Watermelon Rum Punch † Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Watermelon Rum Punch † Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Although it is the longest-running African American holiday, this is the first year that Juneteenth is celebrated as a federal holiday. It is in recognition of June 19, 1885, the day Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to free all enslaved people. Although President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished human slavery more than two years earlier, slave owners evaded the order by moving to Texas — an estimated 250,000 enslaved people lived in the state at the time of the order.
Juneteenth celebrations can be traced to the following summer of 1886, most of which take place in Texas and the contiguous Southern states. When travelers belonging to the Great Migration left the south for cities in the Midwest and on both coasts, they brought those traditions with them. The holiday also became more popular during the Civil Rights Movement, with many using it as an opportunity to celebrate black history with picnics, jazz festivals, Miss Juneteenth pageantand family reunions.
Despite this legacy, many Americans only recently became aware of the significance of Juneteenth, when the June 2020 racial reckoning sparked a nationwide campaign to more formally recognize the holiday. Figures like Opal Lee, a retired Texas teacher and activist known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” spearheaded those efforts, including an annual 2.5-mile walk to symbolize the two-and-a-half years it took for the news of the abolition reach Texel.
Arriving on the heels of spring, Juneteenth festivities usually involve picnics, with red food and drink dominating those spreads. While watermelon and barbecue are popular choices at many summer parties, a deeper investigation into Juneteenth reveals food traditions that predate the transatlantic slave trade.
“The color red is believed to represent the bloodshed of enslaved African ancestors,” explains culinary historian and author Adrian E. Miller† “Red drinks as we know them in the US are a nod to two ancestral red drinks from Africa. Bissap is a common drink containing a type of hibiscus that is native to West Africa. Red kola nut tea has kola nuts which are also native to West Africa. And in either case, whether you use the flowers of the hibiscus or the red kola nuts, the process is the same. Take some water, soak it in the kola nuts or in the red petals to make it red, then sweeten it to taste.”
In addition to bissap, hibiscus tea appears throughout Africa as roselle juice, sobolo, and zobo; in the Caribbean as sorrel; and throughout Latin America as agua de jamaica. With anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant protection, and other health benefits, hibiscus is a great low-sugar option for Juneteenth celebrations.
Making hibiscus tea
• 2 ½ cups of hibiscus buds
• Thumb size of thinly sliced ginger
• 12 cups of water
• Honey or agave (to taste)
• 1 lime
• Cinnamon sticks (optional)
1. In a large stockpot, bring the water, sorrel buds, ginger and cinnamon to a boil. Once the water is boiling, reduce the heat and let it simmer for about 30 minutes.
2. After 30 minutes, turn off the heat.
3. Let the tea cool completely and strain out the sorrel buds, ginger and cinnamon.
4. Serve the tea chilled. Add honey and lime to taste.
While hibiscus tea is often credited as one of the original red drinks that most modern recipes draw on, red soda — usually strawberry flavored — is another option that gained popularity in the 1920s. It is a convenient choice for anyone who prefers to grab a two liter or 12 pack for the picnic, and is always a crowd pleaser with kids.
For those looking to make red soda at home, you can’t go wrong with this recipe from Derrick and Tatanisha Worthey behind This dignified life† The pair first debuted the drink at a Juneteenth party they hosted in 2020 and have been making it every year since.
“It’s something the whole family can enjoy and you can make your own,” explains Derrick. “Just make sure it’s red, but if you want to use hibiscus, fine. You can use raspberries or cherries to customize it to your taste and palette.”
• 1 liter strawberry soda or lime-lime soda
• 1 ½ cup strawberry lemonade mix
• 1 cup homemade strawberry syrup
• 1 pint fresh strawberries, washed and cut in half
• Fresh sprigs of mint
1. Make the strawberry lemonade by combining the strawberry lemonade mix with the strawberry or lemon-lime soda instead of water.
2. Stir in the homemade strawberry syrup (see recipe below), fresh strawberries and fresh sprigs of mint.
3. Taste and adjust the sweetness to your liking.
4. Pour into glasses filled with ice.
5. Garnish with fresh strawberries and fresh sprigs of mint.
Homemade Strawberry Syrup Recipe
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 1 cup of water
• 1 cup fresh strawberries, cleaned with the stems removed and quartered
• 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Place a saucepan over medium heat and add water, sugar, prepared strawberries and lemon juice.
2. When the mixture starts to boil, use a fork or potato masher to mash the strawberries to release the juices.
3. Let the mixture boil for another minute and then remove it from the heat.
4. Place a tight-fitting lid on the pan and let the strawberry syrup steep for 10 minutes.
5. Using a fine mesh strainer, strain the syrup into a Mason jar. Store in the refrigerator for up to three days.
At its core, Juneteenth is about celebrating black resilience and the fact that despite centuries of struggle and injustice, we are still here. The innovation and imagination of enslaved Africans cannot be overstated – they took literal leftovers and created delicious staples that we still enjoy today. Along the same lines, we encourage you to work with what you have on hand for these recipes and get creative with ingredients or make substitutions as needed.
The final recipe is a collaboration between Miller, Black Food Futurist Nia Allen Leeand me, reflecting Juneteenth’s hopeful future: collaborative, creative, and constantly evolving.
In addition to being a red drink, this punch honors its history with watermelon, one of the original foods that enslaved people from Africa, and celebrates the broad reach of the African diaspora with the addition of an Afro-Caribbean rum label.
Cheers to Freedom Day.
How to make watermelon rum punch
• 8 cups diced seedless watermelon
• 16 ounces white rum (Afro-Caribbean owned) Ten to a white rum†
• ½ cup lime juice
• 1 cup strawberry lemonade
• 1 cup ginger beer
• 4 cups of ice
• 1 lemon wedge for garnish
• Fresh mint leaves to garnish
• Tajín edge to finish
1. Mix and sieve the watermelon cubes.
2. Combine the watermelon juice, strawberry lemonade, rum, lime juice and ginger ale in one punch bowl.
3. Serve with ice.
4. Garnish each glass with fresh mint leaves, a slice of lime and finish with a Tajín rim.