What Our Ancestors Ate for the Holidays

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

Courtesy of Early Pictures
Courtesy of Early Pictures

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.

Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Recipes and Reminiscences of a Family by sisters Norma Jean and Carole Darden offers oral history and recipes in chronicling African-American life and culture. Their grandmother’s traditions trickled down. She lived on a dairy farm and wanted milk and cream in the family’s dishes. A favorite dish was painted Christmas cookies, made with rose water and orange-flower water.

This doesn’t mean that soul food this season is antithetical to the black food experience; it’s just not the only one.

Sorensen will be preparing Thanksgiving dinner for her family this week. She’s been cooking since age 9. Her dinner table will have turkey with corn bread dressing on the side, many quarts of giblet gravy, whole cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. But in homage to her stepfather — who hailed from Algiers, La. — she’ll make smoked oysters for an appetizer, corn and peas as a side dish. And finally, candied yams in a cast-iron pot — without marshmallows. Just like he taught her.

Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ-Chicago. Follow her on Twitter.

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