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Holiday with a Side of History: The History of the Holidays Foods We Know & Love

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As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this month, we can’t help but think about all the delicious foods we have to look forward to such as macaroni and cheese, dressing and sweet potato pie - our mouths are watering just thinking about it! But have you ever stopped to think about the long heritage of these meals within Black American culture? These signature meals have been passed down from generation to generation and it continues to be the “cherry on top” to the love, laughter and community that the holidays bring. 

From our roots in Africa to slavery to the present day, food has traditionally played a key role across the Diaspora and Thanksgiving is usually the time of year that we wait to indulge in all the cultural delicacies. So pull up a seat at the table, as we share the history behind some holiday staples that we look forward to every year. 

Baked Macaroni & Cheese

Let’s be honest, baked macaroni and cheese is a must-have at the holiday dinner table which can be treated as a main dish and a side dish (don’t argue with us, argue with Twitter!). The assignment of making macaroni and cheese is not to be taken lightly as anything less than perfection will not be accepted. 

However, did you know that the current version of this beloved dish was created by James Hemings, former President Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved chef? Historically, the creation of this dish has been credited to Jefferson, but it was actually Hemings' recipe. Jefferson took Hemings to France with him to learn the art of French cuisine and upon return to the States, he created the version of macaroni and cheese that has become not only a soul food staple, but an American must-have. 

Cornbread Dressing 

Whether you call it “stuffing” or “dressing”, we can all (hopefully) agree that this dish is a delicacy that only a few gifted cooks are graced to make. 

With roots steaming from a West African dish called “kush”, this fixture was grain-based (much like couscous) before it evolved into a cornbread-based cuisine. During slavery, resources were often scarce so those who were enslaved would use the ingredients they had to make a big meal. The traditional couscous base was switched out for cornbread and mixed with onions, herbs and spices to make a “hash”. 

This recipe has been passed down from generation to generation and everyone has a unique way of making theirs with a variety of ingredients such as seafood, chicken, turkey and so much more! How do you like your dressing? 

 Greens 

Collard, turnip and mustard greens are often a nice compliment to any main dish. The tradition of greens can be found in Africa with dishes like Ethiopia’s gomen wat and Ghana’s kontomire stew

During slavery, greens were one of the few vegatables that African-Americans were allowed to grow for their families. Therefore, it has held a significant place at the table.  Traditionally, greens were cooked in pork fat with vegetables. The leftover juices (known as “pot likker” or “pot liquor”) from the green was sopped up and eaten with cornbread. 

Candied Yams

Candied yams are the perfect addition for a traditional Thanksgiving meal especially when it touches the macaroni and cheese - mmhm! Typically, candied yams are served year-round rather than being reserved for holidays so we can never get enough of this sweet signature side.

However, what we refer to as “yams” are not actually “yams”, but sweet potatoes. Yams are originally from West Africa and are white on the inside and rough and hairy on the outside. Because yams grow in tropical climates, the United States was not fertile ground for production. Even though yams were used to feed those who were enslaved during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, they would not make it to the States. Therefore, the yam was replaced with the sweet potato which was comparable in texture even though it was different in taste: sweet potatoes are naturally sweet while yams are bland until cooked in seasoning. 

So what we refer to as “yams” are actually sweet potatoes! 

Learn more about the history of yams on High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (Netflix)

Sweet Potato Pie 

Continuing with the theme of sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie is a beloved dessert that complements any traditional Black Thanksgiving spread. 

As previously mentioned, yams grow in tropical climates making it hard to access them in the United States. Alternatively, the United States was the perfect climate for growing sweet potatoes, making it the next best alternative. Luckily, this root vegetable has the versatility to be cooked in many ways, including as a dessert. 

Often recognized as a Southern staple, the sweet potato pie that we know and love today started as a crustless “mash” rather than a “pie”. Because the enslaved did not have access to quality cooking equipment, they had to work with what they had, which was typically an open fire to roast their sweet potatoes. After Emancipation, they were able to gain more access to stovetops and ovens which allowed them to evolve what was once a crustless mash into a sweet, butter-crusted pie that will continue to be a star at the holiday table for generations to come. 

Honorable Mention: Chitlins

Chitlins is one of those foods that you either love or hate. However, it wouldn’t be right to close out this article without discussing the history and cultural significance that chitlins have within the Black community. 

Widely recognized as a Southern dish, chitlins are essentially pig intestines which were known as the leftover meat scraps given to enslaved people. Like with anything in our culture, we’re able to make something out of nothing. Chitlins are labor intensive as they require thorough cleaning, but were turned into a savory dish that was often reserved for special occasions and holidays. 

Even though it is not a normal “fan-favorite”, it is still treated as a delicacy at some dinner tables in America as well as in parts of Europe, Asia and South America.

Check out this article to add some additional Diaspora recipes to your holiday table this year!

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