Hoppin' John. Photo: SauceSupreme, Flickr.
When Maulana Karenga created Kwanzaa in the wake of the Watts riots, he intended for African traditions to pervade every element of the invented harvest celebration -- including the Karamu, the feast served on New Year's Eve. Karenga undoubtedly envisioned fellow black Americans marking the holiday with a spread of West African dishes, including yam porridge, spiced rice and fish stew.
But as the festival entered the mainstream in the early 1980s, an increasing number of celebrants opted to ditch the unfamiliar African foods. Rather than serve up the cuisine of a homeland they never knew, they prepared delicacies associated with the African diaspora: Catfish, collards and macaroni and cheese all showed up on Kwanzaa tables.
In an article published in the Journal of American Ethnic History in 2001, Elizabeth Pleck attributed the popularization of the festival to writers far less controversial than Karenga, who "thought of Kwanzaa in decorative and culinary rather than revolutionary terms." For many Kwanzaa celebrants, paying tribute to African-American foodways has become a hallmark of the holiday.
Today, one out of seven black Americans celebrates Kwanzaa. But the vast majority of middle-class African-Americans initially viewed the holiday with tremendous suspicion, owing mostly to Karenga's unsavory reputation. Even those who supported his call for a violent overthrow of the government were troubled by his torture of two young women, which led to his imprisonment in 1971. Karenga's well-documented hostility to Christianity and gender equality didn't help matters any.
Still, the charms of Kwanzaa ultimately eclipsed the failings of its creator. In 1983, Ebony and Jet both published articles about the holiday. The festival they described was a far cry from the potluck Karenga assembled in a Los Angeles apartment in 1966, at which 50 activists surrounded themselves with Black Nationalist colors and told African folktales. The Ebony article referred to Kwanzaa as a "new Soul Christmas," emphasizing the family-friendly aspects of the week-long holiday and the comfort foods associated with it.
No single standard Kwanzaa menu emerged from the newly enthusiastic press coverage. As food scholar Jessica Harris wrote in her 1995 book "Kwanzaa Keepsake: Celebrating the Holiday with New Traditions and Feasts," "there are as many different types of Kwanzaa as there are types of families in the African-American community." Some families chose to fast on Kwanzaa days, feasting after the sun set. Some families developed the tradition of setting food on the floor for their ancestors, in the African style, while others stuck to a New World-leaning menu of fried chicken and sweet potato pie.
Harris writes, "The menu was always selected to salute my African-American ancestry and my international life. Each year there's Hoppin' John for luck and collard greens for folding money. There's also roast pork for sheer colored cussedness. A mixture of corn, okra and tomatoes is served with hot chile to fire us up for the oncoming year and to remind us of our origins ... There's always a Diaspora dish from the Caribbean or the Motherland that changes annually."
While Kwanzaa, a non-religious event, never conflicted with Christmas, early proponents suggested it offered a non-commercial complement to other winter holidays. Perhaps not surprisingly, Kwanzaa didn't escape the attention of entrepreneurs for long. In the 1990s, the National Coalition to Preserve the Sanctity and Integrity of Kwanzaa forcefully protested what its members considered the grossest violations of the festival's spirit, many of which centered on the table.
"In Chicago, radio station WVAZ/V103 FM advertised an authentic African Kwanzaa punch," member Conrad Worrill reported gravely in a 1994 letter to the New York Amsterdam News. The punch recipe, he continued, "include(d) Domino Sugar, Canfield's soda, Dole Pineapple, Tropicana orange juice and Minute Maid orange juice."
According to Worrill, the radio station canceled the promotion after the group approached its general manager.
"Hopefully he has a better understanding of Kwanzaa," he concluded.
While Kwanzaa is one of the fastest-growing holidays ever, many Americans still don't quite understand it, which is why newspapers annually run lengthy explanations of the concepts that underlie the festival and print countless recipes for the many foods that constitute a traditional Kwanzaa meal. Jamaican rice and peas, Mexican posole and West African jerked pork are all equally suited for the Karamu. What's important, Onondaga Historical Association education director Vanessa Johnson told the Syracuse New Times in 2004, is that the meal is shared:
"A wonderful breakdown happens when you eat a meal together," Johnson said. "We all have a human need for food, and there's a certain fellowship that happens when you eat as a group."