A Classic Kwanzaa Table

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in: Cooking

Kwanzaa, created just 43 years ago when cultural nationalist Maulana Karenga decided that African-Americans needed a time for cultural reaffirmation and reflection, is a holiday where rich family food traditions and global cuisine influences make their mark on the celebratory meal each night.

For each of seven evenings, the family gathers around the centerpiece and asks the question, “Habari gani?” which means “what’s up” or “what’s the news.” The answer is the Kwanzaa principle of the day, which is discussed by the entire assembled household.

The mzao or fruits of the harvest are an important part of the ceremonial centerpiece. As a food historian, I use fruits and vegetables that are symbolic of the food of African-Americans, so my Kwanzaa centerpiece has on it sweet potatoes and true African yam, okra and black-eyed peas. I add sesame seed for good luck and in recognition that it kept its Wolof name from Senegal in the Carolina Low Country, where it is known as benne. I also include a few peanuts for George Washington Carver and in tribute to the creativity of millions of unknown African-American inventors. There’s always a branch or two of cotton and a stalk of sugar cane to remind my friends and me of why many of us were brought to this hemisphere.

I add a mango or two and sprinkle around the dried sepals of sorrel just to make my Caribbean friends smile. There are oranges, apples, pears and grapes for the bounty of the new land in which we live and a banana or two because my mother loved to eat them.

I place the accent on abundance and love to explain to children and adults alike what the unknown items are.

The kikombe cha umoja, or chalice of unity, represents the most spiritual part of the holiday for me, for from it libation is poured each night for the ancestors before the discussion of the day’s principle. The final symbol is the most awaited by children — the zawadi or gifts that are given not simply because it’s time and it must be done, but rather to reward for attainment and to encourage to higher goals.

Seven Principles

Kwanzaa is a new holiday, to be sure, and there are definite precepts and symbols that go with its celebration. Some of the fun, though, comes from the fact that it is a new holiday, and so traditions are being built by families as they celebrate. In this I feel that the African-American talent for improvisation is best put to work.

The nguzo saba, the seven principles, are a collection of building blocks of self-awareness:
Umoja — Unity
Kujichagulia — Self Determination
Ujima — Collective Work and Responsibility
Ujamaa — Cooperative Economics
Nia — Purpose
Kuumba — Creativity
Imani — Faith

Created in 1966, Kwanzaa is now celebrated by millions in the United States and is catching on in African Diaspora communities around the world. Karenga took his inspiration from Africa and created a celebration that is a compilation of several harvest festivals and celebrations from that continent.

The African-American Kwanzaa, with two A’s at the end, is derived from the Kiswahili word kwanza, meaning “first,” from the expression matunda ya kwanza (first fruits of the harvest). Indeed, the African-American holiday metaphorically celebrates the harvest of those of African descent whose roots are in Africa, but whose branches give fruit in a new world.

The holiday is celebrated during the same period as Christmas and goes from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, but Kwanzaa is a secular holiday and may be celebrated by any faith, either with their traditions or separately. For everyone, Kwanzaa is a year-end period of reflection, self-examination and self-affirmation. For purists, it represents a conscious refusal of the rampant commercialism that has overtaken many of the other year-end holidays. It is a time for nurturing the youngsters of the African-American community and a time when the maxim “It takes a village to raise a child” comes into full play.

Each of the seven principles represents a community virtue that is to be discussed and instilled through the seven nights of the holiday. The mystical number seven is at the core of the holiday. For in addition to seven days and seven principles, there are also seven symbols. These symbols are present in the Kwanzaa centerpiece that is the locus around which the holiday is celebrated. The mkeka is the mat on which the centerpiece is arranged. An proverb states, “If you know who you are, you know where you’re going.” The mkeka reminds us of the foundation of the holiday and of people of African descent. The kinara, or seven-branched candelabra reminds us of our ancestors. In it are placed the mishumaa saba, the seven candles — three red representing struggle, three green representing the future of attainment and one central black for the people. After the first night of Kwanzaa, the candles are lighted alternately from the red ones on the left to the green on the right to remind that, without struggle there is no attainment. The muhindi or ears of Indian corn represent the children in each household and signify continuity and potential. Even if there are no children in the household, each centerpiece will have one ear to remind that we are responsible for the children of our neighbors and of our community.

Many families choose to celebrate the holiday with a special family meal each night during the holiday period, and many use traditional family recipes as well as recipes that hark back to the African continent or compass points of the African diaspora. So, remember the principle of nia and think of dishes such as a Senegalese chicken yassa or a North African carrot salad and then bring out the family favorites such as a holiday pan of gingerbread with the fillip of a molasses-sweetened whipped cream and brighten up the New Year’s bubbly with a puree of out-of-season raspberries. It’s Kwanzaa time and the amplitude and meaning of your individual celebration depends only on you. My late Aunt Clara used to say, “You don’t just have a holiday, you have to make one.” It’s up to you to make your Kwanzaa one of the best ever.

Knowledge Is Like a Garden

No celebrants of the holiday should begin without a copy of at least one of the books by the man who invented the holiday. “Kwanzaa Origin, Concepts, and Practice” (Kawaida, 1975) or “The African-American Holiday of Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community & Culture” (University of Sankore Press, 1989) are the best explanations of the holiday from the ultimate source. In looking for them, think of the principle of Ujamaa and acquaint yourself — or reacquaint yourself with the African-American independent bookseller in your community. In fact, the principle of Ujamaa, and indeed all of the seven nugzo saba, should be a considered for all of the Kwanzaa items that you wish to purchase, after all it’s a holiday about strengthening a community spiritually, politically and economically. So, as we bring out the kinara and light the mushimaa saba, think of the nguzo saba and make them a daily touchstone and not an annual formula remembering the Ghanaian proverb, “Knowledge is like a garden: If it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.”

Kwanzaa yena iwe na heri: Happy Kwanzaa!


Jessica B. Harris is the author of 10 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora.

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