As a child growing up in the South, I knew that Sunday was a holy and reverent day set aside from all the rest. Each one began the same: stirring from a deep sleep early in the morning, when the faintest light from sunrise was starting to appear; showering and dressing with preapproved outfits per my mother; shuffling off to the family car and loading up with my three sisters, church bound.
Spending time in church was part of the fabric of what it meant to be a member of my family. Throughout my childhood, we flitted from churches and denominations, including Southern Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and Catholicism. Not spending the start of the week in the “house of the Lord” rarely happened, and when it did, it was as if life itself had been disrupted. But there was another vital part of Sunday other than the ritualistic churchgoing: Sunday dinner. No Sunday was complete without the ornate feast my mother planned and prepared, often with my help.
After we spent the earlier half of Sunday in church, fellowshipping among other Black believers while receiving the pastor’s sermon and musical selections from the choir, a light breakfast and quick nap set the stage for what was to come. I’d sleep too long, always, because waking up early for anything was a pain. And when I shook off the grogginess, I’d slink off to the kitchen to chip in with the tasks that needed to be completed to execute supper.
Memories like these I hold near and dear, as churchgoing is no longer a part of my life and hasn’t been for years. The religiosity that was once an integral core of my identity and how I rooted my life has given way to other forms of nurturing and grounding myself — meditating, doing yoga, pulling tarot cards, listening to my intuition. Sunday dinner, however, has not been something I’ve been able to let go of so easily.
More than a tradition that has transitioned into a steady ritual for many Black families, Sunday dinner has a storied history. Dating back to the days of chattel slavery, enslaved Africans saw food as more than sustenance, as it had always been before. Sunday arose as that sole day of the week where they could pretend they were free.
William C. Whit muses about this history in his essay “Soul Food as Cultural Creation,” included in a collection of essays edited by Anne L. Bower entitled African American Foodways: Explorations of Food and Culture. Whit writes, “Saturday night was usually the time for distributing slave provisions. This made possible the tradition of a larger than normal Sunday dinner — a practice that has continued with minor modification in many African American households.” That tradition stuck as those same enslaved Africans were emancipated and lived on to rebuild what it meant to live unencumbered with the harsh realities of being held captive.
Dating back to the days of chattel slavery, enslaved Africans saw food as more than sustenance, as it had always been before. Sunday arose as that sole day of the week where they could pretend they were free.
One derivative of Sunday dinner and Sunday eating removes one step from the formula altogether: eating at church. Rather than trudge your entire family from church after spending the bulk of the day there, you simply moved to another part of the building — maybe down some steps to a basement emanating aromas or a fellowship hall lined with long tables — to feast on food the church mothers lovingly prepared.
This practice originated in the rural South, where the church stood as a beacon and a source of more than religious edification — it was a place to connect with other like-minded souls in the name of social connection. Joyce White, a food writer and former editor at Heart & Soul, penned a cookbook on the subject called Soul Food: Recipes and Reflections from African-American Churches. In the book, she discusses how, after moving to New York, she searched for the sort of community that had grounded her back home in Alabama and found it in the African American churches of Brooklyn and Harlem.
“The church started out as the site of social activities in our communities. It is where we went to school, got married, and held our graduation exercises and community rallies,” White said in a piece for the Chicago Tribune on the subject. “Being people of color, we always liked to eat and break bread and show the bounty of our labor. The churches were our restaurants. We didn’t have to worry about segregation or not feeling welcome.”
Though the tradition of Sunday dinner and the meaning it holds carries on from generation to generation, some women, like me, have figured out a way to merge the past with the present, creating new traditions and ways of communing over meals.
Shaun Chavis, a writer and editor based in Atlanta, Georgia, was an army brat during her childhood. Because of that, most of her younger years were spent moving around a lot. Seeing her extended family in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, was a special treat—one that happened rarely—and so was Sunday dinner. Chavis’ family was strong in the church: Her maternal grandfather was a pastor, and his wife, her grandmother, a first lady. Following church, there was always a family Sunday dinner with an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Chavis fondly recalls her grandmother’s rolls, as well as the creamed corn and tomato casserole she made.
“My maternal grandmother lived in a small town, and she was famous for her Parker House rolls,” she says. “She also did really great vegetables. I don’t remember her meats as much.”
Chavis has tried to replicate this family experience for herself in her adulthood. When her father died in 2011, Chavis, immersed in grief, started hosting weekly dinner parties on Sundays as a way to be around friends as she healed. At the time, she lived in Birmingham, Alabama. Her friends would come over and prep, cook, and laugh together in what she describes as a “tiny” apartment. It met a need going back to her childhood.
“I grew up with not only the tradition but seeing these really important women in my life being upheld as great cooks,” she says. “I wanted to be that. I wanted to be the person who’s cooking for everybody.”
Leni Sorenson, PhD, a culinary historian and teacher, grew up in Southern California with different experiences outside of the typical Southern Sunday dinner custom. She didn’t grow up religious, though she often went to a family member’s house on Sunday — Aunt Mary.
“We would go to Aunt Mary’s because she always had lots of food and was always cooking,” Sorenson says. “[She and her daughters] would make big pans of hamburger patties that we might call Salisbury steaks today with a bit of gravy.”
Gravy was a big thing in her family, especially on Sundays. And so, when Sorenson didn’t go to her Aunt Mary’s house, her stepfather cooked his favorites from his native Algiers, Louisiana: pots of pinto beans, collard greens seasoned with ham hocks, chicken or pork chop fricassee. These days, however, Sunday has taken on a new meaning, though she fondly reflects on the memory of what it used to be. Now a widow, Sorenson has four children and gets her fill of community gathered around her table with farmstead history dinners that she hosts at her home.
“I spend a lot of time alone,” she says. “For me now, a lot of Sundays are a down day, because I’m doing these history dinners on Saturday evenings. Often, there’s food left over, and that becomes Sunday dinner.”
Like Chavis and Sorenson, for me, Sunday is a much quieter affair now than it was in my childhood. As a single, childless woman, I have no family of my own waiting for a massive Sunday spread. There is no external pressure at all for me to uphold this culinary tradition. And yet, each week, days in advance, I start planning a Sunday feast—for myself. I pick a main entrée, some sides, and even a dessert. I spend no less than four hours corralling all these ingredients and getting lost in the fun that is cooking from the heart.
I feel like my mother, the conductor of each meal, willing all the players to take their places and making all the components sing together in a harmonious tune. And in the end, when a meal emerges, I am filled with peace, deep satisfaction, and pleasure. Then I remember why I embarked on this journey without an audience in the first place.