BROCKTON – In St. Louis, Haiti, Sendy Nervil, an 8-year-old girl, walked two blocks to a fierce running river and spent the day watching her grandmother scrub clothes and cook recipes passed down for generations. The family caught fish and picked ripe mangos hanging on the trees.
“By the age of 12, I was a master at cooking. I knew how to make complicated dishes like legume,” said Nervil.
Legume is a beloved dish in Haitian cuisine. It’s a mixture of stewed vegetables and an array of meats and sometimes crab for a fancier dish. The different regions of Haiti have different versions of the dish, Nervil said.
Legume is not easy to make and requires several hours of preparation and cooking.
The dish is served with fried plantains, white rice and sometimes yellow yams.
In Haiti, girls are taught at a young age to cook and clean, Nervil said. She spent her childhood exploring the mountainous region of Haiti with friends and exploring her love of cooking.
“What I like the most about cooking isn’t eating but seeing people’s reactions to my food and them telling me how good it is,” Nervil said.
When Nervil was growing up, food and cooking were a lifeline for her family, and her grandmother owned a restaurant. As a child, Nervil spent hours daily sitting on the counter and watching her grandmother cook all types of authentic cuisine – from rolling freshly milled flour into pate, a flaky pastry filled with different meats, to diri djon djon, a black mushroom rice with green peas.
“One of my favorite childhood memories is cooking outside with my family. We spent all day cooking by the river. We would make rice and beans, catch fish and crab in the sweet water and find wood to cook it. I would trade anything for that right now,” Nervil said.
A next-door neighbor spent the mornings harvesting corn from the tall fields, then drying and grinding the corn and preparing a succulent meal of what Americans would call corn porridge.
Nervil started her successful cooking page in 2019 for fun and didn’t take it seriously until a year later. On Thanksgiving, Nervil made a small 20-second clip on Instagram of a Thanksgiving feast that went viral, and thousands of people started following her once-small cooking account.
“A lot of people noticed my cooking videos, and I got a lot of positive feedback. They saw the potential in me, and I saw the potential in myself,” Nervil said.
The boost of followers gave her the extra confidence to take cooking seriously. Several cooking platforms reposted her cooking video and brought more attention to her page.
“Once I started being consistent with myself, that’s when I started making progress,” Nervil said.
Three or four times a week, Nervil busts out her equipment using a cellphone, a tripod and a ring light to bring delicious recipes from her kitchen to your screen.
“I don’t use anything special. I use my phone and some lightning. I recommend people start with what they have,” Nervil said. “The audience is more interested in good-tasting recipes than fancy equipment or editing. I thought I needed nice lights and a fancy camera, but you don’t. I use iMovie. It’s free, and it works for me.”
Nervil hopes to expand her cooking videos to a cookbook and a spice company similar to McCormick and share her recipes with the world. She’d also like to own a restaurant that serves a mixture of Haitian and American food.
“Haitians have the best cuisine, and a lot of people don’t know how good the food is. I want to change that,” Nervil said.
She said she takes great care in her cooking, especially when she’s preparing soup joumou, which is made by Haitians every year on Jan. 1 to celebrate their independence from the French colonizers in 1804.
The enslaved people of Haiti were not allowed to eat squash, so they celebrate by making soup joumou. The soup is made of pureed squash cooked with meat, potatoes, assorted vegetables and noodles.
A quote that resonates with Nervil is from famous chef Anthony Bourdain, who died in 2018. Bourdain traveled all over the worldand shared his experiences through his television shows.
“Food is everything we are,” Bourdain said. “It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
Nervil said, “It’s a quote by one of the most inspiring chefs. I have great pride in my culture, history and traditions. So when I’m cooking Haitian food I do it with the most love and respect, especially dishes like soup joumou.”
Enterprise staff reporter Alisha Saint-Ciel can be reached by email at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter at @alishaspeakss. Support local journalism by purchasing a digital or print subscription to The Enterprise today.