More people will be commemorating Juneteenth this year now that it’s a federal holiday with parades, pageants and celebrations filled with food.
Some of the signature dishes that folks may cook or prepare for Juneteenth include red velvet cake, strawberry soda and barbecued or grilled meats. Red velvet cake is a new tradition that stems from an old one, says Toni Tipton-Martin, editor-in-chief of Cook's Country magazine and author of "Jubilee: Recipes From Two Centuries of African American Cooking.”
“Obviously, in those early days, African Americans were not using red food coloring and food dyes to create celebration dishes,” she says, “but over time, as a matter of commemorating with the color red, which has some significance to suffering, to the blood that's been shed.”
Celebrating with red drinks can be traced all the way back to the continent of Africa, where people brewed teas with kola leaves and other ingredients to create a red color, she says.
At early Juneteenth celebrations, strawberries were mashed into lemonade to wash down potato salad, green beans, garden vegetables and other picnic foods.
And today, Black Americans across the U.S. love red soda — whether it’s Faygo Redpop for Midwesterners or the cherry Kool-Aid, strawberry Crush and fruit punch that Tipton-Martin grew up drinking in Southern California, she says.
“What's really compelling is that this was not limited. Our behaviors and our choices were not limited to the Southern experience,” she says. “You can just trace that lineage as far back as possible. It's one of the few recipes that we can see connected to the continent [of Africa].”
Growing up with a vegetarian and pescatarian mother, Tipton-Martin celebrated Juneteenth with grilled vegetables, salads and beans. These dishes still serve as her Juneteenth go-tos, and her husband often smokes ribs for the kids. In her book “Jubilee,” she talks about foods often found at picnics and family reunions, one of her favorites being baked beans.
And last but not least is the dessert table. Early Juneteenth celebrations would include sweet pies and cakes such as gingerbread and pound cake, she says.
Today, Tipton-Martin makes her grandmother’s devil’s food cake. She fondly remembers learning to make it as a young girl and licking the raw dough off the beaters. “Jubilee” also includes a recipe for a tart, sweet pound cake called a lemon tea cake, another one of her favorites.
This year, Tipton-Martin plans to commemorate Juneteenth by eating crabs on the Chesapeake Bay, a nontraditional celebration. But that’s exactly the spirit that she tries to embody in her work — freedom.
“That is the entire point here, that you should be free to make whatever you would like to,” she says. “You're recognizing and honoring all that has been lost through the process of enslavement — but also what we are hoping to reclaim.”
This segment aired on June 18, 2021.