Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Need help with a special dinner!!!

I've had a lot of people tell me that my descriptions of our family's "Special Dinners" are some of their favorite posts.  My students and friends all seem intrigued and love getting invitations.  I'm so glad about this enthusiasm; I'm gratified to know people outside our family enjoy this peek into our dining room.  It's even more fun to know that this effort to build family traditions among my ecclectically gathered children seems to be working -- after the Zoo dinner in March, K-daughter texted me to say she was "bragbooking":
 I had a super fun time last night!!!! Do you mind sending me the pictures we took?! :)))) I want to brag on Facebook about how my family is cooler than everyone else's.
And the boys, although they're not quite as over-the-top excited as K-daughter, they get into it, too.  In fact, at that same Zoo Dinner, J-son looked at me and said, "Mom, last month was Black History month and we didn't have a Black History special dinner!"  My husband thought this comment was so astute that he burst out laughing and saying,  "yeah, way to go J-son!".  And pretty soon, N-son and J-son were both chiming in with a chorus of needing to have this dinner.

I need help.

Because, while I *totally* agree that this is a great idea in principle, I also think the BHSD (Black History Special Dinner) has gotta be done well.  For one thing, I really don't want this to turn into stereotype.  Our other special dinners are fun in part because they're so silly.  In my nightmares, the BHSD becomes a black-face, watermelon-eating embarrassment.  I want this dinner to have real substance and dignity.

But for another thing, almost all of our other special dinners have been exciting and memorable.  (The Green Dinner has gone down in family lore as being the Most-Awful-Dinner-Ever, but all the other special dinners were memorable in the good way).  So I don't want to have a dinner that celebrates my sons' heritage come out to be meh.

I'm a little nervous about reconciling these two goals.  So I'm asking for suggestions from my blog friends.  I've made some progress in my head, and I'll share some of my ideas below -- but I am very much open to further ideas.

The menus for our other Special Dinners aren't super extravagant, but I try to make the food interesting.   Food can be simple (the No-Hands dinner features cut-up hot dogs, pasta, and peas) or specially bought (the Pirate Dinner features giant Turkey Legs).  In all cases, ease and simplicity of preparation is a significant factor.   No 5-hour preparation times!

I think I'm going to buy a copy of a cookbook by Terry Bryant: an African American cook who has been an advocate for social justice issues (the specific book I'm eyeing is Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine). I'm hoping to mine this for some fun, non-time-intensive recipes.

Sometimes we dress up.  For the backwards dinner, some people wore their clothes inside out; the Zoo dinner brings out the beast in our costumes; the Pirate Dinner just invites costuming, really.  But special clothes aren't a requirement . . . I'm not sure what's going to happen with dressing for the BHSD.

For the money dinner, we strew coins from around the world all over the table.  For the Pirate Dinner, we hang the Jolly Roger and have a pirate-themed table cloth.  This is all stuff we gathered ourselves, or possibly spent a pittance on at yard sales -- I don't want to accumulate kitsch, especially expensive kitsch.  For some dinners (the No-Hands dinner and the Backwards dinner), we don't bother decorating at all.  Aside from the activity (see below), I don't have ideas yet for setting the table or decorating the dining room.  

For the Cinco de Mayo we play "La Bamba"; for the Money Dinner we play money songs; at the Pirate Dinner we sing "What'll you do with a drunken sailor?".  I might ask N-son and my daughter (who are in a chorus together) to come up with a good song to sing or listen to.  Or maybe they'll perform for us?

The activity can be as simple as a way of talking (at the "Donnor", we say everything with "O", so "Plose poss tho solt" instead of "please pass the salt").  The activity can be an unusual way of eating--two examples are the No-Hands dinner where we eat, as advertised, with no hands,  and the the Zoo Dinner, where we turn chairs around and eat through the bars).  Or the activity can be an add-on, like the Cinco de Mayo (where we dance to Yuri) or the Pirate Dinner (treasure hunt).  

My idea of an activity for the BHSD is two-fold.  I'd like to end the dinner with a reading from Richard Wright's "Black Boy"---a book that influenced me a lot when I was in high school.  We've got a favorite story from the book that would make a good family read because it's full of energy.   And fighting.  yeah.

