All Red Everything: The Color of Juneteenth
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can’t get invited to the cookout if you don’t know what to cook.
By Joy Nesbitt
Red velvet cake. Red beans and rice. Red drank. Yes, you read that correctly — drank. You can’t have the cookouts, skits and dancing without the red-themed cuisine. Juneteenth just isn’t Juneteenth without it. “We make soul food every Juneteenth, but red food is a real ethnic way of showing our appreciation for emancipation,” says Texas caterer Denise Harper.
By now you’ve probably heard of Juneteenth. It commemorates when Union army general Gordon Granger proclaimed the freedom of the slaves to the citizens of Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865 — two months after the surrender of the Confederacy, and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. But it’s highly unlikely you learned about it in school. For years, America’s second independence has mostly been discussed within southern Black circles.
While it’s appeared in pop culture (see season one, episode nine of Donald Glover’s Atlanta), Juneteenth really hadn’t gotten this kind of sweeping exposure until the May 25 killing of George Floyd and the mass protests for racial justice that followed. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s plan for a Juneteenth rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma — where the Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street, was burned down by white vigilantes and the police in a murderous 1921 rampage — sparked national outrage. Trump backed down and moved the rally by a day, then told the Wall Street Journal: “I did something good. I made Juneteenth very famous.” It’s not solely Trump’s doing, but there are perhaps more people celebrating this year than ever.
Now Google and MasterCard want to make it paid holiday. Why? Because they want Black dollars.
David Canton, director of the Africana Studies Program at Connecticut College
“Because of the murder and death of Black people, now Google and MasterCard want to make it paid holiday,” says David Canton, director of the Africana Studies Program at Connecticut College. “Why? Because they want Black dollars.”
And many of those consumers will be loading up on red. Why? Well, for starters, watermelon is in season in June. The strawberry soda, red velvet cake and barbecue slathered in red sauce that have served as traditional Juneteenth foods, however, have a deeper meaning. (You can scroll down to see our tasty recipes at the bottom of this story.)
Culinary historian and food writer Michael Twitty has written that the use of red dates back “to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century.” In Yoruba religion, red symbolizes strength, spirituality, life, and death — all themes associated with endurance and the struggle toward emancipation. Red also can represent the blood of slaves, shed on the road to freedom.
How is it celebrated? In the vernacular of the people who it is meant to celebrate. Harper and her husband, Chef Ty Frazier, have run a Texas catering company, Our Door to Yours, for the past 30 years — and June 19 has always been a busy day. “People down here are always having a cookout and celebration for Juneteenth, and all they want to do is be with each other and enjoy good food and music.”
This year, Harper says that there has been no shortage of requests for their services at fish frys, barbecues and cookouts, despite the continued uptick in COVID-19 cases in Texas. Juneteenth lives on as a means of remembrance and celebration. A multi-sided holiday that honors those who died for the fight, celebrates all that has already been achieved and revitalizes the community for the struggles that have not yet been won.
Check out OZY’s specially curated Juneteenth playlist here:
Our Juneteenth Recipes
Eloise Nesbitt’s Red Velvet Cake
This traditional southern delight has everything that makes Juneteenth great: red coloring to signify strength and resistance, sweet taste, and a whole lot of heart.
Juneteenth Strawberry Soda
Using fresh strawberries, strawberry soda and strawberry lemonade mix, this drink is vibrant red and bursting with flavor. Cheers to emancipation!
Indigenous to Africa, this hearty dish is a colorful mix of sorghum, sweet potato, black-eyed peas, collards and peanuts.
Serves 4 to 6
- Joy Nesbitt