We thought we knew about every kind of dinner you can have: dinner from scratch, dinner with friends, early, late, expense account, room service, over the sink, a dinner presented with a flourish from under a sterling silver cloche, or one pried from the viselike jaws of a steaming takeout box. And yet, one vibrant, generous group is bringing the town together for an elevated, illuminating take on what dinner can be.
With their customary knack for creating connection, Stand Together Against Racism (S.T.A.R) is reimagining dinner as an immersive cultural celebration. Soul-Fête, which will explore the culinary journey from Africa to America, will welcome you to the Carriage Barn from 7 to 9 p.m. on March 2, wrapping up Black History Month in an unforgettable way. Music will be provided by local band The Misfits, and chef Damon Sawyer of Bridgeport’s 29 Markle Ct. will take us through the past, present, and future of Black food.
There will be a mac ‘n’ cheese tasting.
I repeat: there will be a mac ‘n’ cheese tasting.
Now that we’re all selecting elastic-waist outfits in anticipation, let’s talk about why this event will be extraordinary.
I’ve always found the great American “Melting Pot” analogy somewhat unhelpful when discussing culinary tradition. It often erases the origins of the foods we’re eating and, in that melting, lets corporate America lay claim to everything from pizza to pad Thai. Don’t get me wrong; magic happens when cultures collide in the kitchen, like the pastrami taco at The Back End and Chef Prasad’s Indo-Chinese cauliflower Manchurian. But I’d rather have a local soul food restaurant get all my mac and cheese money than Mondelez, a.k.a. the somewhat problematic global food conglomerate formerly known as Kraft.
Here’s an example of the bigger picture when it comes to food: I grew up eating my Louisiana-born mom’s jambalaya, which is objectively delicious, and was always told that, like all the Creole dishes our family enjoyed, jambalaya was a French recipe influenced by Spanish cooking and made with whatever was around the bayou. But jambalaya has another level to its story that I only recently uncovered: Jambalaya and Nigerian jollof rice are twins, separated at birth. They’re made in the same big pot, with rice that had long been grown in West Africa and brought to the States to be cultivated by enslaved people and rebranded as “Carolina Gold.” I still make jambalaya when I want to conjure my mom, but I also consider this dish’s fraught global voyage to reach my modern-day plate, and celebrate all the people who made it and ate it before me.
It’s with that sense of celebration and consideration that I can’t wait for Soul-Fête. What’s woven into Black culinary traditions, and what’s influencing their direction? Also important: which Fairfield County restaurants should we turn to for mac ‘n’ cheese?
Fatou Niang, who has generously contributed her time and talents for New Canaan’s greater good since moving here in 2004, started S.T.A.R. in 2020, in the week following the brutal police murder of George Floyd. While outrage and sadness gripped the nation and black squares flooded Instagram, Fatou got to work, creating an outlet for New Canaanites to grieve, love, and stand in solidarity, and she worked with the New Canaan Police to do it. Let’s not beat around the bush: New Canaan is an 88% white town, and outsiders can be quick to point out our privilege. But at the heart of it, we’re a community-minded, thoughtful, and supportive small town, and I’ve never been so proud to live here as I was when I saw thousands of people, young and old, marching, chanting, and singing that day.
Since then, Fatou and the S.T.A.R. team have presented New Canaan with a steady calendar of events, activities, community celebrations for Black History Month and Juneteenth, a fantastic social justice art show at the Historical Society last fall, and a super-informative social media feed. We’re so lucky to have S.T.A.R.’s creativity and spirit in our community, and on March 2nd, we get to have a big dinner party about it. We’ll learn more about Black food, celebrate the work of local restaurateurs, and toast a community that stands together for something more than ourselves. Plus, and this is no small thing, Fatou’s son Lucas heads to the Super Bowl LVII with the Chiefs next week. We need to raise a glass to the local woman who raised a Super Bowl player.
Tickets for Soul-Fête can be bought on the S.T.A.R. website, and there’s an option to make an additional donation that allows S.T.A.R. to sponsor other guests.
See you there!