When Nat King Cole opened his classic “Christmas Song” with the line “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” it was with good reason. Food and holiday festivities go hand in hand.
As Black people in the 170 million+ strong diaspora (defined as people of African descent living outside of Africa), many of the foods we now enjoy are a product of our shared West and Central African heritage. Voluntary immigrants from Africa are included in this community and currently comprise 2.1 million people in the United States alone, but the majority of Black people in the diaspora are descendants of the enslaved.
While our ancestors were forcibly separated from the African continent, their connection with the land remained through their culture and cooking traditions. Once scattered throughout the Americas, they combined those traditions with the products available to them on the continent and improvised new variations of foods provided to them by their European enslavers. The results are rich, vibrant dishes that, while called different things, are enjoyed across the diaspora during the holidays. Here are just some examples:
Rice and peas
Hoppin’ John is flavored with pork and thought to bring good luck and prosperity in the New Year. As such, it’s usually paired with collard greens (whose green color represents U.S. money) and corn bread, which is the color of gold.
Baked ham is popular in the United States and in various Caribbean countries. Christmas ham in Jamaica is garnished with cloves, pineapples and cherries. In Cuba, people feast on “vieja ropa” (which translates to old clothes) which is shredded pork (or beef) with tomatoes, olive oil, saffron and red wine, served with rice. In Haiti, griot or griyo is a savory fried pork dish that graces the table during the holidays.
It’s a Caribbean spin on head cheese (a loaf made from cold cuts or jellied meats of a calf or pig’s head) which originated in Europe. The meat in souse is first tenderized through boiling and then marinated in lime, cucumbers, peppers and seasonings to pickled perfection. It’s served cold and enjoyed throughout the Caribbean including Trinidad, Antigua, Guyana and Barbados.
Pastelle was brought to the Americas by the Spaniards and is popular in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean as well, including Puerto Rico where it’s called pastele. It is so popular there it has its own annual celebration: Festival Nacional del Pastel Puertorriqueno. Variations are also found in Latin America, for example in Colombia where it’s called pastel de arroz.
This Guyanese specialty could even be called Guyana’s national dish! It’s a meat stew frequently made with oxtail but can also be made with goat or chicken. The meat is seasoned with cinnamon, spices, onion, Cassareep—a sauce made from the root vegetable cassava (yuca) and a generous helping of scotch bonnet peppers to give the dish the spicy kick it’s known for. Enjoy it with bread.
This is a drink derived from the hibiscus plant that’s indigenous to Africa and was brought to the Americas during the slave trade. It goes by many names including bissap in Senegal, sobolo in Ghana and agua de Jamaica in Latin America and can be served hot or cold. In the Caribbean however, it is served cold and sweet, typically mixed with sugar or honey, cloves, allspice and, in Jamaica, a healthy serving of ginger.
Speaking of ginger, if you love to get your tastebuds tingling look no further than ginger beer. Originating in England in the 1700s and brought to the Americas during the slave trade, it’s now an essential Christmas beverage throughout the English-speaking Caribbean. Despite its name however, there is no beer in this drink and it’s non-alcoholic. The ingredients include grated ginger, water, lime juice, sugar and cloves which are combined and left to ferment for up to a week depending on how strong you want it.
Puerto Rico has its own version called Coquito which swaps out eggs for cream of coconut and coconut milk. Kremas or Cremasse, as it’s called in Haiti, takes the best of these varieties by combining the ingredients of American eggnog (sans eggs) with citrus from the Trinidadian version and coconut from the Puerto Rican version.
Black cake/ fruit cake
While Black cake is similar to American fruit cake, it has a key difference: fruit cake contains chunks of fruit, but black cake has fruit that’s been soaked in rum and either ground or blended together. The result is denser and moister than fruit cake. British plum pudding contains dried fruits and brandy to preserve it for up to a year. During the slave trade, brandy was replaced with rum which was readily available in the Caribbean. Black cake goes nicely with a tall glass of sorrel.
In Trinidad, Christmas isn’t complete without cassava pone, similar in appearance to sweet potato pudding, it’s made with grated cassava, coconut, raisins, brown sugar and cinnamon. It can also be made with sweet potatoes and pumpkin.