Feast for body and soul



Anyone who believes that our national holiday food fest

begins with Thanksgiving, continues through Hanukkah and crests at Christmas has never celebrated Kwanzaa. This seven-day event, which extends from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1, lends a new dimension to food and fellowship.

Kwanzaa was launched in California during the turbulent '60s by Ron Karenga -- then a militant committed to the cause of African-American unity -- to instill a sense of racial pride after the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

The word itself is Swahili and borrows from an African celebration of the first harvest. Kwanzaa is, in fact, a compilation of several harvest festivals held across the African continent.

Although it is a time of feasting, Kwanzaa is also a time of fasting and self-examination. The seven-day observation has seven principles at its foundation, each of which is discussed with the daily meal. They are: unity; self-determination; collective work and responsibility; cooperative economics; purpose; creativity; and faith.

And where Kwanzaa was once considered a celebration held mainly in the homes of family and friends, it is increasingly recognized as an institutionalized event -- observed in churches and cultural centers as well.

But even those who participate in large public gatherings enjoy having friends at home. Bandele and Akwete Tyehimba are among them. Their Kwanzaa gathering usually includes 20 to 30 people. They use the occasion to meet new people and to get closer to those they already know.

"We discuss the principle of the day," Mr. Tyehimba says. "If it's on collective economics, we talk about that and everyone must contribute. That way we get a feeling, an understanding of what's important to us. That way everyone feels like they are taking part.

"Normally, we're involved with several people who have meals on different evenings. Some might have two days, another might have all seven days. One group might sponsor one day, and another group might sponsor two or three days."

The Tyehimbas have been celebrating Kwanzaa since 1977.

"We have a lot of different things; it's sort of like Thanksgiving, but without the turkey." says Mr. Tyehimba, who likes to cook. Instead, there are ethnic dishes such as Jollof rice and plantains -- and some Mr. Tyehimba doesn't even know the names of.

"We include friends from different countries -- South Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya -- a kind of pan-African mix," he says. "People bring dishes that represent what they might eat in their own countries. For example, a friend from Liberia brought a spinach dish that's the ugliest-looking thing you've ever seen, but so good it made me start eating spinach.

"Another friend from Gambia makes a fish dish that had people licking the pot." It's the kind of food you want to eat. I guess that's where they got the term 'finger-licking good.' "

Like many ethnic groups, African-Americans have a collection of cherished traditional foods. Even those who have abandoned such standards as ham hocks in favor of smoked turkey still cling mightily to standbys such as collard greens, black-eyed peas, rice, salmon croquettes, spareribs and short ribs.

Author Angela Shelf Medearis devotes her engaging work, "A Kwanzaa Celebration" (Dutton, $17.95), exclusively to mouth-watering recipes augmented by quotations from prominent past and present black artists, politicians and statesmen.

Jessica Harris' "A Kwanzaa Keepsake" (Simon & Schuster, $22) not only provides recipes, it includes valuable bits of black history, family cooking projects and blank pages to record family favorites.

"There are as many different types of Kwanzaa as there are types of families in the African-American community," says Ms. Harris, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Wherever we have stepped, our transformational skills have changed the country and the hemisphere in domains as wide-ranging as retail sales, cooking, music and language. In our world, there's always room for improvisation, and each celebration brings something else to the kaleidoscope of possibilities that is the holiday."

Spicy three-cheese macaroni and cheese

Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 cups medium elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons flour

3/4 cup milk

3/4 cup freshly grated extra-sharp Cheddar cheese (divided use)

1/2 cup freshly grated pepper jack cheese (divided use)

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (divided use)

1 teaspoon hot sauce or to taste

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup fine dry bread crumbs

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 1 1/2 -quart baking dish. Cook macaroni according to package directions until tender but still firm. Drain and place it in greased casserole dish. Set aside and keep warm.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a small saucepan and whisk in the flour. Cook for 2 minutes or until mixture is thick and pasty. Gradually drizzle in milk, whisking constantly, and cook 7 to 8 minutes or until sauce is thick. Remove sauce from heat but keep warm.

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