A CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION.
“Weather is calling for a minimum of 2 feet of snow with gusty wind. Storm is supposed to last for the next 24 hours. It’s advised that people stay indoors. Bus service to NYC is interrupted and won’t resume for at least 24 hours until the storm fizzles.” It was 6AM in Ithaca, NY, at the sprawling campus of Cornell University on a Friday, one week before Christmas. The news carried particular importance to students staying at Ujamaa, the dorm so coined as it grouped minorities inclined to live among kindred spirits.
This was in the early seventies, a turning point in the nation’s initiatives to solidify the gains achieved the previous decade through social protests. It was a time when social activism was prevalent, and the cultural paradigm was shifting. Affirmative Action was in its heyday and Black is Beautiful was a novel and hip idea of the time. Admission to institutions of higher learning for minority students so long denied such opportunity was on the rise.
Hip then carried the same connotation that woke recently did before woke has become vilified. The pendulum was swinging toward implementation of socially progressive policies to advance the cause of equality and fairness to attain a level of equanimity in society. It was also a period of unbridled fashion expression: bell bottoms, platform shoes, large Afro hairdo (‘fro). The idea of the contribution of Blacks to the quilt of this nation had taken roots and colleges and universities began to open Black Studies departments.
Joey, student leader, was the epitome of the activist. He was majoring in Black Studies and was residing at Ujamaa and he would be first to give guidance in such delicate situations. He was a whale of a man who wore his feelings on his sleeves, literally. He dressed the part, sporting a dashiki and a large ‘fro. He would spend hours on end convincing students of the necessity to register and vote, and he would go into passionate debate about Pan-Africanism and the urgency for members of the diaspora to band together.
He demanded and received respect. He was good at cajoling; his own special version of it mixed fiat with persuasion. Yet due to his jumbo size, no one would choose to get into his cross hairs. It was not long after the newscast that he canvassed the floors, and he used his powerful voice as a natural bull horn.
“Brothers and sisters, in the spirit of Ujamaa, let’s organize a multicultural celebration instead of feeling sorry for ourselves. Let’s bring a dish from one’s own cuisine. It could be a drink, a cake, a meal or what have you. Let’s have fun and let’s begin the party at 6PM sharp. Not CP time.”
Joey was alluding to the hardship for students living in NYC, the residence of the bulk of the minority students. They were stuck on campus and would have to wait to travel to join their relatives. Commiserating about a snowstorm versus a cultural gathering centered around culinary delicacies was a no-brainer for the students. Indeed, food, drink, party were always magic words that pulsed people’s endorphins for times immemorial. The motley crew of students born in America, the West Indies, Africa, all members of a diaspora of varying hues but sharing a kinship, saw this as a providential fruition of the idea of solidarity they were all espousing and discussing incessantly in newly created classes of Black History. The story within the story was the existence of corners of jingoism; some students were still harboring hidebound ideas of limiting their horizons to their own culture and customs. For example, some of them only consumed their native meals and listened only to their country’s music for the most part. So, this was an opportunity for those with cosmopolitan outlook to mingle with others not necessarily of the same ilk but enticed by the circumstances to go outside of their comfort zone and be adventurous.
However, in all fairness, those who held such tribal views were a minority since the students were frequently commingling at the cafeteria, the hallways and were forever playing dominos, cards when not at the gyms and or doing the thing that people all over do : gossip about who is doing what with whom or trying to do you-know-what with whom.
Students had about an eleven-hour window to transform the cafeteria into a catering marvel by burnishing its menu from mass-produced but utilitarian offerings into home-made victuals cooked to impress taste buds and win accolades and bragging rights, yes, since we are dealing with human beings always looking for a friendly edge. The place was also supposed to have a sound system so the music could blare and establish the right mood to invite folks to step.
The hissing and howling wind, the cumulus of the fluffy white flakes layering into varying shapes but blocking roads, alleyways, doors, was a real downer. That sight, that day, interfering with careful plans, long-held hopes, needed a strong remedy and Joey provided the right formula, as usual. The appeal of the celebration became a self-fulfilling prophecy as it were, as the scene was not the seductive or the vaunted wintry wonderland but rather the poster child of desolation à la mother-Nature-running-amok at the most irksome time. No better optic could encapsulate this drama than the chagrined posture of the weeping willow’s branches bending under the weight of the snow flakes. Against such drab landscape, this remedy had all the look and feel of an antidote.
The antidote however mandated man-and-womanpower. Ever the practical leader, Joey divided the duties by categories to be accomplished by different squadrons. The housekeeping crew would clean the place and rearrange the tables, carving a large empty center as dancing area. Another squadron, the designer set, would wow with the decoration. To avoid overburdening anyone, a member of one crew would not be required to cross over into another. His pet pastime was to be in full display as he would install the stereo equipment and would be the DJ. Since this was an impromptu, a jury-rigged stereo system had to be brought together. As a stereo-system aficionado, he wouldn’t trust anybody else for this task. He had acquired the reputation of having the most powerful system in the dorm and he was not above playing his music full blast when he was in the right mood. When he wanted to add some pep on a down day like the present one, he would play Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Sonny Rollins’s The Everywhere Calypso, or St Thomas, or Miles’s So What in any order, ranging from one to all four. If after a great date the night before, he awoke with a flutter in the chest making him spoony, he would play Moody’s Mood for Love by King Pleasure, Hartman’s My One and Only Love, or The Midnight Sun Will Never Set sung by Sarah Vaughn or the instrumental version by either Benny Carter or Quincy Jones.
