Black Americans bring rich history to dinner table

September 29, 1993|By Beverly Hall Lawrence | Beverly Hall Lawrence,Newsday Staff writer Karol V. Menzie contributed to this article.

New York -- My girlfriend quit eating watermelon in public in the late 1960s. Being short, fat, black and from Memphis, Tenn., she feared that being seen nibbling melon would conjure up Aunt Jemima.

We can laugh about this now that she has reconsidered the watermelon. Having put aside memories of racist caricatures, we now appreciate the historic voyage of the watermelon -- smuggled into this country by slaves as seeds, only to grow into a staple as welcomed at all-American celebrations as apple pie.

As with anything as personal as eating, hers was an individual journey. Melon madness is, for sure, isolated. But a spirit of reclaiming foods and cooking that reflect our African-American roots is not.

"It's becoming celebration food," said cookbook author Jessica B. Harris of traditional black foods of my memory like lush greens swimming in pot "likker" fragrant of cider vinegar and chilies, carefully baked hams, lip-smacking goodness of bread pudding, rice pudding and yellow cake with icing. These dishes, once staples, now are less central to our diets, but they are still important as symbols and celebrations of a culinary tradition.

"African-American eating habits reflect the larger culture, that is, they've seen expansion of their food choices," said Ms. Harris, the Brooklyn-based author of "Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons: Africa's Gifts to the New World Cooking" (Ballantine, $4.95) and a professor at Queens College.

"But what we're also seeing is a lot of interest in Afrocentric holidays like Kwanzaa and family gatherings that emphasize traditional foods. This has made what some call 'soul food' and most blacks call 'dinner' something to celebrate."

This trip of soul food from same-old-same-old to something special reflects how African-American lifestyles and diets have changed in roughly the past 20 years. While no one wishes to lump all African-Americans together, some have enjoyed greater economic and civil freedoms and taken advantage of wider food choices in this period. Many have gained understanding of the health risks of overindulgence in fat found in typical black food dishes.

"Used to be fried chicken, ribs, greens, macaroni and cheese, all that stuff every Sunday, but then I learned I could cook French, Italian, German, every kind of cuisine with as much soul," said Jerry Beatty, an amateur gourmet from New York. "Then I had to worry about the extra poundage around my waist."

But when he wants to show off for family, he turns to his mother's fried-chicken recipe. "Folks could smell my mama's chicken from the parkway, and they'd wanna pull off the road. It's in the pan. You must use a No. 8 skillet."

Mr. Beatty, who has been cooking since he was 9, is teaching the secrets of old No. 8, one of those heavy, black, cast-iron frying pans, to his 11-year-old son, Jerry Jr.

This is what observers such as Ms. Harris call "the 'Roots' connection." They mean that much of this desire to preserve food culture and memories germinated in the mid-1970s, when the book and television series of Alex Haley's "Roots" rekindled the idea of exploring African-American genealogy. Along with this came the revival of the tradition of the black family reunion.

Since 1986, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) has sponsored annual "family" reunions in major cities across the country that have attracted nearly 7 million members of the black community.

"Meal is an important bridge to cultural values that give people purpose and meaning," said Ellen Rolfes, editor-in-chief of Tradery House, a Memphis publishing house that released "Black Family Dinner Quilt," a collection of recipes and remembrances from Dorothy I. Height, civil-rights leader and president of the NCNW.

It is a sequel to the best-selling "Black Family Reunion Cookbook" (Simon & Schuster, $12), produced by the NCNW, which sold more than 100,000 copies last year in hardcover and was just released in paperback.

Some say the popularity of the "Family Reunion" book and of this type of organized bonding over corn bread is because communal cooking and eating is tied closely to the black American experience. "We in the black community have always had a respect for good cooks and for the communal spirit of the kitchen," said Ms. Harris, who worked as a consultant on the "Reunion" cookbook.

To Ms. Height, preparing and eating foods is a way of passing on more than cooking tips, but also a spirit of cooperation, responsibility and respect for African-American history and food.

"These values, as simple as they may sound, are fostered by the rituals that bind us together as families, as neighbors and as citizens," said Ms. Height, now in her 80s.

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