"During decades of public life, I have seen more problems settled in a dining room than in a conference room. A good meal creates a special fellowship that can break down barriers." -- Dorothy I. Height, "The Black Family Reunion Cookbook"
Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, knows firsthand the power of a good meal. Consider the dinners and lunches she shared in 1963 with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Whitney M. Young Jr. of the National Urban League, James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality, Roy Wilkins of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a few other civil rights leaders brought together by Stephen Currier of New York's Taconic Foundation.
Mr. Currier, Ms. Height writes in "The Black Family Reunion Cookbook" (Tradery House Publishers, $12.95), "had an almost biblical sense of the importance of breaking bread together. We came together with a kind of contract. . . . Each of us agreed to come [to the meals] regularly and send no substitutes. This we did, except of course when Dr. King was in the Birmingham jail. There was a sense of unity. [Eventually] we formalized the strong bonds among the group and incorporated under the name of the United Civil Rights Leadership. [Later,] when the March on Washington developed, . . . the meal table was `D pivotal."
It's the African-American meal table that "The Black Family Reunion Cookbook" celebrates. With the help of both prominent and lesser-known African-Americans from all over the country, Ms. Height's National Council of Negro Women gathered recipes and stories that show the diversity of the African-American culinary experience -- ranging from Southern corn pone to Caribbean meat pie, African ground nut stew, Midwest sauerkraut salad, Creole gumbo and New England molasses brown bread.
Of course, this cookbook is not just about recipes. "It is about the richest part of our memories," Ms. Height said, "the part that revolves around bringing people together around a table and giving us another way of showing the development of our African heritage and our history."
Actress Esther Rolle remembers the joyful time during meal times: No scolding was allowed. "If you had done something wrong," she writes, "you would try to think of something interesting to say to get Poppa to forget what you had done wrong earlier in the day."
Recording artist Natalie Cole writes of the "tender, loving care and affection of growing up in a household where food was always delicious and satisfying -- everything from turkey and dressing to sweet potato pie."
"Although my grandmother was not able to teach me her skills as a chef," writes Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's delegate to Congress, "I am grateful for the more important lesson of her example -- 'whatever you do, do your very best.' " She shares her grandmother's recipe for golden yellow cake.
"Our hope is that this book will make a difference as we are trying to build on the historic strengths of the family," Ms. Height said. "I realized that we had to use every device in our culture to help raise self-esteem. . . . And there is nothing more natural and positive than sharing something of our culture and history through food."
Proceeds from sales of the cookbook are to be distributed among 159 community-based sections and the NCNW's national headquarters to promote African-American family history, values and traditions.
As a bonus, the ring-bound volume includes menus for graduation celebrations, Fourth of July barbecues (barbecued pig's feet as well as chicken), Kwanzaa celebrations, family reunion picnics (skillet-fried chicken and jambalaya), a fish fry (catfish) and a Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast celebration (chicken and cheese fritters and hash browns). And there is a useful African-American food glossary.
But the most historically valuable part of the cookbook might be the writings of NCNW founder Mary McLeod Bethune, which begin each of the book's chapters. The book is dedicated to Ms. Bethune, born to former slaves in 1875 and a major force of her era in the emerging struggle for civil rights. She was an adviser to Presidents Coolidge and Hoover and director of Negro Affairs under President Roosevelt. According to the book, she is the first woman of any race to be honored with a public-park monument in the nation's capital.
Before she achieved fame, however, Ms. Bethune struggled. She founded the Bethune-Cookman College with just five girls, her son and $1.50. When times were tough, she cooked and sold sweet potato pies to raise the funds needed to keep the school open. Now Ms. Bethune's pie recipe is being called into fund-raising service once again: It leads off the chapter on family desserts.
Mary McLeod Bethune's sweet potato pie
Makes 3 (9-inch) pies or 18 to 24 servings.
9 medium sweet potatoes or yams (about 4 pounds)
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 eggs, beaten
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 (9-inch) unbaked pie shells
Cook potatoes in boiling salted water until tender. Drain, peel and mash.
Combine butter, sugars, salt and nutmeg in large mixer bowl. Beat at medium speed until creamy. Beat in sweet potatoes until well mixed. Beat in eggs. Gradually add milk and vanilla, and beat at low speed.
Spoon into 3 unbaked pie shells, using about 4 cups filling per shell. Bake at 350 degrees 50 to 60 minutes or until set.
Cool to room temperature before serving. Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.