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Cooking With Soul for the Holidays

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.
The Truth Contributor

It is the family that gives us a deep private sense of belonging. Here we first begin to have our self defined for us.                                             - Howard Thurman


Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

Nothing says “food and family” more than Thanksgiving and Christmas. The calls grow increasingly louder with the changing colors and dropping of every autumn leaf. These holidays present an opportunity to relax and spend quality time with family and friends centered around food (and set aside a specific time for a dietary splurge).

Several of my friends have expressed an interest in understanding traditional holiday meals from a black perspective. The following is a suggested list of traditional menu items for a true “Soul Holiday” based on how my family “rolls.”

The Main Dish:

Poultry or Ham:

The entrée choices come down to poultry and/or glazed ham and for the dedicated old school southern folks it might also be “chitlins.” I’ve got relatives that will shun or disown you if you don’t set aside at least a cup of chitlins and a bottle Louisiana Hot Sauce.

Depending upon the crowd, a turkey will feed more but roast chicken, although typically smaller, is a little juicier. I prefer Cornish hens for those hectic holidays, which bring time constraints and when you’re not feeding a large crowd. The hens are a tasty and more delicate meat that only take approximately an hour to cook.

When preparing ham, black folk love to use pineapple and cherries and a honey or brown sugar glaze. Ham pairs well opposite the poultry and provides a lot of flavor. At many traditional houses you will find both ham and turkey being served.

Side Dishes

It is important not to prepare an excessive number of side dishes but to concentrate on a few sides that taste exceptional, look appealing and that complement each other. My wife and I try to be efficient and conserve time and energy at holiday time. Nevertheless, these staples should always find a place on your holiday table:

 Fluffy Cornbread Savory Sage Dressing:

Since you are preparing poultry for your holiday meal, make all of the tasty broth and stock that cooks off the turkey or hens work for you by using it to make a fluffy cornbread dressing. Black folks like to say that they “dress” the bird rather than “stuff” the bird and know that the secret to preparing great tasting dressing begins with delicious cornbread. So take the cornbread straight out of the oven instead of using old white bread from the freezer. Also, don’t be afraid to use a sufficient amount of stock/broth so that you are left with dressing that is fluffy and not hard or stiff.

Mac and Cheese:

A staple on almost every African-American holiday dinner menu.  The trick to preparing delicious mac and cheese lies in using a variety of cheeses so that you get more than just a Velveeta flavor.  However, keep in mind that a fresh creamy mac and cheese requires whole milk, evaporated milk or heavy cream to smooth out the texture of the dish. And if you are going fix an amount necessary to feed a crowd, be sure to use enough eggs so that the dish is creamy and doesn’t need to be cut with a knife.


Almost anywhere you find African Americans, you can also find greens, whether collards, mustards or turnips. Greens are best seasoned with smoked meat, whether smoked ham, hocks or turkey. My favorite is cooking greens using oxtails. Salt and pepper the oxtails, add a little onion powder, dredge them in flower and sauté them in vegetable or canola oil and add to the dish when the greens have cooked down a bit.

Potato Salad:

Everyone loves potato salad. Some prefer Miracle Whip salad dressing while others love Mayo. Some people use russet potatoes and others Yukon gold. I use redskin or new potatoes and leave the skin on after scrubbing well. Add relish, onions, bell peppers, celery or celery seed for a signature dish.

Candied Sweet Potatoes:

Cut the sweet potatoes into rounds. Most also use brown sugar (or white), butter, cinnamon or nutmeg.  Add heavy cream to, what my wife calls the “sweet potato juice,” for a tasty caramel flavor.


If there is anything that I have inherited from my ancestors, it is the sweet tooth they passed down directly to me. I remember my grandparents having dessert with every single meal and certainly, no holiday menu is complete without traditional desserts that are prepared just like they were then – from scratch! (Sorry Patti LaBelle).

Peach Cobbler:

There are many takes on this down-home, southern favorite. I like a crispy crust (my wife’s version) and not the dumplings (my mom’s). My wife starts with a layer of peaches in the bottom of a baking dish, then adds a lattice crust, and bakes it. Next she adds another layer of peaches and tops with crust and bakes again.

Sweet potato pie:

Say sweet potato! Not pumpkin! Say it one more time. Sweet Potato! Not pumpkin! Just be sure to add eggs and a bit of flour to the batter to make the pie light and fluffy and not too dense or heavy. I also like to use unsalted butter and heavy whipping cream.

Banana Pudding:

The key is to use bananas that are nice and ripe and be sure to cook a custard for the filling. Boxed or fillings that come in an envelope are a no-no.

Caramel Cake:

My mom used to make each of her five boys their own favorite cake. Today, one cake for the entire extended family will have to make due, my wife insists. A homemade caramel cake is our favorite. 

Start out with a basic butter layer cake that some people call a 1, 2, 3, 4 cake and bake. Prepare the caramel icing by cooking with white sugar and evaporated milk. Let it cook until it forms a soft bead when you put a drop of the hot icing in cold water. 

Tradition without Traditionalism

While traditions are “instructive resources for African Americans in our contemporary settings,” we should must be able to accommodate new tastes for new situations rather than being shackled to old practices merely because “we’ve always done it that way.”

Don’t be afraid to accommodate the new, adding new twists to old recipes or techniques or to different dishes altogether. Try some of our contemporary holiday favorites also :

Prime rib, standing rib roast, shrimp etoufee or grilled/deep fried shrimp

Jambalaya or other creole main/side dishes

Stir-fried collard greens

Jalapeño corn muffins


Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, D.Min, at drdlperryman@centerofhopebaptist.org

Copyright © 2017 by [The Sojourner's Truth]. All rights reserved.
Revised: 08/16/18 14:12:38 -0700.



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