However, the most delicate duty fell on the lap of his girlfriend, Njeri. She made it her business to supervise the food production. In no time she compiled a list of cooks and penned the menu. The list was an entry into cultural anthropology. From Haiti: rice with black mushrooms, aka diri ak djondjon; kremas. From Puerto Rico: coquito and piononos. From Jamaica: jerk pork and jerk chicken. From Trinidad: roti, sorrel. From USA: trotters, mac and cheese, hog maws, egg nog, dumplings. From Nigeria: fufu. Desserts were just as tempting : rum cake, sweet potato pie, fruit cake, carrot cake.
Joey made the round to find extra speakers and to label each with the name of its owner. He also requested albums from students and favorite songs to create a handwritten playlist. Joey had to match song and number on the vinyl. Nothing would have been worse than picking the wrong song; that would have been met with catcalls, a nuisance to a DJ’s ears and an arrow at his proud ego and credentials. The styles of music were also a discovery for the uninitiated. From Trinidad: Parang and Soca as well as mixture of Parang/Soca. From Jamaica: Reggae. From Haiti: Kompa. From PR: Salsa. From USA: R&B, Soul.
As the day went by, the cafeteria’s kitchen in crescendo fashion started to exude the flavors of the different condiments and spices; the musk of ginger, thyme, nutmeg, curry, cinnamon, onion, hot pepper, clove, black pepper and numerous others wafting the air, were eliciting the Pavlovian reflex, aggravating one’s hunger, heightening the appetite, raising the ante for the upcoming celebration.
In a departure from accepted custom, everything was set to go live at 5PM. In a fashion parade, young folks were dressed to impress.Young men and women were making a statement by the size and luster of their ‘fros. The fuller and the shinier the ‘fro, the more attraction the look bestowed. Clad in polyester clothings with the large bottoms sweeping the floor despite high platform shoes, everybody wanted to be seen as hip and not square, never mind the shoes were not comfortable. In fact the thickness of the sole held such an allure that it mirrored the taste for a large hairdo. The showy adornments, the trendy coifs, the stylish footwear were the clearest signals that the students were ready to boogie as the saying went.
Christmas decorations were galore. Kwanzaa signs were also present. The offerings were well organized on tables, testing, or evincing the Chinese proverb that “food that looks and smells good tastes good.” Sight, smell, sound, all pivoted in alignment inside for positive vibes. Sight and sound outside veered from spiteful killjoy into collateral incentive for those trapped inside as poetic justice.
Students started milling around 5:30PM. Their taste buds as well as growling tummies had taken over. The music system that Joey had put together was working fine, warts and all. At 6PM, everybody scurried to get a plate and made a run at the food. Somehow word had leaked and had spread faster than the speed of light that the dish with the funny name, diri something, was to be had, deserving a place among UNESCO world heritage.
Short of that, people were voting with their feet and mouths, and it was the first dish to disappear, like finish; it was gone and was now a transient resident into others’ entrails, having fulfilled its duty of satisfying demanding taste buds. The competition for best-tasting dish was keen for sure. Few offerings remained untouched and far fewer remained unfinished. A lot of the students were discovering dishes for the first time of their existence. A carb-laden dish like fufu, so common in West Africa, was virtually unheard of in America. Same could be said about diri ak djondjon.
Sometime the naming of a dish and its recipe followed separate universes. Trotters refer to pig’s feet. Piononos describe minced meat encircled by a thin layer of fried sweet plantains. Kremas, coquito and egg nog were variations on the same theme with presence or absence of a particular spice and this reflects a common origin and kinship of groups, having had a close ancestry. Sorrel in turn, a drink made from the hibiscus leaf, was another discovery.
Exploration of musical genres followed the same pattern. Very few students were aware of the existence of Parang, a style of music imported into Trinidad by migrants from Venezuela traditionally only performed during Christmas season. It originally started as minstrel-type of folksy performance and the genre has evolved over the years to encompass a stylistic hybrid format when mixed with Soca.
Joey was in his element while holding court. He, just like a lot of the other students, was learning about others’ culture and he was enjoying it too. Njeri made sure she fixed him a plate that included each dish as his appetite was as renowned as his love for music. The celebration stress-tested the notion of multiculturalism. Students accustomed to only listening and dancing to R&B were learning the cadence of different rhythms and vice versa for others who only dealt with their own genre. That experiment opened a lot of eyes and broadened a lot more horizons. Food and music as a duet, mimics a piano’s keyboard where ebony and ivory morph to create artistical wizardry in a sublime display of harmony despite or because of no uniformity.
Similarity, a fish that only swam in a water called homogeneity dared to go into another body of water called otherness and discovered that a body of water by another name still behaves like the one he is used to. That celebration on a snowy day brought together different cultures that often even when juxtaposed were sliding past each other. Some of the highlights of the celebration centered around the demonstration of the fleetness of Joey’s feet on the dance floor despite his portly size. Some others ranged from the silly to plain comical. All the bodies generated enough heat to compete with the warmth emitted by the radiators. This caused some of the polyester pants to shrivel and curl up. The heat and humidity caused the grease in the hair of some students to gum up the beading sweats. That in turn parlayed into a bit of discomfort and that stained the garments. These glitches uncorked either a faint grimace at this minor inconvenience or a rapt tickle but wouldn’t halt the fun, far from it.
All of this happened when the world was younger than today and the youngsters took their energy for granted and eternal in a carefree, unbidden pursuit of adventures and of the beckoning taste of a joyful life worth living.
The harder the snow was falling, the harder the students were partying, and they couldn’t get enough of each other’s offerings. Joey couldn’t have written a better script, had he wanted to.
Reynald Altéma, MD.