How was your first helping of the holiday meals? Did you go in on all of your favorites when you went home for the holidays, as if mini marshmallows only exist within a 1-mile radius of your parents’ home … for three days of the year?
Did you try the corn-pudding recipe from the founder of the James Hemings Foundation, Chef Ashbell McElveen, in the first installment of this series? It is a sweet homage to our industrious ancestors who added milk and eggs to Native American simple corn mash. Or, perhaps, did Chef Alexander Smalls’ turkey recipe, inspired by the West African favorite, yassa chicken, whet your whistle? You’ve plenty of time to turn your turkey game on its “pope’s nose” before Christmas!
If Thanksgiving wasn’t your jam to bring the African Diaspora to the table, let me try, try again. Fortunately, we have a built-in annual seven-day celebration that can assist us to this end. That’s right, I am talking about the somewhat maligned African-American-created celebration of Kwanzaa.
Other than my love of saying the word “Kujichagulia” for its rhythmic cadence (which I used when singing the theme song of Welcome Back Kotter before I knew the real lyrics), Kwanzaa seems like the giftless black cousin to Hanukkah, replete with a daily candle-lighting ceremony. However, Kwanzaa’s principles and the celebration of Pan-African foods can be an impactful unifier for all, some of which might already be incorporated into your current Christmas celebration.
For help with this assignment, I asked food historian Tonya Hopkins, co-founder of the James Hemings Foundation, about gateway Kwanzaa foods and principles and the Pan-African dishes we can bring to our holiday tables. She suggests that Kwanzaa’s principles and the foods accompanying them can serve as a salve for all that transpired in the past year and all that is to come in the New Year.
“The very word ‘Kwanzaa,’ derived from a Swahili phrase, means ‘first fruits of the harvest’ and calls on the indigenous African foodstuffs and those introduced to the Americas from Africa,” she writes in her 2014 Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America entry.
From an African basket or wooden bowl of fruits and vegetables to the passing of a unity cup filled with libations for the ancestors, Hopkins says, “Food imagery is woven throughout the fabric of the holiday and shows up prominently on the Kwanzaa table.”
While there is no set menu, it is customary to serve dishes using native African ingredients like black-eyed peas, yams, leafy greens, rice, chilies, peppers and more. Already sounding familiar, eh? Then hold on to your buttermilk biscuits, because they, along with myriad other breads we love—fish, shellfish and poultry, hearty stews and one-pot dishes, along with fruit-based drinks and desserts—can all be celebrated over the seven days of Kwanzaa.
We have enjoyed most if not all of the foods of Kwanzaa on our Christmas tables and beyond, but I wanted to go deeper to uncover some of these Pan-African universal food truths. I headed over to meet my friend and co-owner of LoLo’s Seafood Shack in Harlem, Chef Raymond Zamanta Mohan, to ask him what was prepared during Christmas back in his Caribbean home country of Guyana.
Chef Mohan began reminiscing fondly, starting one week before Christmas, when all of the fruit-filled rum cakes were baked and beverages made, including sorrel, mauby and ginger beer:
Chef Raymond Zamanta Mohan’s Ginger Beer
1 pound fresh ginger, grated or processed in a blender
2 gallons water
1 pound brown sugar
- Bring all ingredients to simmer and let sit overnight at room temperature.
- Stir the mixture and serve over ice.
- Keep refrigerated thereafter.
He quickly mentions baked chicken, but by the time he rounds the corner to his favorite dish of souse, he says, “My mouth is watering … I want some.”
It is a collagen soup historically made from unwanted animal parts like the feet, head and tail. Much like the beginnings of my Louisiana grandmother’s cold hogshead cheese, souse is cooked for hours until it falls apart and is served hot with fresh lime, onions and chili peppers. His affinity for souse carries over to the Guyanese pepper pot, too, where molasses is added to the cooking process, yielding a sweet and spicy dish that is served with homemade bread.
And there it is … Chef Mohan, like most of us, unknowingly hit all of the Kwanzaa food markers: one-pot dishes, bread, fruit-based drinks and desserts, poultry and so much more. I say keep doing what you do, and now, with your Pan-African family in mind—and, as Tonya Hopkins suggests—meditate on one of the seven principles each day of Kwanzaa to become more mindful and present during the holiday season.
Merry Christmas and happy Kwanzaa to all, and to all … Kujichagulia! (Had to say it again!)
Kysha Harris is the food editor for the Amsterdam News/AmNewsFood, 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.