Turkey, ham, stuffing or dressing, gravy, collard greens, mac and cheese, candied yams (with marshmallows), cranberry sauce (from the can … gotta be from the can)—yes, it’s Thanksgiving, and this menu is the foundation. It is so ubiquitous; asking your friends what they will be eating this holiday is reduced to shorthand, an easy guessing game, an eye roll as if to say, “The same thing on your table” or all of the above.
Now, don’t get me wrong; there is beauty and history in the traditions of this menu, and variations in styles of preparing it, and the perfect Thanksgiving bite can only be found through this menu (for me, turkey, gravy, stuffing, a little yam, dollop of cranberry sauce. BOOM!). However, the food universe is vast, and our food history is rich with flavors both born in Africa and developed by the people of the Diaspora. The holidays are the perfect opportunity to introduce these old but new flavors to the table and bring with it some history to share.
I called on some foodie friends and colleagues for guidance in my pursuit of a new dish from the Diaspora for Thanksgiving, asking them what they would put on their table. Each of them offered different methodologies driven by ingredient, region and history.
Chef, restaurateur and Pan-African food seeker Alexander Smalls says, “You cannot go wrong when you want to bring in the true African experience with okra, collards and beans [specifically, black-eyed peas]. This is how you speak to the Diaspora.” His “pursuit of flavor” fuses traditional foods with a nod to the Diaspora, like adding mango and coconut to cranberry sauce and turning a simple roast turkey into Senegalese yassa turkey stuffed with sticky rice and Asian sausage. Smalls also suggests using African linens, serving vessels and decorations, since they can be small but significant conversation starters.
Executive Chef JJ Johnson of Harlem’s the Cecil believes in taking traditional ideas of the foods we love and evolving them to today. He wonders why rice, with all of its history both in and out of the Diaspora, is not on the Thanksgiving table, and offered to replace yams with a sticky candied-yam fried rice with apples and spicy sausage. I would certainly have a mound of that on my plate.
Leave it to the food historians to take a different tactic. Michael Twitty of Afroculinaria wants us to approach the table as a family reunion between the old and the new. “It’s a teaching opportunity to reintroduce [those] traditions back into the family and tell those stories anew,” he says, offering healthier dishes from the continent like kachumbari, a spicy salad; nkatenkwan, groundnut stew; and the widely eaten jollof rice, which he calls the “granddaddy of Southern red rice.”
Tonya Hopkins, co-founder of the James Hemings Foundation, suggests that African Americans know more about Thanksgiving dinner than most, since they were the ones preparing it for others mostly. She believes that the key ingredients to bringing dishes from the Diaspora to the holiday table are time and collective work. Dishes like Brazilian feijoada, gumbo and, her favorite, corn tamales are examples of what families can share during this significant bonding time.
And speaking of corn, Chef Ashbell McElveen, founder of the James Hemings Foundation, wants to pay homage to his Cherokee heritage and bring corn pudding back to the Thanksgiving table. As the history goes, Native Americans taught enslaved African Americans how to grow and cook corn. Based on British food tradition, early black Colonial cooks began to add eggs and milk to the pounded corn, making a savory pudding.
It was a staple on every Southern Thanksgiving table for over 200 years. Chef Ashbell says, “it’s about time this delicious dish is put back on our tables!” Here’s his beloved recipe:
Chef Ashbell McElveen’s Corn Pudding
1 stick sweet butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Pinch of nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
5 whole eggs
2 cups milk (cow, soy or almond)
2 8-oz. cans cream corn (or 2 8-oz. bags fresh frozen corn, blended smooth with 1/4 cup water to make a creamy consistency)
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In skillet, melt butter. Add onion, parsley, garlic, nutmeg and salt (if using). Sauté until onion is soft but not brown.
- In bowl, combine eggs and milk and mix well. Add cream corn, onion-butter mixture and breadcrumbs, and make sure everything is well-combined.
- Butter ovenproof dish and pour in mixture, making sure it’s evenly spread.
- Bake in middle of oven 35-45 minutes. Pudding is done when toothpick comes out clean. It will jiggle some but should be fluffy and light. Bake additional 15-20 minutes for firmer texture.
Kysha Harris is the food editor for the Amsterdam News, a food writer, a culinary producer, a consultant and the owner of SCHOP!, a personalized food service in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.