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February 8, 2005

'Sweet Honey' singer wants food that satisfies body, soul

Miami Herald (FL)

It's almost two in the morning and bitterly cold in Silver Spring, MD. At this moment, only carbs will do. Aisha Kahlil is about to put a piece of corn bread in the toaster oven. True to her word, Kahlil takes a reporter's phone call after arriving home in the wee hours from a rush-rush weekend in Santa Barbara, Calif. There, as part of Sweet Honey in the Rock, she has summoned the angels of black church music, looked the scourge of injustice in the eye and extolled the power of love. The concert was part of a 30th-anniversary tour that will bring the Grammy Award-winning ensemble of seven African-American women to South Florida this weekend for the Miami International Film Festival, which features a documentary about the acclaimed a cappella group known for its soaring harmonies.

It seems like a natural to talk food with a member of a group that takes its name from a Bible story about a land so rich and fertile that its rocks give forth honey when cracked open. As it happens, the subject is very much on Kahlil's mind. Discussing their tour, she says, "The road is so stressful that food becomes a major thing. It's got to be filling and satisfying.'' That's easier said than eaten. On tour, the women navigate airline schedules, travel delays, long bus rides, rehearsals, sound checks, makeup sessions and wardrobe changes. Before a performance, one or another member might light a candle in the dressing room to refocus them on the inner light and restore a sense of shared calm.

Kahlil is not only a vocalist of dazzling range and agility but a dancer, choreographer and composer who is represented on the soundtracks of the PBS series Africans in America and the Maya Angelou film Down in the Delta. She grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where family meals echoed the familiar experiences of generations. ''My mom usually fixed a nice dinner for us on Sunday -- fried chicken, potato salad, macaroni and cheese,'' she says. " Sometimes my dad would fix dinner, things that we didn't like -- liver, and lima beans that seemed so dry. But he made things really spicy. That's where I learned how to make really spicy foods.''

Her most tantalizing food memories were formed in Senegal, on visits to her sister, who years ago lived in Dakar. "I remember . . . sitting around and eating out of one big bowl, rolling the food up in your hands -- eating with your right hand only. The rice would go in the bowl first, and the fish and the sauce would be poured on top.'' Kahlil is describing thiebou dienn sous verre, a stew that's the national dish of Senegal. It's a meal for special occasions and plenty of guests, chock-full of calabaza, sweet cassava, turnips, potatoes and yams. Which brings Kahlil back to Maryland's freezing temperatures and that toasty piece of corn bread. "When it's cold like this and I get stressed I want to eat a lot of potatoes and bread.'' To which we can only add, "Amen.''

Nancy Ancrum writes biweekly about the African diaspora's culinary legacy.

Posted by acapnews at February 8, 2005 12:02 AM