What Our Ancestors Ate for the Holidays

Today's Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are just a taste of how African Americans used to eat.

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Courtesy of Early Pictures

Before you slice into that sweet potato pie, douse those greens in hot sauce or cut a corner of macaroni and cheese this holiday season, consider what you may be missing.

African-American food historian Leni Sorensen says that the iconic images of soul food during Thanksgiving and Christmas represent a small slice of black American culinary customs. "There's a wide repertoire of food. Everybody understands the iconic list of greens and pork chops and corn bread and sweet potato pie. But that is only a minor list of all of the different foods that people eat within their own communities," says Sorensen, a researcher at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

In the late 19th century, geography factored in how people celebrated the yuletide season. During this time, African Americans lived mostly a rural existence, which translated into a farm-to-table lifestyle.

The Taste of Country Cooking by the late culinary giant Edna Lewis resonates for Sorensen because it shows patterns of local community informing holiday celebrations.

"She writes beautifully [about the] central Virginia area and getting ready for Christmas," Sorensen says. Lewis reminisces about family members telling her stories of the 1880s and 1890s. This was the only time of year in which they savored almonds, oranges and raisins. Christmas Eve supper consisted of oyster stew, country ham and yeast bread with blackberry jelly, alongside cakes and cookies.

In South Carolina, Christmas dinner might consist of rice and shellfish. In New Orleans, the buffet would be filled with seafood from the Gulf Coast. 

In the 20th century, as blacks migrated north, new dishes emerged in the urban environment. "People moved away from being on farms very dramatically. Urban families began to eat very differently," Sorensen says. Domestic workers cooked what the families they worked for craved or perhaps stood behind the stove in a hotel kitchen. And that widened their breadth of cooking.

In the mid-20th century's The Ebony Cookbook: A Date With a Dish, Freda DeKnight includes a menu for Thanksgiving that features avocado and crabmeat cocktail, eggplant casserole, suet pudding with rum sauce and squash pie. The turkey is prepared in wine.

She also creates a holiday buffet, prefacing the menu by writing, "Red and green predominating in every conceivable combination, gaiety, the spirit of giving ... If it isn't ice or snow, then it's the tropical touch of live green, real poinsettias, flowers, berries and every imaginable form of life proving that it is time to celebrate. So it's little wonder that at this time the Board Gourmets have passed a law to 'Eat, Drink and be Merry,' and this you shall do if you follow The Little Brown Chef's menu of colorful, fabulous foods!" DeKnight's macaroni salad with whole shrimp on a bed of romaine lettuce is molded to resemble a wreath of holly.

To Sorensen, these recipes are proof that African Americans are deeply intertwined with American culinary traditions. "I do resist in many ways that there's this separate, distinct African-American way to be. I believe that we have been so completely immersed and integral to the development of the general American culinary scene," Sorensen says.

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