The holidays are a time for Kora Polydore to both connect to her Black diaspora roots and flex her culinary muscles.
“I don’t eat turkey until Thanksgiving. If I don’t know you can cook, I’m sorry, I won’t venture out and eat your food. This is the Super Bowl of holidays,” she said.
For Polydore, owner of Kora Lee’s Cafe in Catonsville, the meal means tapping into her family’s cooking methods. She explained that her family has traditionally passed down recipes by showing how ingredients look and feel, and rarely wrote down directions.
“You can’t do holidays at my house without some of the soul food staples,” she said, referring to foods such as collard greens, cornbread dressing and sweet potato pie. “Everybody’s grandmother cooks different, but there is a thing that is comfortable. It’s got to have butter. This is not the time to experiment. Give me all the smoke.”
For some Black Americans, Thanksgiving takes on additional significance because it is a way of passing down cooking traditions that started in Africa and extended to America during slavery. Dishes such as fried turkey, giblet gravy, pound cake, and in Maryland — sauerkraut, reign supreme.
Without much written history, this meal serves as a form of history handed down between generations.
Take Polydore, 47, who lives in White Marsh and is a Colorado native. Her table acts as a historical map, with each dish telling a story.
The baked mac and cheese come from her Oklahoma-raised grandmother. Her turkey features a mix of “soulful” seasonings that she picked up from her Colorado-born mother, with “lots of butter and wine.” The peppery collard greens are a hybrid from her mother and her first husband’s mother, who was from South Carolina. And the cornbread dressing — Black people traditionally call their “stuffing” dressing — is a nod to her mother’s version, which features celery and sage.
“Your great-great grandmother did it that way, and passed it down. This is a way to keep traditions in families,” Polydore explained. “Any time someone tries to tamper with it, you are going to get questions and you will be told. It could cause a situation. If everyone has their mouth set for that cornbread dressing, you better make it that way.”
Chef Amanda Mack, 34, is the owner of Crust by Mack, a popular food counter known for crab pies and buttery pastries at Whitehall Market in North Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood. The resident of Mount Washington in Northwest Baltimore was named 2021 Cook of the Year by Southern Living magazine.
She can attest to the pressures of nailing the holiday meal. The first — and last — time she hosted Thanksgiving at her home seven years ago was a disaster by her account. Mack was pregnant, which she said altered her taste buds.
“Everything was too salty,” she said. “It was not an accurate representation of my gift. Every year I have been redeeming myself.”
The foods associated with Black Thanksgiving should be treated as “heirlooms,” according to Therese Nelson, an East Harlem, New York-based chef and historian of Black food. She believes the meal has become a “safe, cultural space” where Black Americans should be their authentic selves.
“We live this life in this country in this way that we don’t get many clear, safe spaces. Our food culture is one place,” Nelson said. “The holidays become this really clear way to center ourselves and our culture. Soul food is this heirloom for our soul food traditions.”
Polydore says she uses cooking methods from her late grandmother, Cora, who ran a small cafe and later sold dinners out of her home.
“Everyone centers around the matriarchs in the family,” she explained. “It’s just a family reunion. Even if we have fought all year long, you bond. On that day, it’s all about family and community coming together.”
While many of these dishes have been served for decades, there has been a distinction in Thanksgiving meals between Black and white Americans dating back to pre-Civil War times. Polydore first noticed the difference when she was a child going to the homes of white friends.
“They were eating [macaroni] shells out of the box,” she recalled. “At our house, we definitely had a traditional Black mac and cheese. You’ve got to bake it. You’ve got to get that crust.”
Tonya Hopkins, a Brooklyn, New York-based food and drink historian whose family’s roots include Maryland, California, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, refers to the “trinity.” That’s what she calls the three dishes that every Black Thanksgiving must have: a pot of greens, baked macaroni and cheese and some form of sweet potato.
“Those iconic things are going to show up, regardless of region,” she said.
Chef David Thomas stressed that Black culture and traditions are multilayered and rich. But when it comes to food, there are some common things that tie it together across classes and regions.
He’s found similarities in the way that Thanksgiving is observed by his side of the family, with roots in Baltimore, New York and South Carolina, and that of his wife, Tonya Thomas, which dates to the early 1800s in Calvert County in Southern Maryland.
“African Americans are not a monolith, but when it comes to food, we are very much a creature of habit,” said Thomas, who is grand champion of the Food Network’s “Chopped,” having won its competition three times.
Even after family blood lines have been disrupted, it appears the traditions of Black culture remain strong. Mack, whose grandmother, Yvonne Roy, was raised by foster parents, recognized many of the foods and traditions of the other Black chefs interviewed for this article.
“It is important that everything has a purpose,” Mack said. “You can taste those things in the food. You can taste the intentionality. You can taste the quality. That’s where the flavor comes from.”
Recipes vs. feel
In recent years, Baltimore-based chef Amber Croom has embraced cooking by feel. The 39-year-old Overlea resident said it helps her feel closer to her ancestors. She runs And 4 Dessert, a confectionary studio, out of The Sinclair event space in Northeast Baltimore.
Croom’s career includes a degree from the former Culinard school in Birmingham, Alabama, and the distinction of winning the Food Network’s “Chopped Sweets” in 2020. She placed in the top five of season three of “Holiday Baking Championship,” also on the Food Network.
She also earned an engineering degree from the University of New Orleans, and said she originally preferred to follow recipes due to her “meticulous” nature and love of math and science.
[ Maryland chefs share heirloom recipes for Black Thanksgiving ]
Croom credits her mother, a Birmingham native, with exposing her to both ways of cooking.
“I love the act of tasting a feeling. It doesn’t have to be the exact same way. I loved going back to those times watching my mom be an alchemist and just really taking something from nothing,” Croom said. “There was no pen and paper in sight. I found freedom in that. That was a lot of cooking from my mom and aunt. It was all how you feel and how you invoke that feeling.”
An abundance of food
Having a large volume and variety of foods is a hallmark of Black Thanksgiving, according to chef Tonya Thomas, 56, of Rosedale. Like her husband, David Thomas, she is a chef and they run the H3irloom Food Group catering company. She is a historian of Black food and uses cooking methods passed down through her family.
Black Thanksgiving is an extension of the large Sunday dinners that many families had after church, she said. Her table is usually filled with four proteins — turkey, ham, pot roast and fried chicken. There are close to a dozen side dishes that include sauerkraut, mashed root vegetables, dressing and corn pudding.
“It always felt like it was larger [than other ethnic groups]. Traditionally, we would have so much,” said Thomas.
She added that making enough food to feed dinner guests and friends who stop by after is essential, and that thanks to making up a “plate” for people to take away — using anything from containers to foil to paper plates — nothing goes to waste.
”If there aren’t leftovers to share, that is considered a major faux pas,” she said.
Sweet potatoes: Thanksgiving’s MVP
Whether it’s stuffing vs. dressing; baked macaroni and cheese vs. stovetop; or collard greens vs. green bean casserole, the divide between a Black Thanksgiving and a white one is most evident in the sweet potato vs. pumpkin pie debate. Whether mashed, in a soufflé, candied, in a pound cake or in the form of a pie, the vegetable will show up in some form during a traditional Black Thanksgiving Day meal.
“You’ll get your Black card revoked if you have a pumpkin pie but no sweet potato pie,” Hopkins said with a laugh.
Mack agrees. Touting the nutritional value and versatility of the sweet potato — it can be made savory or sweet — Mack calls it “the essence and soul of the African American culture.”
She added: “It is one of those things that you have to have. It brings people together for the holidays.”