The menorah is stowed and the dreidels tucked away for another year. The Christmas tree is beginning to shed needles on the rug and the batteries are already wearing out on the new toys. It’s Dec. 26 and that means it’s Kwanzaa, the secular African-American holiday that runs from Dec. 26 until Jan. 1.
The seven-day holiday is based on seven principles: The Nguzo Saba, a collection of building blocks of self awareness. Each day celebrates a different principle.
Seven Days of Kwanzaa
Each day of Kwanzaa celebrates a different principle.
- Umoja – Unity
- Kujichagulia – Self Determination
- Ujima – Collective Work and Responsibility
- Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
- Nia – Purpose
- Kuumba – Creativity
- Imani – Faith
Each evening, the family gathers around the Kwanzaa centerpiece and the question “Habari gani?” (Meaning “what’s up” or “what’s the news”) is asked. The answer is the principle of the day, which is discussed by the entire assembled household. In some families a chalice of unity is passed around. In others, libation is poured in honor of ancestors. In honor of all of the African-Americans who made their way in this country thanks to food ways — from planting the crops to clearing the tables, I’ve decided that this year I’ll think about the different culinary heroes each night who embodied the principle of the day and celebrate them with a special dish.
Day One: Umoja (Unity)
To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.
An African-American president in the White House who has no blood connection to enslavement and a changing national discourse about race are enough to signal that the need for unity among peoples of African descent is as present as it was in 1966 when the Nguzo Saba of Kwanzaa were first formulated. Therefore, on the first night of Kwanzaa, I pour libation on the ground and salute all peoples of African descent wherever they may be on the globe. I celebrate our unity by raising a glass of good Kentucky bourbon.
Day Two: Kujichagulia (Self- determination)
To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined, named, created for and spoken for by others
In the days of the Civil Rights movement, it seemed that every Southern town had an African-American restaurant that was a bastion of comfort for its inhabitants. These places offered up the traditional African-American fare of the South: heaping plates piled high with smothered pork chops or fried chicken. There were freshly cooked collard or mustard greens seasoned with fatback, butter beans that had been cooked long low and slow, sweet potatoes dripping with brown sugar syrup, and fluffy cornbread with no sugar in it. In each town, these places with names like Paschal’s and Deacon’s and Dooky Chase became lynch pins for the movement. These were cultural way stations where blacks could meet and strategize around a table piled high with comfort food.
On this second day of Kwanzaa, I will pour libation on the ground and salute those entrepreneurs who provided a place for coming together to plan for the events that created the world in which we now live. I will salute them on the plate with a dish of the fried chicken that was often on the menu.
Serves 4 to 6. Adapted from “The Welcome Table.”
- Wash the chicken thoroughly and pat the pieces dry with paper towels.
- Heat the oil to 350 F in a heavy cast iron skillet.
- Place the remaining ingredients in a brown paper bag and shake to mix well. Then, add the chicken pieces a few at a time and shake to ensure that each piece is well coated with the mix.
- Place the chicken pieces in the skillet and fry, uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes turning as the chicken browns. Check for doneness by pricking the chicken with a fork. The juices should run clear with no trace of blood.
- Remove and drain on paper towels. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature.
Day Three: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)
To build and maintain our community and to make our sisters’ and brothers’ problems our problems and to solve them together.
From the days of enslavement through the present, people of African descent in the United States have worked the land. During the Colonial period, they planted rice in South Carolina and created that state’s vast wealth. In the North, they worked on plantations and small farms provisioning not only themselves, and their masters, but often growing food that was sold to others as far away as the Caribbean. In recent times, the workers may indeed be from the Caribbean or points south, but they are still growing and harvesting the crops on which we depend.
On the third day of Kwanzaa, therefore, I will celebrate African-American farmers whether they farmed their own land in freedom or that of others as slaves or migrants. We would all be less well nourished without their agricultural ability and technological knowhow. I will salute them on the plate with a dish of blanched okra.
- Place the water in a large saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat.
- Plunge the okra into the water and allow it to cook for three to five minutes.
- Add the lemon juice at the last minute of cooking time.
- Remove the okra, drain, and serve hot with a pat of butter.
Day Four: Ujima (Cooperative economics)
To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.
Nineteenth-century Philadelphia was a pivotal city for much African-American history and blacks had long worked in the city’s food-service industry. There, a group of French West Indian immigrants banded together to create a union that became a bulwark of that city’s high society well into the 20th century. They formed a union of caterers and shared the equipment, chairs, linens and other service items. They also trained the waiters who then could work for any of the catering companies.
