Here we are, at the last installment of the series bringing the African Diaspora to your holiday table. Where we started and where we end is a celebration of who we are as individuals and as a collective. I’ve learned a lot about my personal food history and how it is connected to other Pan-African cultures.
We started at Thanksgiving with the traditional American and African-American foods we serve. We added new options like jollof rice from food historian Michael Twitty and Chef JJ Johnson’s sticky yam fried rice to replace traditional yams. We also added old ideas made new again, such as Chef Ashbell McElveen’s corn pudding recipe.
The second installment of the series was rife with opportunities to celebrate a Pan-African Christmas and Kwanzaa. Chef Raymond Mohan contributed a recipe for ginger beer and reminisced over souse and pepper pot from his home country of Guyana until his mouth began to water. Food historian Tonya Hopkins helped to draw direct connections between what we traditionally serve during Christmas and those dishes served during Kwanzaa.
In this installment, we continue the Kwanzaa celebration and use it as inspiration for New Year’s Eve and Day, which fall on the last two nights of this African-American celebration. There is also much historical significance in the last week of the year centered on food, family and togetherness.
New Year’s Eve, the sixth day of Kwanzaa (principle: kuumba, creativity), is traditionally the night of the karamu (feast) when all come together to eat and drink from the communal unity cup; and the seventh, and last, night (principle: imani, faith) is for gift giving. However, before these Kwanzaa rituals were created in 1966, my friend Erica Armstrong Dunbar, historian and author of the forthcoming book Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, tells me that this holiday week was given to the enslaved to fish, cook and eat together as “a brief and fleeting moment of rejuvenation from the relentless punishment of slavery.”
“It was also common for slave owners to settle financial debts at the beginning of the year, and this often meant selling property—human property,” says Armstrong Dunbar. “The holidays could be bittersweet for the enslaved as [holiday] meals with loved ones could also serve as last suppers.” From this, we can understand why a meal of any kind with friends and family during this time was crucial, welcomed and essential, even today.
Thanks to the fortitude of our ancestors, we celebrate the ending of one year and the beginning of the next without fear, and with food and libations. Traditionally, for me, and for most African Americans (really, Southerners in general), three foods must be eaten on New Year’s: black-eyed peas, rice and a mess of (collard) greens—not for luck, as most people think, but, as Chef Ashbell says, “[for] calling wealth and prosperity into the coming year.”
Every year I present my recipe for black-eyed peas in AmNewsFOOD, my weekly food column for the Amsterdam News. There will be no exception here. It will set you right as rain.
Perhaps, for your New Year’s Eve gathering, you can use these three essential foods of prosperity in a new way for hors d’oeuvres. With the help of some store-bought wonton skins, some mild cheese, a quick fry and your favorite hot sauce for dipping (from your bag, of course), “soul rolls” could be the move. Or try black-eyed peas and rice cakes topped with greens and hot sauce-scallion crema!
Now, what would a New Year’s celebration be without a libation or two … or three? But bringing the Diaspora to a cocktail? How could I ever do that? With the help of restaurateur and beverage director Karl Franz Williams of Harlem’s Solomon & Kuff. He offers a cocktail combining the history of rum with our beloved humble sweet tuber.
Williams tells me that rum was created by Barbados plantation slaves who turned the discarded molasses by-product of sugar production into rum as we know it by first fermenting it into a crude alcohol and then distilling it. He says, “The sticky, oozing, cloying liquid so vexed plantation owners, they either gave it to their slaves and livestock to eat, or bid their surplus molasses good riddance by dumping it into the ocean!”
Over the years, rum became so popular, it was used as currency and ironically was linked to the triangular trade that brought the majority of African slaves to the Americas. Williams’ rum-and-sweet-potato cocktail creation, the Kid Creole, is no exception to the African ingenuity that took every other discarded food product and turned it into something special.
2 ounces Blackwell's rum
1 ounce raw sweet potato juice (using a juicer or food processor)
0.75 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice
0.5 ounces Demerara sugar syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
1 dash orange bitters
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker over ice. Shake well and serve up in a martini glass. Garnish with a sweet potato chip.
Thank you for being on this food-sleuth journey with me. I wish you a very prosperous and delicious 2017!
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.