On June 17, 2021, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. signed a bill into law making Juneteenth a federally recognized holiday, commemorating the day on June 19, 1865, when the last enslaved African-Americans in Galveston, Texas, were notified by Union soldiers that they were free—two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day, it's a day of remembrance and reflection, and while the way the holiday is celebrated varies from region to region, and even family to family, the one thing that unites all the barbecues, parades, rodeos, and street fairs held on the day is that there is almost certainly food involved.
To help identify dishes that would be appropriate to serve to celebrate our newest national holiday, we spoke with Andre Springer, founder of Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce; Chef Rasheeda Purdie, founder of Ramen by Rā; and Kysha Harris, editor at The Spruce Eats, and they talked about the kinds of food typically served on Juneteenth as well as their own plans for the day and what it means to them.
Barbecue and Soul Food
“We focus on a lot of things that are traditional, in the sense of African diasporic food on this side of the hemisphere,” says Springer, “but, at the same time, we share foods that are also very specific to our regions.”
Southern mainstays like smooth, creamy grits can often make an appearance, whether as a side seasoned with little more than butter and salt or with the classic pairing of shrimp. There are endless variations of the dish, and you can even add in crab, lobster, chicken, or oysters.
“Soul food will always be the common denominator,” says Purdie. “Barbecue is important as it’s a connection to Texas and the South.”
That means anything from juicy barbecue pork ribs to tender pulled pork shoulder goes. You can’t go wrong with Southern classics like crispy, golden fried chicken and smoky collard greens. And of course, a big pot of Cajun gumbo with chicken and andouille sausage or Creole-style red jambalaya loaded with chicken, sausage, and shrimp can serve as the main event.
“It's also the time of year,” says Harris. “So I think how it's evolved over the years, and it’s another summer kind of cookout celebration, much like July 4th.” A creamy, crunchy potato salad will fit right in at the table, as will a tangy macaroni salad.
One of the main themes associated with Juneteenth is the color red. “The red food traditions that you eat during the time of Juneteenth bring recognition to the bloodshed of the enslaved,” says Purdie.
You’ll find watermelon as a part of almost any spread, whether cubed, sliced, or even pickled. A watermelon, feta, and mint salad is a sweet and salty way to incorporate the ingredient into your menu. As tomatoes are entering peak season again, a simple, no-cook tomato salad is the perfect way to show them off while keeping with the theme. And if you really want to make red the main event, opt for a big pot of New Orleans-style red beans and rice with vegetables, cured pork, and sausage. When it comes to dessert, buttery and moist red velvet cake is a popular option, but you can also opt for this no-bake, no-cook summer strawberry pie.
The most important red item on Juneteenth might very well be the red drink. It comes with a long history that acknowledges the culinary traditions and goods—most notably hibiscus—brought over to America by enslaved Africans, and can be served in many forms, from Kool-Aid to Jamaican sorrel.
This Year’s Juneteenth
“I don't think a lot of people would be talking about Juneteenth right now, had it not been for the last year that we had,” says Harris. Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, sparked by police brutality against Black people and the killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many others, have undoubtedly underscored the importance of the holiday.
Harris, Springer, and Purdie have begun celebrating Juneteenth in more recent years, and all of them acknowledge that while it’s a day of celebration, it’s also a day of reflection.
“My family’s from the Caribbean, so I celebrate Juneteenth with my Black brothers and sisters from all of the diaspora,” says Springer. “We talk about progress, and how we can help each other out and be more community-based, and then really focus on our ancestors and honoring them. Regardless of whether you're Caribbean, or African-American, or Afro-South American, we all share this feeling of liberation and reflection of our ancestors and what they went through being on this side of the planet through slavery. You can't really heal unless you acknowledge the past, and you honor the past.”
Harris notes that the true meaning of Juneteenth can be hard to celebrate. “It's such a weird thing, because I think about being in such harsh conditions and then all of a sudden finding out that you are free,” she says. “How does one react to that? Is that celebration, is that anger? The big thing for me now is to reflect on the idea of freedom. What does that mean? And so I think those are the kinds of themes that I would reflect on, and how I am kind of living up to my freedom.”
In addition to reflection, Purdie also sees it as an opportunity to continue educating others on Black history and culture. In the past, she has attended Juneteenth dinners that were both celebrations and opportunities to teach and learn. In that spirit, the Juneteenth menu for Roots + Ramen, a takeout-style event she began offering to customers this year, will be entirely red themed, with ramen in a chilled watermelon broth with watermelon poke, a red velvet cake roll with sweet buttercream, and a strawberry sage soda. The food combines her love of of ramen with Black culture, and she it might educate some of her patrons a little bit along the way.
“If it takes something like Juneteenth to bring awareness to how much we do and don't know, sharing information and history and culture is going to bring us together more than a lot of things that don't bring us together,” says Purdie.
As for Harris, she will be spending this Juneteenth at a block party in support of her mother’s children’s book and toy store, Grandma’s Place. She looks forward to enjoying good food, company, and honoring the true meaning of Juneteenth on the 19th and beyond.
“As Americans, we’re not free until we’re all free,” says Harris. “Now is our time for Black people to kind of lay down all of the apprehension, all of the pretense that has to go along in conversations to just kind of be unapologetically Black, or just be unapologetically yourself. And so, for me, I think as I move forward in my life, I want to just be as unapologetic as I can be."