My family is proud to be descendants of the enslaved Africans that landed in Virginia after 1619. As we look east over the Atlantic Ocean, we know that West Africa is our Motherland. It wasn’t until my parent’s generation, however, that a holiday was created to honor the African experience. Kwanzaa is a relatively new American holiday. When I ask friends whether they celebrate it, their response is sometimes a wary no. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are a few short weeks apart. Do we need to add another holiday to the lineup?
Then there’s the question about food rituals. The ink is dry on other traditional holiday menus throughout the year. Chocolate is gifted on Valentine’s Day. And after the egg hunt, deviled eggs are served on Easter. The grills are fired up for hot dogs and barbecue on Independence Day. Turkey is the centerpiece on Thanksgiving and Christmas tables. But when it comes to dishes to serve during the weeklong Kwanzaa festivities, the menu is still being written. Kwanzaa activities are almost all the same, but its food traditions vary—and it often depends on the host’s cultural background.
My family doesn’t celebrate Kwanzaa. It’s a holiday that I only incorporated into my life once I was living on my own. My rituals are inspired by friends. A few years after college, my Nigerian American girlfriend and her Dominican American husband would invite me to their potluck parties and community events. These social events are how I remember most Afro-centric celebrations, including Kwanzaa. It would be the first time I would taste dishes from other cultures of the African diaspora. My girlfriend would make her family’s Nigerian jollof rice or her husband’s morro rice made with black beans and coconut milk. Other dishes included okra gumbo, roast sweet potatoes, and Nigerian moin-moin, which is a steamed bean cake made of African red beans.
"When it comes to dishes to serve during the weeklong Kwanzaa festivities, the menu is still being written."
Years later, a dear friend, who is a civil rights warrior, would host Kwanzaa parties in her Brooklyn brownstone apartment. We were treated to a cacophony of music, drummers, poetry and singing. Jeans, colorful West African prints, and dashikis weaved in and out of the crowd. The smell of curry chicken, curry shrimp, kale salad, black eyed peas, black rice, and cornbread permeated the air. The ticket to attend was one fruit (unless it was grapes or berries) per person. She would cut the fruit into pieces and place it into a large bowl. She would hold up an apple to explain that one apple can’t feed many people, but when we all contribute to a fruit bowl, more people are fed. It was her example of how much can be achieved when we work together. Everyone received a cup of fruit salad, and she always had leftovers.
Over time, our friends’ parties stopped, and my boyfriend and I were left to define how we celebrate Kwanzaa. During the holiday, the last week of the year, my thoughts are recentered around the well-being of myself, my family, our local community, and the world through each of the daily principles. Compared to other holidays, Kwanzaa is a spiritual, purposeful reflection as I transition into a new year.
Our Kwanzaa traditions and rituals have evolved through the years. The Christmas tree is decorated with global and Afro-centric ornaments. On the first day of Kwanzaa, Umoja, dinner is leftovers from Christmas. For the other days, we discuss the daily principle over morning tea or coffee. Or we open a bottle of wine during the evening. We don’t have large celebratory dinners every night. Occasionally, we’re invited to a friend’s house or an event.
"The truth is, Kwanzaa doesn’t need a traditional menu, and its celebrations and rituals can be elaborate or minimal."
On the last day of Kwanzaa—Imani, which is also New Year’s Day—I continue my family’s Southern tradition of serving black-eyed peas and collard greens. Both dishes are permanently on my menu because they symbolize good luck and fortune. If I have enough fruit, I make a fruit salad that is tossed with an Ambrosia Citrus Vinaigrette of rosewater and lime juice. The salad is topped with toasted nuts, coconut, and cultured whipped cream. This is a new addition to the traditional menu.
When our ancestors landed in the Americas, languages and cultures were lost. We are descendants of survivors. The truth is, Kwanzaa doesn’t need a traditional menu, and its celebrations and rituals can be elaborate or minimal. The people who celebrate it are reconnecting to their African heritage and sharing their varied experiences. As we continue to move forward, the Kwanzaa menu that was written yesterday is changing to reflect today and tomorrow. Kwanzaa is an American holiday celebrating its African ancestors who built the foundation for America’s food cultures. Each of its daily principles go beyond the last week in December—they remind us to be spiritually grounded throughout the year.