The Traditional Foods of Juneteenth Carry a Rich History

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·5 min read
The Traditional Foods of Juneteenth Carry a Rich History
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In the past year, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement has encouraged more people across America to honor and acknowledge the history of Black Americans in the United States. Though it's sometimes painful, history only serves to educate about the racism and inequality that Black people are still fighting against.

One particular holiday that's gained renewed interest is Juneteenth, which Black Southerners in particular have been celebrating for decades. It dates back to June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to inform the last of the country's enslaved that they were free in the wake of the Union's victory in the Civil War.

Since then, what started as yearly local celebrations in Texas, is now recognized across the country. 49 states formally acknowledge Juneteenth, with lawmakers actively lobbying for it to become a national holiday. Commemorations include gatherings of family and friends, the raising of the Emancipation Day flag, and the consumption of delicious Juneteenth foods.

If the last part of that sentence whet your appetite, and you want to familiarize yourself with the foods traditionally served to celebrate Juneteenth. We've got everything you need to know about the (customarily red) refreshments, and the significance of the dishes that are eaten.

Red foods are the most prominent feature on the Juneteenth menu.

Red Juneteenth Foods: Soda, punch, hibiscus tea, red velvet cake, red beans and rice, hot sauce, fruits (strawberry, watermelon)

Ask anyone familiar with the traditions of Juneteenth, and they'll mention the color red. Culinary historian and writer Michael Twitty tells Oprah Daily that the historical importance of red food traces back to the times of enslavement. Because many of the more common foods of the day were white, green, or brown, there was an excitement that came with the rarity of eating red colored treats. In the 19th century, this made certain vibrant delicacies worth celebrating. And in the later half of the 1800s, following the Civil War, Black Americans would even occasionally use an expensive South American dye called "cochineal," which was used to color foods red.

But what made the color even more significant was Texas's status as one of the last states to participate in the American slave trade. Twitty explains that many Africans came through Galveston, an island city on the Gulf Coast of the state, which also happens to be the birthplace of Juneteenth. "Texas was at the end of the world to the Antebellum South. There were a lot of enslaved Africans who were coming to Texas from the continent and through the Caribbean. The color red is highly associated with the cultures that would've come through the later years of the trade, which would have been Yoruba and Kongo."

Both people—the Yoruba of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo; and the Kongo of Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon—placed great philosophical and spiritual value in the color red. Twitty explains the hue took on many meanings. It could symbolize sacrifice, transition, and power.

"I think that's why red is so potent because you had people in Texas who were born in Africa," Twitty says.

Africans brought their homeland traditions with them, which manifested itself through food and generations of Juneteenth celebrations. Think: red beverages like strawberry sodas and hibiscus tea, or red velvet cake and red beans and rice. Others, like watermelon, also had the convenience factor of being in peak season during the month of June.

But barbecue brings the community together.

Juneteenth barbecue foods: Pork, chicken, ribs, hot links (encased sausage), brisket

Smoked, sauce-covered barbecued meats are also considered a red food that Twitty calls "the most important" feature on the Juneteenth table.

Already a staple food of the South, the preparation methods that go into cooking and serving the savory proteins bring in the communal aspect of the holiday. Texas Monthly's barbecue editor, Daniel Vaughn, discovered multiple 19th century newspaper reports that all called for entire communities to gather at the local barbecue pit or grounds to prepare the food and eat together in honor of Juneteenth.

The sides consist of "prosperity meals."

Prosperity meal foods and sides: Corn, cornbread, collard greens, cabbage, Black-Eyed peas, pork, potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes

Michiel Perry, lifestyle expert and creator of the brand Black Southern Belle, says "prosperity meals," which typically make up the side dishes served on Juneteenth, are musts. You may recognize a few foods from New Year's celebrations.

"It's all about celebrating good luck and wishing for the best," Perry tells Oprah Daily.

Black-Eyed peas and pork represent wealth, collard greens (or any dish using leafy vegetables) are said to bring good fortune, and corn symbolizes gold. And though not a prosperity meal, potato salad is generally seen as non-negotiable at any decent barbecue gathering.

Twitty says that collard greens and sweet potatoes both offer historical context, as the foods were easy crops for the enslaved to harvest, store over the winter, and prepare themselves at meal times.

But remember, there is no one way to celebrate Juneteenth.

Perry, a native of South Carolina who currently lives in southern Texas, acknowledges that the foods of Emancipation Day are a huge (and delicious) part of honoring the holiday. But, she encourages those celebrating to develop their own traditions, too.

And yes, as Perry acknowledges, that can totally mean creating healthier vegan or vegetarian alternatives for your Juneteenth spread. Fish fries, crab boils, and seasoned shrimp are also popular—dating back to coastal Southern Black communities where meals were comprised mostly of seafood.

But what is most important, in Perry's eyes, is acknowledging the history that Juneteenth carries by incorporating it into your life more than one day out of the year.

"For me, it's not just a day, it's a lifestyle," she says. "Juneteenth will hopefully make people inquire about their own heritage, history, and traditions. It's a celebration worthy of the year."

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