Food is about so much more than nutrition—it’s one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. This month, Brandi's Diary food blogger and high school teacher Brandi Barnett shares why Kwanzaa is one of her favorite holidays of the year and shares her recipe for a festive watermelon spritzer.
I didn't grow up celebrating Kwanzaa. In fact, it wasn't even something I knew about until I went to college. I attended a HBCU (Historically Black College and University), which is where I really started learning about African American history for the first time. When I was in school, Black history was only talked about during February, and even then it just focused on Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. But when I went to a HBCU, it was ingrained in us not only to learn our history, but to be proud of it.
Now, I teach social studies and African American history to high schoolers, and we often talk in class about how America is a melting pot. We get this term because people from different countries came to America, bringing their cultural traditions with them. But, historically, people of African descent didn't come to America; we were brought to America. When that happened, we were assimilated into another culture, losing ours in the process. We weren't allowed to speak our native tongue or dress in our native style of clothes. All of that was lost, an attempt to sever our ties to our culture. What Kwanzaa does is recaptures what was lost and creates a sense of community for our people.
Kwanzaa is from December 26 to January 1 and is a celebration of the harvest. It's a time when people come together to celebrate the fruits of their labor. You can serve any type of food during Kwanzaa, but something you'll almost always see is corn, with an ear of corn representing each child in your household. So if you have one child, there will be one ear of corn on the table. If you have two children, you'll have two ears of corn, and so on. If you don't have any children, one ear of corn is used to represent the children in the community.
Often, traditional African dishes are served during Kwanzaa as a way to help reconnect people back to their roots. For me personally, I like to serve something with watermelon, whether it's a food with watermelon or a drink, like a watermelon spritzer. Fried chicken and watermelon both have negative connotations that were placed on people of African descent. Because of this, some Black people are hesitant to embrace these foods. But watermelon is a fruit that's native to Africa and it represents so much culturally. That's why I like to serve watermelon during Kwanzaa; it's a way to reclaim the story and disassociate from the negative stigma.
My watermelon spritzer recipe is very simple. It's just strained watermelon, lemon-lime flavored carbonated water, and fresh mint. The trick is crushing the chopped watermelon by hand and straining it with a cheesecloth. Another tip for getting the watermelon spritzer to taste just right is hitting the mint on your hand a few times. This releases its natural oils, which are then infused into the drink. You can also use some of the cubed watermelon instead of ice cubes for extra flavor. It looks really festive this way, too.
This year for Kwanzaa, I plan on having a feast with my African American studies class. The kids are going to decorate the school and we're doing a little gift exchange before having a big class dinner. I think I'll serve some watermelon spritzers up for them too. The fruits of our labor have been harvested. It's time to raise a glass.
Watermelon spritzer recipe
3 sprigs of mint
1 small watermelon (preferably with seeds though they are hard to find and a yellow belly)
1 17-ounce bottle of sparkling lemon-lime water
1. Cut and cube your watermelon. Place half of the cubes flat on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Allow it to freeze overnight.
2. Crush the other half of the cubes with a potato masher, then strain through cheesecloth.
3. Combine the strained liquid with your sparkling lemon-lime water. Hit your sprigs of mint on your hand to release the oils and add to the liquid. Allow to sit in the refrigerator for at least two hours (or overnight if possible).
3. Place your frozen watermelon chunks in a glass, pour your watermelon spritzer and enjoy.
As told to Emily Laurence.
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