Kwanzaan Feasts Echo African Experience

Week-long festivities include traditional foods from many lands of the diaspora

AMONG the many customs observed during the holidays are food traditions that evoke feelings of cultural heritage.

In the United States, the most legendary Christmastime staples echo European tastes: From the British Isles, prime rib and plum pudding; from Germany, stollen and spice cookies; from Austria, goose and Lebkuchen; and from France, meat pies and turkey with chestnuts.

For millions of black American families, however, such fare hardly serves as a window into the African experience.

In 1966, Maulana Karenga, a black-studies professor from California, carved a space for African-Americans to commemorate their unique heritage during the holidays. Based on elements from African harvest festivals, he created Kwanzaa (Swahili for ``first fruits''), and pegged it Dec. 26 through New Year's Day.

The celebration does not replace Christmas, nor is it a religious holiday. Rather, the spirit is cultural and reflective in tone. Like Hanukkah, it focuses on the day-to-day lighting of symbolic candles. Seven are lit in all, each representing what Mr. Kerenga considered the highest principles of African-American ethos: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

In addition to music, dance, and storytelling that springs to life through the week-long festivities is a bounty of glorious food. In keeping with the theme of black unity, the dishes brought to the table draw from the cuisines of Africa, as well as the lands where Africans were taken - the Caribbean, South America, and America's Deep South.

In the preparation of meals, Eric Copage, author of ``Kwanzaa'' (William Morrow & Co., 1991, 356 pp.), explains that ``a spirit of improvisation and self-creation ... is very much a part of Kwanzaa.''

Accordingly, there are no set menus. The author suggests celebrating ``a different country of the African diaspora each day by cooking only foods of that country,'' ending with a multinational feast on the last night.

What specific dishes might appear atop Kwanzaa banquet tables? From Mr. Copage's 125-recipe book, a scant sampling of possibilities follow.

For starters: a Charleston crab spread slathered on crackers, or Kelewele, spicy fried plaintains, from the Caribbean; followed by an African classic - piri piri, shrimp with lemon butter, from Angola, or jolof rice, a hearty casserole from West Africa; ending on a sweet note with conkies, individual cornmeal-raisin puddings in banana leaves, from Barbados, or a gooey, sweet potato-praline pie from the US.

Journalist Luix Overbea and his family will enjoy the holiday's food traditions at their home in Mattapan, Mass., on Jan. 1 - Emancipation Day for slaves in America (1863). Planned for the family meal that day are dishes of collard greens, black-eyed peas, and chitterlings. For African-Americans, he says, such foods symbolize money, health, and freedom.

To Mr. Overbea, as well, the spirit of the holiday offers food for the soul: In the dead of winter amid these lean times, he says, Kwanzaa signifies ``a celebration of blessings.''

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