But during/after dinner, I'd like to do a matching activity.  I'm going to work with our campus librarians to gather a set of photographs of famous people (see the list below), and I'm going to put these photos up on the walls all around.  And then, at the table, the diners will get sets of sticky notes that I've pre-printed with names and facts (same as I do with our advent calendar).  The people at the table will have to match the sticky notes with the photos.  Each photo will eventually have three sticky notes -- a name, and then two facts about that person.  

For example, the sticky notes that would go with this picture would say
  • Ida B. Wells
  • In 1884, refused to give up her seat in the first-class ladies car and was dragged out; later sued the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.
  • journalist who documented that lynching was used as a way to control or punish blacks who competed with whites.

I think this activity (cross fingers) would be fun, especially if people help each other with this.  And it'll also be a good way to pay tribute to the accomplishments of black Americans who have made important contributions to our country. 

But I'm not great with history; I'm weak on politics and social sciences; and I'm just about totally ignorant of pop culture and sports.  So I'd be grateful for advice on who ought to be on this list.  Obviously this list can't be comprehensive -- if only because people at dinner would die if they had to match up 100 people with their names.  I think I've got a good start, and I don't think I have room for a lot more names.  But if I've missed some big names -- government? literary?  women athletes?  scientists? -- I'd be grateful for input.   

Rosa Parks
Harriet Tubman
Angela Davis
Ida B. Wells
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Malcolm X
Frederick Douglass
Booker T. Washington
Dred Scott

Lena Horne
Oprah Winfrey
Ella Fitzgerald
Louie Armstrong
Duke Ellington
Sidney Poitier
Spike Lee

Shirley Chisholm
Barack Obama
Thurgood Marshall

Maya Angelou
Zora Neale Hurston
Audre Lorde
Langston Hughes
Alex Haley
Richard Wright

Etta Zuber Falconer
George Washington Carver
Percy Lavon Julian
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Muhammad Ali
Jackie Robinson
Jesse Owens
Florence Griffith Joyner
Serena Williams


  1. Would your guests be more apt to recognize Morgan Freeman or Samuel L. Jackson? I don't think you need all, but you can swap for the most applicable actor.

    This sounds like an awesome dinner idea. I don't have much expertise, but I will share with some people who might know.

    1. Ooh, yes. I think my sons will be much more interested in Samuel L. Jackson than in Ida B. Wells. So that'll balance things out a bit. Thank you!

  2. Oh, this really is tough. Plus so much black history is depressing!

    My ideas are coming up mediocre (everyone could wear lots of black) or terrible (separate but equal). Though one kind of food you could have is things made with peanuts (promoted by George Washington Carver).

    It might be easier if you picked just one part of Black history like the underground railroad or freedom rides. Or it might not. Good luck!

    1. Yeah, tough is right. On the one hand, I know it's really important to acknowledge the nasty parts of history and the struggles. On the other hand, I also don't want to imply that the only way for a young black man to make a name for himself (e.g., my sons) is to become an activist or a sports hero. That's why it's important to me to include writers, scientists, etc. Also, not only to include famous historical figures, but also my kids' modern heroes.

      If this is successful, we'll do this for a few years, so I can expand out even more. We'll cross fingers!

    2. Also potato chips! George Crum!

      Ooh, the internet has other suggestions for food invented by African Americans. (Yes, it's mostly processed because food inventions with patents are mostly processed...) But the bread machine, ice cream scoop, biscuit cutter...

      You could ask your kids for ideas!

    3. Ooh -- potato chips would be a super special treat in my house! Yes, I'll google "african american inventors". And I'll ask my kids, too . . . thanks for the suggestions.

  3. Way too late, but one of my favorite influential black American is Madame CJ Walker! She invented hair products specifically for black hair and built a national beauty empire, giving a lot of other women a boost in starting their own local businesses. Then when she was rich she was a philanthropist.

    Maggie Lena Walker (no relation) was the first woman to charter a bank in the US, and she was black, too. She was born right after the Civil War and was a teacher before starting the bank.

    I also think the story of Major Marshall Taylor is interesting: he won the world track cycling championships in 1899. I learned about him because of some calc worksheets Jamylle Carter put together some years ago, and because in Minnesota there's a Major Taylor Bike Club.

    1. Not too late at all -- February is still a long way off. And if this is successful, we're likely to do this year after year, with variation.

      I love these names! I'm definitely going to look them up. Thanks for the suggestions!