Red-hued sweets, classic cakes and more symbolize this important celebration
By Robert Wemischner
On June 19, 1865, Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas, “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”
More than 150 years later, June 19, or Juneteenth, has been declared a national holiday. Like most celebrations, food is central, varied and includes some down-home cooking and baking. Initially, historian Jessica B. Harris says in her book “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” “the emancipation celebrations were times of reflection and featured prayer meetings and religious services giving thanks for deliverance from bondage. Gradually the heartfelt prayers of Thanksgiving became secularized, and by the early twentieth century, Juneteenth was a time of cakewalks and parades.”
The backbone of Juneteenth festivities has always been the table, Harris writes, with many red-hued foods meant (by some accounts) to symbolize the blood that was shed over the years of enslavement. On the sweet side, many Juneteenth menus comprise red velvet cake, hibiscus lemonade and red soda. On the table, too, is watermelon — the origins of which are somewhat debated, with some studies showing that watermelon stemmed from plants in the southern part of the African continent.
For Pastry Chef Cheryl Day, owner of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia, and author of “Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking,” Juneteenth serves as a bittersweet reminder of the history of Black emancipation. On sheet cakes sold for the holiday, she pipes the words “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from a well-known hymn commonly sung in church. “On the solemn occasion, our sweets are celebrating,” she says. “Learning to bake in the South with my grandmother, I realized just how resourceful Black women bakers were, using lesser cuts of pork and wasting nothing to put tasty and filling food on the table. On Juneteenth, now a national holiday, our bakery cases are a literal cakewalk, overflowing with prime examples of good old-fashioned American baking.”
Going beyond the expected red velvet cake, Chef Day points to coconut cake, caramel cake, hummingbird and layer cakes of all kinds, as well as chess and custard pies, as examples of what her customers wish to have on their Juneteenth tables.
ACF Chef Jennifer Hill Booker (pictured) remembers Juneteenths from years growing up in Oklahoma with its rich history of Black American culture. “The now national holiday was a time to bring people together to worship, enjoy fellowship and be happy about the freedoms that we have,” she says. “In my family, other than Thanksgiving and Christmas, Juneteenth at the midpoint of the year provides a good reason to have all of the family get together.”
With a nod to the open-pit cooking of Africa, barbecue was always on her family’s menu, along with black eyed peas washed down with hibiscus lemonade and that ubiquitous red soda. On the dessert side, tea cakes and yellow cake with a boiled chocolate frosting were staples. Chef Hill Booker notes that underpinning all of this celebratory cooking and baking were two guiding principles: Use the absolute best products that you have access to and save the valuable and relatively expensive sugar for the important day.
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, in the state where the Juneteenth traditions originated, another chef and a food activist, Chef Adrian Lipscombe, found Juneteenth a catalyst for wider recognition of the history of her people. She is the founder of 40 Acres and a Mule, a nonprofit founded to actualize her dreams of an educational center focused on Black America and its foodways. Her vision is to preserve Black foodways — codifying stories, culture and recipes and surveying the Black agriculture that is so closely tied to the foods being cooked.
The organization’s name comes from the 1865 plan to make reparations to African Americans who were enslaved. The government promised to grant the now freed slaves the right to own land upon which to make a home and create a farm — two rights that up to that point had been denied.
“Juneteenth is a time to think about where food comes from and how it lands on the plate,” Chef Lipscombe says. “We wish to create a place for Black chefs to celebrate their history. My own personal history involves my grandmother, who was the cookbook editor for the church, compiling recipes from members of the congregation that would otherwise have gotten lost to the mists of history.”
On baking for the holiday, Chef Lipscombe recalls the sour cream-infused cake of her youth. “We always had a sour cream pound cake, which was portable and at the ready to bring along wherever our celebrations were held,” she says. “I always keep in mind the inspiration that I have received from my ancestors.”
Whether it’s through red velvet or other cakes, a barbecue picnic with long-cooked collard greens or the deep red of a hibiscus-flavored drink, Juneteenth encapsulates traditions heretofore less known but still vibrant. With the commemorative date, June 19, on the national holiday calendar, our attention initially may be drawn to regrettable chapters in American history. But through the lens of food, we can appreciate the ingenuity and resourcefulness of past cooks and bakers who have left a heritage of flavor and deliciousness for future generations to enjoy.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of National Culinary Review. Click here to download the full issue.