One of the most core memories of my childhood was Sunday Dinner. No matter what was going on throughout the week, or where I was on Sunday, I remember my mother & my grandmother always making Sunday dinner. If we went to church with grandma, she always got us home in time for her to start the Sunday Dinner. It was such a normal thing for us to have mac & cheese, candied sweet Potatoe, Cabbage, smothered pork chops or baked chicken with corn bread on a Sunday. It was such a fabric of our everyday life that I didn’t look at it as traditional thing and I thought people of all back grounds & cultures ate this way on Sunday. It will be years before I understood just how sacred & traditional Sunday dinner was for black people & black culture. As a child, I took for granted how special Sunday dinners were not only in my family but in black families across the country & I looked at our holiday meals like a exaggerated version of our typical Sunday dinner, not fully grasping what it was so important to continue a tradition created by our Ancestors on southern Plantations.
When I became an adult I, I continued to cook Sunday dinner as my mother and grandmother did & as A chef who is on a mission to learn every facet of the food culture of my people, It was on a Sunday as I cooked Sunday Dinner, that I began to contemplate the about the origins & significance of Sunday day in Black Culture, & why it is so important that the tradition of Sunday Dinner remains relevant and alive today more than ever.
As I chopped, braised & baked for my own Sunday dinner tradition, I wonder for how many generations of my own family made Sunday dinner a sacred event & my thoughts led me to research Sunday dinner. I went to a resource, I’ve been reading as I studied the history of African American foodways, “What the Slaves Ate” & I saw the significance of rations being given out to the enslaved-on Saturdays on plantations across the south. This is when our ancestors would receive a portion of things like Rice, Meal, Lard, Sugar, innards of the animals as well salt pork and other items, nearly not enough rations to create what we know today as the Sunday dinner but as a community, it was the makings of fellowship. I then coupled this with the knowledge that the enslave were usually given Sunday off from their work duties because ironically, they were the property of evangelistic enslavers. This lead me right to the beginning of the Sunday Dinner Tradition in Black Culture and eventually southern culture because it was the enslaved & emancipated black women who did most of the cooking in white southern homes across the south. Yes, our grandmothers taught their grandmothers how to make a pot of greens.
As, I continue to research Sunday dinner and I saw the correlation between the enslaved peoples only off day & how they spent that time. Many of our enslaved ancestors would go fishing on Sunday to offset their unevenly distributed rations. They tended to gardens, they went out and caught wild game birds and small animals & they came together with the little they had and found solace in communing on the only day they could be amongst one another without the watchful eye of the enslavers and overseers. Husbands spent time with their wives, mothers kissed their babies & elders sat around shucking peas, hulling rice & picking greens while telling old folk lore to the children. Sunday was the only day they could commune & food was the one area of their lives they could control. So, on Sunday’s, they made sure the meals were exquisite & full feeling. They poured their soul & love into the dishes as a way to ensure that each member of the community felt love. Then they passed this tradition from one generation to the next.
Sunday was also a time they could meet in large groups under the guise of church & worship & this led me to understand the origins of making sure the dinner was ready for after church or why you can always find the mothers of the church cooking an extravagant meal of the parishioners to enjoy after church. All we were doing was keeping the memory of our once enslaved ancestors alive even if many of us didn’t understand the importance of cooking a meal on Sunday.
Sunday Dinner allowed our enslaved ancestors to breath, to smile, to find a sense of happiness in another wise cruel reality for a brief moment. It was this small moment in time they got to be human, to love each other through food. It was where they created community, built bonds in a system that ripped our familiar bonds apart. As I continue to look at every facet of African American foodways, I understand just why Sunday Dinner became a very significant and important tradition in our culture & though many of us look at the things we do in Black Life as “just what we’ve always done”, it’s this research of our food culture that helps me realize that everything we ever done as a society of people has been in reverence of our ancestors who once walked on plantations as property. That the very fabric of who they were is who we are today. Sunday dinner is another example of their determination, their ingenuity & their strength, to find a small piece of happiness and joy in a world that was devoid of it.
So in closing, as you prepare that chicken to be fried & grate the cheese for the mac & cheese, know that this tradition that is Sunday Dinner was born out of our ancestor’s willingness to come together and change the narrative of their lives even if it was just for one day. Remember that all the things we do today is a reflection of the things they held sacred on those plantations, cook Sunday dinner with the joy of their will to survive in your heart & with thanksgiving that they thought so highly of themselves that they ensured that they had a great meal. Keeping the Sunday dinner tradition alive for many more generations is OUR WAY TO SAY THANK YOU for their sacrifice & it’s our way of keeping their memories alive. Our very own Ancestral Veneration through food. – Chef Bella Jones