-Claude Duvalier also known as “Baby Doc.” She said that everyone tried to leave Haiti if they were able to but it was difficult, “Most of us left Haiti for political reasons or for a better life.” When she came to the U.S, she said that she noticed there were no Haitian restaurants or many Haitians around at the time.
Olivier did not start her restaurant immediately, but she always dreamed of opening a Haitian restaurant since she was a little girl. However, her parents wanted her to go to college and get a degree. As a result of her parents’ expectations, Olivier began her professional journey as a medical records director. When her four children grew up she decided to open a catering business on the side, on the weekends, as a way to incorporate her passion for Haitian cooking. She didn’t go to culinary school but said that she watched her mother cook and made some of the recipes on her own.
In the town of Norwood, Oasis neighbors a small strip of stores and a few restaurants, just around the corner from the suburb’s town square. The restaurant stands out on the block with its colorful and inviting green borders and vibrantly painted flowers and “Bienvenue” message on the windows in the front.
When she reflected on her first days opening Oasis, Olivier said, “I remember when I made $145 in a day. I went home and cried. I almost closed.” While the first year of her business was slow, prior to the pandemic that would hit the next year, Olivier eventually was able to receive some government funding for her small business and came out alive from the toughest part of the pandemic, with the help of her dedicated customers. She was at Oasis every single day and said that she is thankful for its small size. If it were any bigger, she would have had to close. She attributes overcoming this obstacle to prayer, “I prayed to God everyday to help me.”
Olivier believes that preserving her culture is something that she aims to accomplish through her food. In her efforts to incorporate American food culture to her traditionally Haitian dishes, she found that she was creating more of a fusion of flavors, than anything else. She emphasizes that cooking Haitian food is important because it helps to preserve the culture. However, she admits that when she cooks she sometimes doesn’t cook food in a purely Haitian way, she adds some American foods and spices. Ultimately, “It is not fully American and not fully Haitian,” she said, “It becomes something new, something we created.”
Forging a Haitian Community
Like Olivier, Le Foyer’s Etienne learned to adapt to the American palate. In the early 1960s, Etienne came to the U.S. to go to school. She was sent to come here by her parents and was accepted into a college in New York where she met her husband. Within a month of their meeting, the couple got married and had lived together for 31 years until his recent death. By 1964, she was 27 years old, had two small children, and was working in insurance. In her free time she’d often make Haitian pates and other delicacies for her friends. Shortly after, she decided she wanted to open a bakery. She went to school to learn some pastry-making techniques and recipes. According to Etienne she wanted to learn to be able to make American pastries along with Haitian pastries.
Le Foyer has been open since 1976 and Etienne said that from the beginning it was herself and her Haitian people that supported her bakery. However, the bakery is more of a melting pot now in terms of clientele. Etienne said, “I will always call my place a Haitian place but we serve everyone. Haitian people are very faithful to me.” For Etienne, Le Foyer is important because “sometimes you want to have a taste of back home. [Haitians] know they can get it here.” The bakery has become a staple and backbone in the neighborhood for Haitians not only for their confectionery needs but as a place similar to their lives back home. They could come in and not be the minority, they could speak Haitian Creole, and order familiar Haitian pastries. Today, the bakery remains a small home away from home for Haitian immigrants.
As I ate a Haitian pate in the parking lot of Le Foyer, I couldn’t help but notice the stream of clients and the world that Etienne was able to build at this street corner. I thought about Olivier’s lifelong dream to open a Haitian restaurant along with the setbacks she faced, and Dieudonne’s drive to do better for himself. Their successes, in part, can be attributed to their dedicated Haitian customers, and the unrelenting support of their community. Haitians persevere and show resilience in times of strife. When asked how she would describe Haitian people Olivier said, “We are a very resilient people, [we are] hardworking, and loving.” What links each business-owner together is their love for food and their commitment to preserving Haitian culture in Massachusetts. Haitians have made a home in Massachusetts, an unfamiliar place where temperatures fall below freezing and the same spices found on the tropical island are harder to come by in grocery stores, but Etienne, Dieudonne, and Olivier have created a legacy for themselves and for the Haitian community. Their establishments are representative of Haitian resilience and the conservation of Haitian culture, institutions, and legacies outside of Haiti. Etienne said, “We are faithful people. In spite of what people may think, we are good people too.”