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Credit: Janna Morton
personal essay

The Ultimate Virtual Kwanzaa Potluck

published Dec 27, 2020
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It’s been hard to get into the holiday spirit this year. I think about the many lives lost to the coronavirus and the great distance we must still travel as a nation to achieve racial and social justice. But as 2020 comes to a close, one way I’m reclaiming my joy is by hosting a virtual Kwanzaa potluck with close friends and family. 

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration of African American heritage that is observed annually from December 26 through January 1. The festival of Black culture, family, and community rests on seven core principles, or Nguzo Saba. Each day of Kwanzaa has a designated principle: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujaama (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), and Imani (faith). 

Throughout the seven days of Kwanzaa, one person inquires “Habari gani?” which is the Swahili greeting meaning “What’s the news?” Another person responds by naming the principle for each day (i.e., Habari gani? Umoja!). This exchange occurs before the lighting of each day’s candle, and a brief discussion ensues about the meaning of that day and how we have practiced each principle throughout the year.

I have already placed our kinara, candles, and unity cup on the dining room table in anticipation of Kwanzaa. 2020 has been hard on my 6-year-old daughter, and watching her smile as we set the table together has been a joy. Placing the candles into the holder reminds me of all that we have endured this year — a devastating tornado; a global pandemic; racial injustice; social, political, and economic upheaval. Still, despite it all, I am eager to give thanks for kujichagulia, or the resilience and courageous self-determination that Black people have had to exhibit for centuries.

For the seventh day of Kwanzaa, karamu (the culminating feast), I’ve invited 15 guests to gather for a virtual potluck. We will reflect on our history and envision goals for 2021. I’m introducing Kwanzaa and the karamu to many extended family members spread out across the country who have not yet observed Kwanzaa, and I am truly hoping to plant the seeds of Kwanzaa’s tradition and core values. Some days I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for this online space. If not for the pandemic, I probably would have celebrated Kwanzaa locally in Nashville.  

My theme for our virtual gathering is “Recognizing Culture Through Foodways.” Attendees are encouraged to select one of these five ingredients, research its origins, and cook a dish that includes the main ingredient.

1. Okra

Earlier this year, my daughter participated in virtual Black history through an arts and crafts course. Lynette Monroe, the Washington, D.C.-based founder of Ruby’s Notes and African American history teacher, taught the students about the origins of okra. They learned that okra seeds traveled with Africans through the transatlantic slave route. And when they arrived in the new world, enslaved Africans harvested the bountifully nutritious vegetable in the Americas. “Today, people enjoyed it fried, in stews, or in gumbo. There are many ways to eat okra, but its origins are traced to Africa,” says Monroe.  

Try a recipe: Vegan Ghanaian Okra Stew from The Canadian African 

2. Sweet Potato

This tuberous root vegetable is significant to Black culture because it can be traced to West African influences. Because of its similarity to the native West African yam crop, enslaved Africans likely used sweet potatoes as an alternative. Kirbee Miller, owner of KiNiMi Kitchen and foodprenuer, notes that preparing dishes with sweet potatoes “is the perfect opportunity to honor the history of the ingredients and methods of preparation.” For our potluck, I’ve suggested sweet potato biscuits, sweet potato pie, candied sweet potatoes, or brunch delicacies like casseroles and waffles. 

Try a recipe: Sweet Potato Cream Waffles from Kirbee Miller of KiNiMi Kitchen

3. Black-Eyed Peas

When I was growing up we didn’t celebrate Kwanzaa, but my mom made Black-eyed peas every New Year’s day. She’d include the peas in a stew, sauté them with collard greens, or serve them with a side of cornbread. It’s a Black Southern tradition that represents good fortune in the year to come. We are claiming abundance in 2021! 

Try a recipe: Southern Black-Eyed Peas from Divas Can Cook

4. Rice

Another staple that also made its way to the United States from Africa is rice. The grain has been remixed in a variety of culturally-inspired dishes like dirty rice, red beans and rice, and rice and peas, just to name a few. Since my husband is a first-gen Nigerian American, we have been preparing jollof rice for Black holidays to symbolize rooted connection to West African culture and tradition. 

Try a recipe: Vegan Jollof Rice from Tomi Makanjuola’s Plantain Cookbook

5. Something Red

Like the candles in the kinora, Black liberation colors are red, black, and green. Preparing a red dish or drink, such as watermelon juice or cranberry sauce, honors the blood and sacrifices of the ancestors. 

Try a recipe: Red Punch from Eduardo Jordan

Another suggestion I’ve made for the virtual Kwanzaa potluck this year is to patronize a Black-owned restaurant if the spirit has not moved you to cook. There are plenty of establishments around the country serving up great food for the holidays while trying to recover from income loss during the pandemic. 

Although karamu will be different than I imagined this year, I’m looking forward to observing Black heritage and exposing history and food with the people I love the most — even if I can only see them on Zoom.