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At the Kwanzaa table, food is both symbol and celebration

Maisie McNaught's first encounter with Kwanzaa pretty much embodied its seven principles in one go:

The center Kwanzaa candle is placed after the other six candles are lit.
The center Kwanzaa candle is placed after the other six candles are lit.Read moreCaroline Chen

Maisie McNaught's first encounter with Kwanzaa pretty much embodied its seven principles in one go:

More than 20 years ago, as a new mother looking to forge family traditions, she discovered a book on the African-inspired holiday at a black-owned bookstore. She joined forces with six other families to host dinners each night from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 and got her husband to make a special holder called a kinara for the seven symbolic candles.

In the process, McNaught and her friends were Kwanzaa in action, exhibiting unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose and creativity.

"We could barely pronounce the Swahili words, but we decided to celebrate this thing," she says.

That confident plunge into the unknown was evidence of the final precept: faith.

"The principles of Kwanzaa seemed like the principles you need to teach your kids," says McNaught, 58, who sells African-made garments at her Miami Gardens, Fla., shop, Kulture Klothes by Isis.

"I was a Sunday school teacher at the time, and Kwanzaa seemed like a family tradition, going back to embrace your own legacy, your own past. Having read the book, I realized Kwanzaa embraced a lot of Caribbean culture."

And McNaught, who was born and reared in Jamaica, fills her Kwanzaa table with Caribbean flavors.

This uniquely African-American holiday was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga, who was on the front lines of that era's black-liberation movement. Now celebrated by people of black African descent throughout the world, it is "an ancient and living cultural tradition which reflects the best of African thought and practice," according to

It is a celebration of harvest and renewal meant to nurture the future while honoring the past.

"When you set the table with fruits and vegetable and flowers, these are the crops," McNaught said. "But the crops are not necessarily food - it can be buying a house, your achievements, your child graduating from college. These are symbols of the seeds that you have planted and that have flourished."

As for the actual food, it's about gathering what's nearest to your heart, what's grown locally, what sustained you and your predecessors.

Fort Lauderdale, Fla., caterer Pearson Guilliams, a native of Guyana, sees his Kwanzaa feast as a reflection of where he has come from and what he holds most dear.

"I'm equatorial, my ancestors are equatorial people. So the foods produced are synonymous with my biological makeup, my spirit, my mind, my body," says the owner of Baba Living Earth Foods.

"We used to have coconut and orange trees. We had yams and sweet potatoes and plantains, green bananas, string beans, butter beans. These are the foods my mother served us. My grandmother would cook with codfish and shrimp."

Though he draws on their "gift and talent" in the kitchen, Guilliams, 62, cooks quite differently than his forebears, having adopted a vegan regimen of mostly raw foods. This Kwanzaa, for example, he'll serve pates made from nuts and seeds, sweet plantain salad and raw callaloo pie, topped with avocado.

McNaught's Kwanzaa feast will be awash in vibrant colors. In a recent test run, she adorned her table with orchids, heliconia, coconuts, pineapple and other tropicals and filled it with platters of fish escovitch, jerk chicken, pigeon peas and rice, codfish fritters, cornmeal dumplings, yam, mackerel rundown, bammy (similar to biscuits), tamarind balls and gizzada (coconut tartlets).

She also made a dish of cornmeal cooked in coconut milk with pigeon peas that she calls cornmeal supreme or "papa special."

"It's the only dish my dad could cook," she says - a fitting Kwanzaa tribute to those who have gone before.



From Maulana Karenga, Kwanzaa founder

Umoja (Unity): To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

Kujichagulia (Self-Determin-ation): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit from them together.

Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.

Imani (Faith): To believe with all our heart in our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.