Food is unique. It can bring people together, it can bring joy, and it can also honor one’s ancestors. The foods of Juneteenth do all of that and more.
What is Juneteenth?
On June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last enslaved African Americans were told of their freedom in Galveston, Texas. Since then, Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, is celebrated each year on June 19. Juneteenth is a day for descendants of enslaved peoples to celebrate their memory, their freedom and their livelihood.
Enslaved people were robbed of their language, clothes and customs, and forced to assimilate. However, the food they made and ate could keep parts of their traditions alive. Black culinary food historian Michael Twitty says, “It’s (food) one of the most intimate ways to know people of the past, including your own ancestors. There are very few ways we can know the people who fed into our gene pool. But when we eat the same food, there’s this sense of continuity.”
By cooking food from their culture, enslaved people could maintain their history and pass down recipes to their descendants – which can still be seen to this day. Everything was taken from them, but through resiliency and perseverance, they were able to keep their traditions alive through food.
Juneteenth has a tradition of red foods. Red is a deep, rich color that symbolizes perseverance, and it dates back to ancestral belief in West and Central Africa that red was one of the most important colors, according to Twitty. In addition, in the fourth episode of the Netflix documentary, “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America: Freedom,” Eugene Thomas, a Juneteenth descendant, says “It (the color red) was a reminder in a lot of ways, of the blood that was shed prior to emancipation, by all those who came before us who did not get the chance to taste the freedom that we are tasting now.”
Barbecued meat covered in sauce is considered red food. It is one of the most important features on the Juneteenth table. Meat is already a staple food of the South, but the preparation and cooking of the meats bring in the communal aspect of the holiday. Jean-Philippe writes, “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.” Therefore, barbecue beef, chicken and pork are all significant foods for Juneteenth.
In addition to red meats, some other red foods include but are not limited to red beans and rice, watermelon, strawberry pie, red velvet cake and red sauces – hot sauce and barbecue sauce. Even the staple drinks – red soda, punch and ice-cold hibiscus tea are all red.
There are other foods made and eaten that are not red. Juneteenth also includes spiritual foods. Devarrick Turner writes, “Common side dishes like black-eyed peas, corn, cornbread, collard greens, cabbage, potatoes and yams are known as prosperity meals for good luck and fortune.”
Overall, the foods of Juneteenth are full of rich history and tradition.
Food as Resistance
To prepare, cook, and eat these foods from their African culture was a form of resistance. The goal of slavery was to take away everything from Africans’ cultures. Anything they could do to remember and perpetuate their tradition was resistance.
In a time where history is being sanitized and left unwritten, Juneteenth reminds us that it is people and food who keep history and tradition alive.
Ashalul Aden is a Rochester resident committed to equity, love, and justice.