By Luisah Teish
Every Fall my extended family holds a ceremony to honor the harvest season, the ancestors, and each other.
We take pride in setting a beautiful table, covered in rich fabrics adorned with plants from the season.
We dazzle each other with nutritious foods, usually home grown or purchased from the local farmer’s market. We prepare dishes from our ancestral cultures.
Our desserts are heart healthy, tasty and appealing to the eye. We indulge in drinks made with exotic fruit: Membrillo Tequila from Mexico, Honey Mead from Ethiopia, Amarula Cream from South Africa.
We stand around the table for a few minutes looking at all the things present, the birds and fish, the fruit and vegetable, the seeds and spices, We stand around the table, hold hands, and take nine slow deep breaths as we look at the light in each others’ eyes. We give thanks to all aspects of the mystery of Life. The Eldest in the circle says:
“We give praise and thanks
to the Most High
and the Great Deep.
For the power of
We give thanks to the
Of the Ancestors who taught us
How to cultivate and prepare this food.
And we give thanks to our own spirits
That have brought us here together in kinship.
“Onje Orisha (food of the Gods)
Onje Alafia ((food for health and peace)
Ase. Ase. Ase.”
The first plate of food prepared goes to the ancestral shrine in memory of the Native Americans who preserved the indigenous plants, the Africans who developed American agriculture on the plantations and the millions of Mexican and Asian migrant workers who harvested the crops.
Now we begin to name the cultures on the table Louisiana Seafood Gumbo, Chinese fried rice, East Indian vegetable curry, Peruvian lemon chicken, Italian roasted vegetables.
The ooohs and aaahs express our gratitude for the knowledge of generations of cooks who have tested and tasted recipes over the centuries so that we know the right amount of water to boil, the proper cooking method and time, and exactly which herbs and spices should be cast into the pot or over the plate for maximum flavor and appeal.
The meal progresses through soup and salad, bread and cheeses, birds and fish, and veggies of every kind. Each cook is proud to see the dish they brought disappear gradually from its container.
This is our Appreciation Dinner and the next step is a most important one. We move from the dining room and sit in a circle in the parlor.
A chair is placed in the center of the circle and covered with a cloth the color of the Sun. Someone’s name is called and that person has to go sit in the chair. Once seated the person in the center has to receive the expressions of gratitude being given to them.
This Appreciation Dinner is a special one. It is being held at the home of a woman in our circle who has passed into the Land of the Ancestors. The man in the center chair is her husband. We say to him:
“ We give praise and thanks to you, your ancestors, and your children. We are grateful for the opportunity to be here with you tonight. We thank you for the love and support you gave to our sister in this life. We are grateful that you remain here with us.”
He is not allowed to deny his goodness. He is not allowed to diminish nor reject our declarations of gratitude. He is not allowed to do anything except accept the appreciation we are expressing for him. He breathes deeply and restrains a tear that wells up in his eyes. Gratitude is often difficult to accept because it is also difficult to hold.
When we have exhausted the litany of thanks recited to and for him, he can surrender the chair to a person of his choice and the litany for that person begins. We do this until everyone in the room has been in the center receiving the praise and thanks of everyone else.
It is amazing what things appear in the litany of thanks:
“I’m thankful for the smell of the flowers in your garden.
I’m thankful for the soup you cooked when I had that cold last winter. I’m thankful for the way you held my hand when I was crying. I’m thankful for the day you saved my life.”
For these small things we give praise and thanks.
Luisah Teish is a teacher and an author, most notably of Jambalaya: The Natural Woman's Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. She is an Oshun chief in the Yoruba Lucumitradition. She is an African-American native of New Orleans, Louisiana and a resident of Oakland, California. Her original ancestry is Yoruba (West African). Teish began teaching in 1977. To learn more about Luisah Teish, click here.
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This article appears in:
2013 Catalyst - Issue 20