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What a Kwanzaa celebration really looks, tastes and feels like

Nicole A. Taylor currently hosts Hot Grease, a food culture podcast, and is the principal of NAT Media. She is the author of The Upsouth Cookbook (2015). Taylor has contributed to First We Feast, Cherry Bombe, Amtrak, Southern Foodways ...

These are the humble foods that celebrate unity, resilience, purpose, creativity

In 2001, I nervously waltzed inside Atlanta’s Dunbar Community Center — my first Kwanzaa celebration. Everyone said, “Habari Gani?" I looked bewildered and in unison the colorful room responded, “Umoja." ("What is the news?" and "Unity" respectively.) It was the first day of the now 50-year-old African-American holiday, which honors family, community and culture.

Thankfully, the printed program translated words like Kwanzaa from the African language Swahili to “first fruits.” Folks gathered to embrace the resiliency and creative genius throughout the black experience. From Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, the entire audience would renew their dedication to supporting small business owners and belief in something unseen — faith. The giggling kids and soul-swaying elders playing the drums cemented my commitment to making late December joyful in a different way.

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My childhood Christmas memories are full of physical abundance. Lots of winter citrus, peppermint sticks and shell-on nuts in bowl, a tradition that I carry on — always. Not a morsel of victuals touch my lips without a meditation, the routine of my Southern Baptist upbringing. The Temptations and James Brown cassette tapes and my aunt’s black Santa Claus collection, constant staples during the final quarter of the year. The Cabbage Patch Kids, Easy-Bake Ovens and memorizing church speeches ruled the day.

Also, I recall waves of sadness. The unspoken trauma of my immediate family made the holidays confusing and sometimes unpleasurable. Leaning into adulthood, I hid out with my childhood best friend’s family or made sure to have a seasonal job to avoid a long stay home.

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Fast-forward to today, the seven core Kwanzaa principles restored my desire to exhale during the festive season. The kinara, or candleholder, is always perched near my twinkling fresh Christmas tree — both symbolic of my familial foundation. Every year, I worry about grabbing up a new set of red, green and black candles. The light acknowledges the spirit of the day.

The Cee Bee’s heirloom citrus perfumes my tiny apartment and reminds me of cheerfulness and represents collective labor. The full altar (mat, unity cup, corn and books) you see in photos and real-life activities around the country only shows up for our annual gathering with friends. The boozy red punch flows and guests stay over until the wee hours of the morning.

Bringing out the etched vessels is a symbol of togetherness and an homage to decades of crimson libations filling holiday cups. I’ll make peri peri fried chicken, coconut and peanut butter greens, black-eyed pea fritters, a bright rum-spiked fruit salad and cornbread calas. This menu serves as reminder of enslaved ancestors’ journeys from Africa to the Americas. From the spicy fowl to groundnuts, these humble food contributions have shaped the way people eat all around the world.

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The living room is brimming with chatter and the early crowd takes part in the traditional ritual of reaffirming and honoring. Then, the Apple TV streams vintage Soul Train videos on mute and popular hip-hop songs might rotate through the speaker.

I’ve made hand-painted African artwork, gifted buckwheat shortbread cookies, collected goods for Hurricane Sandy victims and made many downright funny lifetime memories. It’s a love that is tangible and the intention is clear as the day. Kwanzaa strengthens my belief in building a family and gives me the tools to fill in hollow holes. Just like back home, the table isn’t perfect, but it runneth over with goodness.

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