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Kwanzaa feasts highlight heritage
ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- When Sheila Jackson muses over her Kwanzaa celebration menu she is inclined to include a seafood dish or two.
"There is a long and little-known history of African-Americans on Long Island, which is where I grew up," Jackson says in Eric Copage's book, "Kwanzaa: An African-American Celebration of Culture and Cooking."
Jackson grew up watching black fishermen dredge the ocean for its bounty. Her grandparents also fished for recreational purposes, but the catch usually ended up on a serving plate at the end of the day. For her, preparing a seafood dish at Kwanzaa is paying honor to her "personal and cultural connection with fish and fishing."
Few culinary rules govern the seven-day holiday that begins yearly on December 26 and lasts through New Year's day. Instead, says Dorothy Winbush Riley, author of "The Complete Kwanzaa: Celebrating our Cultural Harvest," this holiday is meant to be tailor-made to each family.
"Any holiday you celebrate is personal. It is like a wedding," she says, "You make it your own."
Blending of old and new
Winbush, for instance, may choose to prepare her mother's dressing -- a food she savors from her childhood -- and she serves many green, leafy vegetables on her holiday table.
"I love vegetables," says Winbush, " We didn't have much meat when I was growing up, so we ate a lot of vegetables. But the vegetables also represent the fact that we were really an agrarian society," she says.
Kwanzaa can have an almost improvisational feel to it, and the heavily laden holiday dinner table often reflects an off-the-cuff blending of old and new foods.
Among the bowls and plates filled with the more traditional Hoppin' John, Jambalaya and Collard greens, you may, for instance, find a curried beef casserole dubbed "Bobotie." Indigenous to South Africa, this tasty meal juxtaposes the heavy curry spice with sweet hints of pear and dried apricots.
"Food is a big part of the holiday ... and there are no set menus or combinations you have to follow," says Copage in his book. "Putting together your own Kwanzaa feasts is part of the joy of the holiday."
For Copage, it took the birth of his son, Evan, to bring the holiday into his home and to his dinner table.
A reminder of traditions
"I wanted Evan to have a three-dimensional sense of his African heritage," Copage writes. "I wanted him to experience the pride of learning about the sublime Russian poet Aleksander Pushkin, the extraordinary American composer Duke Ellington. I wanted him to understand that through tenacity, hard work and purposefulness -- all of which are grounded in the African and African-American ethos -- blacks have flourished as well as survived."
For Copage, Kwanzaa provides the perfect vehicle to pass along the joys of his heritage to his son. Because the holiday is only a week and culminates in a celebratory feast, Copage believes it may have the intensity needed to become a tradition for generations to come.
In fact, children hold a special significance in many Kwanzaa celebrations. Ears of corn are given to each child around the holiday table as a symbol of fertility and youth
"Corn represents children," says Winbush Riley. "Corn grows as a community. The roots of the corn plant intertwine and when one corn plant stands, they all stand."
For Copage, Kwanzaa is a way of remembering the past and focusing on the future. "Kwanzaa is a reminder that our traditions are to be lived up to and not down to."
For some, laboring over a tried-and-true stew or making grandma's special recipe for black-eyed peas is one way to celebrate a rich cultural history.
The Complete Kwanzaa
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