Things have been surreal and too real; novel and getting old fast; overwhelming, challenging, and hard with bright spots. We’ve been locked down and trying to build each other up. This (time) capsule is an offering. A mosaic of meditation. A sourdough starter of creativity to help feed your own. Take a step back, take a breath, take a look, and take your time.
They said the city was over. They pointed at the huddled masses queued before grocery stores; at netless basketball rims in padlocked parks; at empty A trains passing with a whisper instead of a roar.
They said it was time to leave. There was nothing left to see, to do, to hear—unless, of course, you liked half-hearted rounds of applause each night at 7pm, or the endless wailing of sirens.
We split our year into seasons and then into government-mandated phases, until it came down to this: there was a time before, and there is the Pandemic Present. Or for us: There was food, and there is Sunday Dinner.
Sunday dinners have a long, rich history among Black Americans in the United States. During the days of chattel slavery, enslaved Africans were only allowed to rest on Sunday. And where there is rest and relaxation, there is also food, family, and friends. Because Sunday is the first day of the week, Black families could look forward to a larger feast on those days. While the pickings weren’t always the best, Black Americans could transform the little they had (like pig intestines) into foods as delicious and revolutionary as chitlins. The story of the Black Sunday dinner is one of resilience and community in the face of adversity.
To know that we are dining as our ancestors did, in the face of so much oppression, is comforting. Sunday Dinners have allowed us to gather – albeit in a small group – and mourn loved ones lost to COVID-19. We share strategies for protesting safely, brainstorm ways to help our elderly and immunocompromised neighbors vote, and lament the uncertain future of the Black community in the United States. We do this over air-fried wings, steak dinners, fried porgy caught by a friend, and our favorite Chinese food from the spot up the street that has managed to keep their doors open against all odds.
By making Sunday Dinners a bonafide event, we can offset the limitations we find ourselves living under: No travel? Let’s riff off of our favorite spots in Queens. No concerts? Let’s make a playlist (good vibes only, please). And so on. We have learned to disrupt the mundanities of our pandemic present and create a new, fulfilling routine to share amongst ourselves in the safety of our home.
The tradition of Sunday dinner has evolved from generation to generation, but the role remains the same: to create a space where people can rest and relax in preparation for the week ahead. For us, they are a coping mechanism, something to do with our hands besides loading and reloading social media apps and streaming services and emails. We each come to the table bringing something unique: culinary talents, an elder’s secret recipe, multiple bottles of wine, new ingredients, jokes, a playlist filled with “auntie music,” and most importantly, empty stomachs.
On any day, the question, “what’s for dinner?” is seemingly innocuous. But on Sunday, the question is a beckoning, an invitation, and a prayer. So come. Wash your hands, set the table. We’re almost ready to eat.
– Words by Black Appétit – Photos by Chris Yetka
Black Appétit is comprised of the Harlem-based duo Omotayo Balogun and Camille Kail. The roommates — Balogun, eldest daughter of Nigerian immigrants, and Kail, have expanded their talent for cooking/eating and love for Black food culture to start a conversation about food and community that has become even more powerful in the pandemic period. Scroll through their Instagram feed, and you’ll see loving shots of neighborhood plates, lists of New York restaurants in need of support, articles examining the racism inherent in food media and restaurants, and of course, their own cooking. They have been thinking about what it means to be in community in hard times, the wisdom that came before, and of course — what’s for dinner.