Food & Drink

Opening hearts to African American history through the love of gumbo

Sandy Holman sprinkled a dash of cayenne pepper into her simmering pot of gumbo, a traditional Creole stew usually containing a combination of meats, seafood, starches and vegetables. She stirred the contents of the pot as huge king crab legs and thick smoked sausages surfaced at the top of the broth.

“Everyone, make yourself at home! Dinner’s almost ready,” Holman said.

In November, as she hosted a gumbo party in her Davis home, Holman peered at the crowd of guests forming in the living room, which was adorned with lit candles and winter-themed decor. She waved at her visitors as they trickled through her front door, some old friends, some new faces, all of them ready to eat. A young girl in a bright yellow dress frolicked through the kitchen, inhaling the aroma of sauteed garlic and onion. Holman winked at the girl as she ran by, chuckling and pointing toward her kitchen counter, which was laden with herbs and chopped vegetables.

“There’s about five or six other things Mom put in there that are secrets,” Holman said, grinning. Her smile was accented with bright purple lipstick, and every time she reached for more cayenne pepper, her assortment of beaded necklaces jangled like wind chimes around her neck.

It was the first time in more than a decade Holman felt like celebrating. When her sister, Cherie Holman, died over a decade ago, she put a hiatus on the tradition to mourn. She had also lost her desire to cook. Twelve years later, she decided it was time to bring back the celebration in honor of her late sister and mother, her loved ones and her African ancestors.

Holman moved to Sacramento in the fifth grade and has spent most of her adult life in Yolo County. Throughout her schooling and professional work life, she became a dedicated advocate for equity, cultural competency and justice.

Along with founding The Culture C.O.-O.P., an organization that promotes understanding and respect for diversity and equity in national institutions, education and communities, Holman has also written multiple children’s books that aim to get people to learn about those who are different than them.

One of her children’s books, Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?, received a Blackboard Children’s Book of the Year award. She has been honored for her work in multicultural children’s literature at BookExpo America alongside Al Gore and Quincy Jones.

Holman said writing these stories is one of many ways she has done her part to educate the public about social inequity. She believes diversity education and storytelling are important components of achieving equity. She said she feels that inviting people of different backgrounds from all over California to her events, presentations and cultural celebrations is a way to share tidbits of history about the African and African American community in the U.S. not universally taught in public schools.

Before becoming an author and starting her own organizations, Holman had a career working with underserved youth and families. As an African American woman, she experienced racism in her professional life and realized much of the discrimination she faced was due to ignorance about who she was based on how she looked. Remembering the way her mother softened hearts through food and gatherings at her house, Holman decided she would do the same. Through the technique of welcoming those who discriminated against her, Holman has found she’s been able to squash racist notions about herself and her community in people who previously showed animosity toward her.

“I can invite some people who have different perspectives and different feelings. People who maybe don’t like African American women,” Holman said, adjusting her apron with a big purple heart on the front. “And maybe ‘cause they like something I made, it might make them be open to us being able to talk and learn about each other.”

Her most recent gumbo party was no exception to this practice. She attributes her desire to teach others to her late mother, Arlene Holman.

“My mom … was my first culturally competent teacher as far as seeing people in the beauty for who they are,” Holman said as she added a few extra diced tomatoes to the pot. “One way she brought lots of people together was through food.”

As the gumbo finished cooking, Holman began to ladle the bubbling stew over mounds of white rice in decorative paper bowls. Her guests were of various ages, ethnicities and religious affiliations, though that wasn’t evident as they started to settle around a long fold-out table, chatting with one another, most of them meeting for the first time.

One of Holman’s guests and community elder, Vi Sledge, mingled with her new acquaintances as she waited for dinner to be served. As a Yolo County community elder, Holman asked Sledge to offer a few words of wisdom to the visitors before dinner. Everyone gathered in a circle, holding hands and turning their attention to Sledge.

“Take pride in your history,” Sledge said, looking around the circle, eyes wide open. “Take it seriously. Because one day, you will be the elder. And what you say is not nearly as important as what you do.”

When Sledge was done, Holman went back to serving the stew. While doing so, she reminisced about her mother’s open-door policy for all of her celebratory gatherings. The combination of diverse guests and food sparked conversation about anything anyone wanted to discuss.

As an African American woman in a county where the population is less than 3 percent black, Holman feels it’s important to spread her knowledge of African and African American history and her culture to anyone willing to listen.

She said cultural sharing is one of the best ways to foster understanding between different ethnic, religious and political groups, and she saw this gumbo gathering as an opportunity to do so.

“There’s a lot of folklore out there about gumbo, but gumbo is a West African-based dish,” Holman said to her guests after they’d all settled in.

The word “gumbo” is derived from a West African word for “okra,” she told them.

She explained that okra was and is used frequently in West African cooking – the long, green vegetables are one of the agents historically used to thicken gumbo broth, along with sassafras, a Choctaw contribution, and roux, a French addition.

Gumbo is often associated with the state of Louisiana and the Creole culture established there during French and Spanish colonial rule in the 18th century, though the exact origins of the dish are disputed by historians. Along with French and Spanish influence, Louisiana cuisine and culture were heavily affected by African-descended slave and Native American traditions.

Holman said that gumbo’s West African roots tend to be overlooked by those who teach history in public schools, while she believes the French and Spanish contributions of the dish are more commonly emphasized.

“In Louisiana by 1721, half of state was African and black. Slaves did [a lot of] the cooking at that time,” Holman said. “Every time you eat gumbo, you think about those African ancestors’ footprints.”

After dinner, Holman prepared to-go containers of leftovers for her guests. She said she hoped those she’d cooked for that night would continue to keep their minds open to others’ cultures and traditions as they had with hers.

“That is so critical right now because there’s so many people out there who are not being their best selves,” Holman said.

She embraced Sledge, who was preparing to leave. The two women smiled and held hands as they gazed at the room full of friends, new and old.

“Like gumbo,” Holman said, “just be a pot full of love.”