In this installment of our series on foods of the African diaspora, Jessica B. Harris takes us to the Fête des Cuisinières in Guadeloupe with a Creole salad made with christophine—a squash that goes by many names.
Shaved Chayote Salad from Guadeloupe for Fête de Cuisinaire
Credit: Andrea Mathis

For almost a decade I knew that if it was mid-August, it was time to make my annual trek from Martha's Vineyard down to the Caribbean with my suitcase filled with more than the usual amount of gold jewelry, eyelet slips, traditional Creole dresses and Madras head ties, along with the business-related notes and other impedimenta that are a part of my life. First, there were meetings in Barbados, where I consulted for a hotel chain. Work done, I was off on an island-hopping flight to Guadeloupe for the Fête des Cuisinières.

Guadeloupe's annual feast of the women cooks is like nothing else in the region: a daylong celebration of the glories of French-style Creole food and the women who cook it. The day begins with a high mass at the cathedral with all the members present of the Association des Cuisinières and the Mutuel Cuistot: two century-old mutual aid organizations that are guardians of Guadeloupe's culinary patrimony. The women, who range in age from their 20s and 30s to nonagenarians and centenarians and are the true guardians of the island's culinary heritage, are all dressed in full Creole finery complete with aprons hung with miniature whisks, pots and pans. Their aprons are decorated with a grill, the symbol of St. Lawrence, their patron, who was martyred on the grill.

Following the mass, the crowd troops through the streets of Pointe-à-Pitre celebrating and carrying a statue of St. Lawrence. The parade ends at a schoolyard, where the cooks, their guests and those fortunate enough to have obtained tickets gather for a lunch that begins with ample rounds of the lime, rum and sugar cocktail known as ti punch.

Soon, the political speeches are over, and the meal is served. Usually there are codfish fritters and other traditional nibbles to start the feast and the main dishes are an assortment of curries (called colombos in Guadeloupe) served with rice. I always hoped to find the summer-perfect salad of the shaved squash that is known in Guadeloupe as christophine. (It is also known as chayote in Mexico and parts of the U.S., chocho in Jamaica, xuxu in Brazil and mirliton in New Orleans and elsewhere in Louisiana.) The slippery coolness of the salad is always the perfect counterpoint to the spiciness of the curries and a welcome antidote to the heat of the day.

After the rum has flowed, it's off to the dance floor for an afternoon of dancing the beguine, the music and dance that was at home here long before Cole Porter heard it. All too soon, the party is over and it's time to head to my girlfriend's home to fix another ti punch and worry about where to go for dinner.

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Shaved Chayote Salad from Guadeloupe for Fête de Cuisinaire
Credit: Andrea Mathis

Salade de Christophines (Chayote Salad)

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This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see  Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America and her  Juneteenth Celebration Menu.  Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.