by David Cecelski
Today I visited a Haitian eatery in Mount Olive, a quiet little town surrounded by fields of tobacco, corn, and truck crops. A Haitian couple has recently opened the Haitian Caribbean Restaurant there, in a downtown building that they share with a thrift shop. It’s the only Haitian restaurant in the state, I’m almost sure, and I couldn’t resist stopping as I drove through Wayne County.
So far, Edgar Fragelus told me, he and his wife are serving a clientele largely of other Haitian immigrants. Over the last year, a sudden wave of Haitians has settled in Mount Olive. Most have come for jobs at Carolina Turkey, the world’s largest producer of turkeys (they’re the Butterball people) or at one of several other poultry and hog slaughterhouses.
When I was there today, the Haitian customers were all young, exuberant, and glad to be off work on a hot Saturday afternoon. Some had left Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, they told me. Others had lived in Florida for years, but had recently moved to Mount Olive. The lilt of their voices, speaking in French, Haitian Creole, and English, filled the dining room.
The specials board listed down-home Haitian cooking: a choice of stewed salt fish, beef liver, or chicken gizzards for breakfast. And for lunch: braised ox-tails, stewed goat, shrimp and rice, fried and stewed chicken, and a dish called legume, which, I was told, is a spicy beef and vegetable stew that is one of the meals that Haitians dream of most when they’re a long way from home.
The lunch menu also included a dish called ragout, which, some of Monsieur Fragelus’ customers told me, is shorthand for ragoût de porc, in French, or, in Haitian Creole, ragou pie cochin, a very typical Haitian stew made with sliced pig’s feet. (I tried a bite: tasty, but too rich for me.)
They also had another popular Haitian dish that I want to try next time: griot. It’s made with pieces of boiled ham or pork shoulder that have been marinated with habanero peppers, lime, garlic, cloves, onion, parsley, paprika and other spices, then fried and served with rice.
I went with the stewed goat, which turned out to be tender and delicious. Like all the restaurant’s specials, the goat was served with a golden yellow rice that was boiled in lard or fatback, colored with annatto seeds, and cooked with lima beans, carrots, potatoes, herbs, and little flecks of salt pork.
And for dessert, I had Madame Fragelus’ coconut cake. It’s called konparèt and is a specialty of Grand ‘Anse, on the far end of Haiti’s Tiburon Peninsula. As dry and hard as Italian biscotti, the cake had a taste of cinnamon and ginger that was so sharp and penetrating that the coconut was only a faint aftertaste, as surprising and delightful as a sudden breeze on a still summer day.
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The Haitian Caribbean Restaurant is located at 104 Main Street, just off Center Street, in downtown Mount Olive. It’s usually open 7 days a week, but I recommend calling ahead on Sundays and holidays: (919) 299-4143 .