If there’s one word that best described Sidney Poitier, his demeanor and poise, it’s regal. Even as a young actor he selected roles that celebrated the character’s dignity, intellect, and honor. He said he always felt a responsibility to represent Black excellence—especially during a time when the vast majority of movie stars were white and many Black performers were relegated to roles portraying racial stereotypes of that day.
Poitier was an actor, director, and diplomat in his lifetime. In 1964 he became the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. One of his most famous roles was that of Dr. John Wade Prentice in the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” In it, Poitier plays a widowed doctor who is engaged to a young woman from a liberal San Francisco family, and is meeting her parents for the first time. The catch is that the daughter, Joanna Drayton, is white and she hasn’t told her parents that 1) she is in town, 2) she is engaged, and 3) that her fiancé is Black.
The title of the movie sets the tone for a gathering—of family coming together over a meal. Food not only plays a pivotal role throughout the film, but it can also play an important role in how we celebrate Black history and the legacy of Sidney Poitier. We can honor his memory by cooking one of the many delicious-sounding dishes mentioned in the film (or getting as close as we can) and celebrating together as they did in the movie.
Make One of These Dishes from "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"
Food serves as a distraction in the film; it’s used as a way to divert attention, and to keep people busy during awkward situations. When Dr. Prentice first meets the parents, they sit on the terrace with coffee and tea sandwiches–like this Cucumber Cream Cheese Tea Sandwiches, Watercress Egg Salad Tea Sandwiches, or Luncheon Tuna Salad—prepared by the housekeeper Tillie.
Tillie has to adjust her plans for dinner when Joanna asks for a special meal for the evening instead of the Celery Soup (likely similar to this Puréed Cream of Celery Soup) that was in the works. Instead of serving two for dinner, they will now be four and Joanna asks for “Turtle soup, tournedos, and one of your best pies!” Tournedos are small beef filets, so something like this recipe for Roast Beef Tenderloin with Pinot Noir Sauce or this Beef Tenderloin with Mushroom Gravy. Instead of turtle soup, we’d recommend making this Homemade Oxtail Soup. And of course, you can’t go wrong with any of these pies. As the parents mull over the implications of the potential interracial marriage (which at the time was still illegal in 16 states), they are joined by their friend Monsignor Ryan, and then Joanna invites Dr. Prentice’s parents over that night. Dinner will now be for seven.
Before dinner the couples part ways and Joanna’s parents go for a drive, stopping for coffee and a double scoop of Fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet–not so different from this Homemade Orange Sherbet or this Easy Blueberry Sorbet. The father is visibly upset and not in favor of the marriage, but the delicious treat seems to soften his mood for a while. Before dinner, everyone gathers just outside of the dining room for drinks and conversation.
By the time they all sit for dinner, the young couple has the blessing of the parents and although we never see the final meal, we have seen Tillie shelling peas (possibly for Creamed Peas with Mushrooms or this Creamy Rice Pilaf with Peas) and trimming pie crust (like for this Grape Pie, or this Fresh Plum Pie) and can imagine the joy this meal will impart on the new family members to strengthen their bond.