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Many people are celebrating Kwanzaa — we'll find out what's on the menu

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is officially Kwanzaa season. The weeklong celebration of African American culture and heritage runs through New Year's Day. Traditionally, the holiday is celebrated with candle lighting and reflecting on the principles of Kwanzaa, like creativity and self-determination. But what do you eat on Kwanzaa? Tonya Hopkins and Kenya Parham have some delicious suggestions. They are the creators of a new online miniseries for the Food Network called "The Kwanzaa Menu." And you two know one another.

(LAUGHTER)

KENYA PARHAM: Yes, we do. We are sisters.

TONYA HOPKINS: We're sisters.

PARHAM: That's right.

HOPKINS: Not identical sisters. But we are sisters. Yes.

PARHAM: Yes, we are.

HOPKINS: Yes, we are.

MARTIN: Kenya says their connection to Kwanzaa goes way back. Their parents are educators who taught them a lot about Black history and Black pride.

PARHAM: We've been celebrating Kwanzaa my entire life. You know, I joke with folks all the time that we come from a family where we've been dropping Kwanzaa banners from our house, our suburban homes since I was born. So we are very unapologetically proud to be Black family. And everybody's Black experience is different.

MARTIN: That's why Kenya's sister wanted "The Kwanzaa Menu" to broaden how Black American food is defined. The Kwanzaa recipes that Tonya has developed are nutritious, modern and a little unconventional.

HOPKINS: One of the favorite things we loved doing together since Kenya was a kid was baking things, right? And so...

MARTIN: Yeah.

HOPKINS: ...I came up with Kwanzaa cookie recipes. We bake Christmas cookies, too. But I don't know. For some reason, the Kwanzaa cookie became more of the thing.

MARTIN: What's a Kwanzaa cookie?

HOPKINS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Tonya uses almond flour to make her Kwanzaa cookies, and she sweetens them with maple syrup. You can nibble on one after crunching into her black-eyed pea fritters with savory, smoky sesame sauce or her good deeds greens, as she calls them. You make those with friends or family to honor the Kwanzaa principle of collective responsibility. Kwanzaa is a relatively young holiday. It was developed in the 1960s by the activist and professor Maulana Karenga. And it's not linked to an iconic dish like a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham.

HOPKINS: When I was asked to write the entry for Kwanzaa and foods associated with Kwanzaa for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, there were a lot of questions. People were like, are there foods associated with Kwanzaa? And it's like, yes and no. There's not, like, an established official thing.

MARTIN: How did you set out to pay tribute to those traditional dishes that we would think of as, like, classic soul food but expanding far beyond that to develop a menu that incorporated the wide range of culinary traditions in the African diaspora and make some dishes that were appropriate for this time of reflection that Kwanzaa affords? How do you do that?

HOPKINS: You know, Black people in America, even though we're often diminished or shrunk down or homogenized, it's like we come from many different national origins, cultures, religions, and there's food that goes with that. And then understanding how Kwanzaa was a creative synthesis of harvest rituals from throughout the African continent, it just made natural sense to find and incorporate the star dishes that are special occasion but also everyday things that represent the culture.

MARTIN: And the sisters made every dish on "The Kwanzaa Menu" plant-based without calling them that.

PARHAM: We intentionally did not label them vegan or plant-based, y'all, because people have, you know...

MARTIN: Their own baggage. Right, right, right.

PARHAM: ...Aversions to the labels, right? So, you know...

HOPKINS: They decide, oh, I'm not going to eat that. You know, and it's like...

PARHAM: That's the vegan thing.

MARTIN: But Kenya, who eats a vegan diet, says plant-based foods can be found throughout Black culinary history.

PARHAM: It flipped my consciousness upside down to realize that, yes, soul food is what we are told, you know, it is - the fried chicken, the greens, the candied yams. But there are so many Black cultures that embrace plant-based eating that you start to question, well, where did this narrative of, quote, unquote, "soul food" come from? And why does it continuously get pushed on us that this is what you eat as Black folks? We really wanted to kind of shatter that with this project.

MARTIN: Every recipe on "The Kwanzaa Menu" draws from Black food traditions that crisscrossed the Atlantic with the slave trade. The dishes borrow from the Caribbean, West Africa, the American South. And they're meant to be enjoyed by the whole family, even the drinks, like the aromatic, bright-red beverage Tonya makes with hibiscus.

HOPKINS: It's a dual recipe that starts as a mocktail.

PARHAM: A two-in-one drink.

HOPKINS: A two-in-one.

PARHAM: Yes.

HOPKINS: The hot, you know, mulled, you know, aromatic, red, vibrant holiday drink. But it also can be served chilled and converted to a cocktail with some bourbon, created by Black people in America.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

HOPKINS: And also, we top it with some sparkling wine, which - Black people were the first wine stewards in America. And we raise a glass because libations is an important part of the ritual, but I love it because it's a historically informed, ancestrally inspired and very culturally rooted drink, very intentional. And it's for everybody and everybody including those who came before us. It's the medium through which we invite the ancestors into the Kwanzaa ceremony. So that's why that recipe is my favorite.

MARTIN: Yeah 'cause you're clearly doing this for other people to share the traditions that you have grown up with.

HOPKINS: Yeah. I think that Kwanzaa - it's kind of complex, and I think that it can be off-putting for folks that - and I think what we're trying to do is be like, yeah, you can celebrate Kwanzaa relatively simply. You can go all in if you want, but you can also just raise the glass, pour a libation. It's not rigid.

PARHAM: Absolutely. And I think by calling it a blueprint, we really leave room for people at home to make it their own. You know, Kwanzaa is a little different, is inventive and creative and, you know,

HOPKINS: And collective because also, you know, there can be a burden around holidays, like, oh, my God, you know, where one person is expected to do their signature dishes for everybody. It's like, no, you come in there. You wash your hands. You up your sleeves. You work together. You prepare these things together. And I think that lessens the burden and makes it also fun and inviting and social and collective, as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERIJA'S "VALLEYS")

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rachel with Tonya Hopkins and her sister, Kenya Parham, who created "The Kwanzaa Menu." The digital series is streaming now on foodnetwork.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERIJA'S "VALLEYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.