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Building a Juneteenth menu for the 21st century, one recipe at a time

Building a Juneteenth menu for the 21st century, one recipe at a time

African Americans crave locally harvested, coast-to-coast, USDA Prime freedom, in all its bitter sweetness.

On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3, in which he informed the people of Texas that all enslaved people are now free. For the more than 250,000 enslaved black Texans, the impact of the order was not immediate; some plantation owners withheld the information and postponed it until after another harvest season. But a year later, in 1866, unofficial Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas.

i celebrated it juniteenth with the smartest people in the culinary space on a Soul Summit, a symposium founded by editor and author Toni Tipton-Martin in Austin, Texas, that celebrates the food history of African Americans; in New York, on a rooftop with my best friends; and in Georgia, hidden in the woods with humidity enveloping the guests. I’ve been under my carport with peeling paint overhead and mosquitoes buzzing around a plethora of foil-covered foods: thick supermarket-bought Italian chicken sausages, buttery sweet poundcakespork ribs bathed in smoke and spices and summer salads of heirloom tomatoes and roasted eggplant.

I’ve hosted plated dinners with ceramic dishes full of whole roasted fish and summer bean salad, then went carefully around a table draped in tea-dyed linen, accompanied by red punch and rum. One year I hosted a pop-up at Pelzer’s Pretzels, a now-closed small-batch pretzel company, serving root beer floats drizzled with caramel and sprinkled with chunks of Philadelphia-style pretzel, and another time hosting a neighborhood dinner and farm tour for Brownsville Community Culinary Center and Cafe† Guests feasted on Gullah Geechee classics such as Red rice and okra stew† Each of these celebrations was a time to shut out the strange noise of the everyday world and feast on food and freedom. Over the years, Juneteenth has become my annual tradition, even if I’m miles from the places I call home.

Like the Great Black Migration itself, Juneteenth traveled aboard trains and automobiles from his Texas birthplace to every state in the Union where Jim Crow was not the de facto governor. Daniel Vaughn enrolls a 2015 Texas Monthly article about Juneteenth barbecue: “Barbecue wasn’t just on the menu. In mid-June, the start of the watermelon season in Texas, that also found a place at the table. Galveston’s Daily News reported on celebrations across the state in 1883, including one in San Antonio, where “twenty-three wagons loaded with watermelons … were destroyed with astonishing speed.” By 1933, the menu was cemented according to The Dallas Morning News. ‘Watermelon, barbecue and red lemonade will be consumed in large quantities.’”

Hidden within the Juneteenth story are small moments of personal triumph that we will never know. The whole society has been transformed by emancipation, but how did it affect individual lives? Noisy parties are often followed by quieter victories.

My great-grandfather George Taylor left Oconee, Georgia—a town nearly 10 miles south of the University of Georgia, named after the Oconee branch of the Creek Indians or the Muskogean tribe—for a more prosperous future in Athens, Georgia, and my great aunts, two aunts and uncles usually stayed close by. Then Hubert “Boley” Taylor, a Korean War veteran, married Mildred. They gave birth to my mother.

My mother, Janis Marie Taylor, graduated from high school in 1972 and voted for the first time in that year’s presidential election (a victory her own mother had never witnessed). She made a living as a chicken factory worker. Cutting chickens into pieces for more than forty hours a week; rest was a luxury. I probably take as many coffee breaks and rejuvenation breaks in one day as they do in a week. My afternoon lunches can sometimes last two hours or more. My mother showed me how to plod; my experiences teach me that it’s okay to take a break.

Still, I’m learning the urge to plow through the day and rush on to the next one. I pause.

In the silence I connect with my whole self in ways my ancestors were not allowed to. There was no room for them; their working-class jobs don’t include a lactation room, free time to vote, an atmosphere to talk openly about anxiety, or have a birthday lunch with cake and candles. I set my weekly intentions knowing that it is my responsibility to remember to fill my heart with gratitude, to say the names of my ancestors when the room is full and when no one is listening.

Even on the days that are not defined as holidays or holy days or special days, we must do special things for ourselves and those we hold dear. These little everyday traditions, these molecules of the ordinary, can have power and meaning, if we let them. Rituals of leisure and care are as much a testament to what made Juneteenth possible as voting rights and desegregated buses. It is these rituals that I want my son, Garvey, to embrace, feel and understand as important components of Juneteenth’s legacy.

Recipes: Watermelon Ginger BeerVery Green Cabbage Salad With Grilled PoblanosPeach and Molasses ChickenStrawberry Sumac Cake

This article is excerpted from “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations” by Nicole A. Taylor (Simon & Schuster, 2022).