Tasty Traditions

Reunions bring families together for some down-home feasting.

July 28, 2004|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Sultry summer weather, a skilled hand at the boombox, the smell of burgers grilling, photos of a newborn baby, another helping of potato salad, mac and cheese, greens and sweet potato pie.

Kickin' back, making connections: It's family reunion time.

On summer weekends, the pavilions in Druid Hill Park come alive with gatherings of relatives from all over the East Coast who return to Baltimore to share their roots, celebrate the next generation and dig into a no-holds-barred feast of down-home country food.

"Food is a great leveler," says Dorothy Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women and a founder of the annual Black Family Reunion Celebration in Washington. "When we sit down and break bread ... food brings us together across the generations, from different classes."

Like many families, the Moores of Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina began holding reunions in the early 1990s after the death of their parents. It was a way to keep in touch and celebrate their history. This year's annual get-together, held in Druid Hill Park on a hillside overlooking the zoo, was especially festive because it included a daughter's wedding reception.

The family has grown considerably since those early days, says 65-year-old Mabel Moore Porter of Baltimore. One of the family's matriarchs, she has seven children, 22 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, who were well-represented at the recent reunion.

Although as many as 38 percent of Americans will attend a family reunion this summer, the percentage of African-American families may be even higher, says Dexter Koehl, spokesman of the Travel Industry Association of America. The activity has gained popularity in the black community since the 1970s, when Alex Haley's Roots called national attention to how genealogical research could help build family ties.

"At reunions, people get around to talking about their history, and as they do, it gives a sense of identity, which is extremely important for young people," says Ione Vargus, founder of the Family Reunion Institute at Temple University. "The stories of the ancestors, of what they had to go through [with slavery] are very inspiring. There's a feeling of, `If they could do it, I can.' "

Another touchstone is food from the old days, with recipes often updated for reasons of health and convenience. Among some of the traditional Southern foods that reappear at reunions: black-eyed peas, biscuits, catfish, cobblers, fritters, hopping John, sweet potato pies, macaroni and cheese, ribs and, of course, fried chicken.

"Chicken still reigns supreme," says Norma Jean Darden, author of Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine: Reminiscences of a Family (Harlem Moon, 2004 paperback edition, $18.95) and New York restaurateur who caters family reunions.

"Now folks are often doing fried chicken for the young children and baked chicken for the older people, who just go ahead and sneak the fried chicken," she says.

Family reunions also recognize the many ways in which extended family members and friends have helped create a sheltering domestic community.

"That kind of [extended family] resource really helped African-Americans to survive in this country - not only during but also after slavery," says Vargus. "Even when families migrated from South to North, they would go somewhere where someone in their community had been."

And they would bring the recipes that added the warmth of the familiar to strange cities. Many such recipes are collected in Darden's book and in The Black Family Reunion Cookbook: Recipes and Food Memories (Fireside Books, 1993, $14) from the National Council of Negro Women Inc.

Darden, who runs Spoonbread Catering in New York City, says modern work schedules don't often allow time for the kind of cooking that many senior relatives remember.

"You want to do easy things that are tasty but don't drain your energy so that you can enjoy the family reunion," she says.

When Darden recently attended one of her own family reunions, she was captivated by the smell of her cousin's biscuits baking, an aroma that took her back to childhood and provoked a discussion of her family's holiday meals - elaborate feasts spread out over four tables with three or four different main meat dishes alone.

These days, however, most families will divvy up the food assignments at reunions, sometimes supplementing a few standards with prepared foods, she says.

And the men do their share.

"At most reunions, men are very, very evident in terms of organizing and doing a variety of activities," Vargus says. "That, too, is a very old custom. I grew up in a community where black men did everything: took care of their children and cooked and it was a natural thing to do."

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