These African-American caterers and their descendants set the bar for entertainment. In the words of African American sociologist W.E.B.Du Bois, “they transformed the Negro cook and waiter into the public caterer and restaurateur, and raised a crowd of underpaid menials to become a set of self-reliant, original businessmen…”
On the fourth day of Kwanzaa, I pour libation on the ground and salute the caterers of Philadelphia for their embodiment of the principle of cooperative economics. I celebrate them on the plate with a slice of lemon pecan pound cake.
Lemon-Pecan Pound Cake
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan.
- Sift the flour, salt and nutmeg into a small bowl and set aside.
- In another bowl, cream the butter, slowly add the sugar, continuing to stir until light. Beat the egg yolks until thick and slowly drizzle them into the butter while continuing to beat.
- Gradually blend in the flour mixture, add the vanilla and lemon extract and zest and beat until smooth. Stir in the pecans.
- Beat the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the batter.
- Pour the batter into the pan and bake for an hour or until the cake pulls slightly from the sides of the pan.
Day Five: Nia (Purpose)
To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
Sometimes, purpose in life means succeeding in the face of unspeakable odds. In ante bellum New Orleans, coffee stands were scattered throughout the city from which women of color sold coffee — the city’s favorite non alcoholic elixir. The most prized spots were in front of the cathedral where the women were assured of customers at the end of Mass and in the French Market where shoppers were equally likely to stop for a tiny cup of the brew. The Daily Picayune described the coffee served by Zabette as “the essence of the fragrant bean” and bemoaned the fact that following her death “lovers of that divine beverage wander listlessly around the stalls on Sunday mornings with a pining at the bosom which cannot be satisfied.”
Others served their purpose by re-creating a West African rice fritter called a cala that was prepared from leftover rice and often sold along with the coffee.
On this fifth day of Kwanzaa, I pour libation on the ground and salute the purpose of those women who created their own way in the world by selling coffee and making fritters. I celebrate them on the plate with calas.
Makes approximately 12 calas. Adapted from “Beyond Gumbo: Creole Fusion Food from the Atlantic Rim.”
- Place the rice into a medium-sized bowl and sprinkle the flour and the baking powder on top of it, mixing thoroughly to coat the rice. Mix in the sugar. Sprinkle the vanilla over the rice and mix well.
- Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well. Heat the oil for frying to 375 F in a heavy skillet, (You need at least ¼ to ½ inch of oil.)
- Form the calas with two tablespoons, moving the dough from one to the other until you have an oval.
- Push the oval off the spoon into the oil and fry, turning once until it is browned on both sides.
- Drain well on paper towels and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve hot.
Day Six: Kuumba (Creativity)
To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
African-American street vendors have transformed the nation’s culinary landscape for centuries. Roast corn sellers who hawked their roasting ears on the street corners of Lower Manhattan in the Federal period, vendors sold roasted sweet potatoes out of the back of rigged up burners in Depression-era Harlem. And men drive trucks up from North Carolina filled with ham, greens, sweets and sorghum syrup to sell to homesick African-Americans in northern black neighborhoods until this day. For all of them, the ability to create a street cry or to design a humorous sign made the difference between success and failure.
So on the sixth day of Kwanzaa, I salute the street hawkers who keep neighborhoods lively and keep the tastes of fresh black-eyed peas, sorghum syrup, and good country ham alive in black neighborhoods throughout the country. I celebrate them on the plate with a snack of roasted sweet potatoes.
Roasted Sweet Potatoes
- Preheat the oven to 450 F.
- Scrub the potatoes. Coat their skins lightly with vegetable oil and place them on a rack in the oven. Allow them to cook for 45 minutes or until they are cooked through.
- Slit them open and place a tablespoon of butter and the freshly ground nutmeg in each.
- Mash it all in and eat while piping hot.
Day Seven: Imani (Faith)
To believe with all our hearts in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.
People may suggest that we live in a post-racial world, but anyone who has looked at national statistics about homeless, education, poverty, hunger and more knows that there is still work to be done.
On the final day of Kwanzaa I salute all of those who are working to better the lot of people of African descent in the world. I celebrate them with a glass of rum — aged Rum Barbancourt from Haiti.
Kwanzaa yena iwe na heri. Happy Kwanzaa!!
Jessica B. Harris is the author of 11 critically acclaimed cookbooks documenting the foods and foodways of the African Diaspora. In 2010 she was named to the James Beard Who’s Who of American Food and Beverage. Her narrative history of African-Americans and food, “High on the Hog” will be published by Bloomsbury in January.
Credit: Jessica B. Harris