Like July Fourth celebrations, Juneteenth is characterized by summer cookout dishes: barbecue, baked beans, deviled eggs, potato salad, cakes and pies. Red-hued foods are classic — red drinks, watermelon and, recently, red velvet cake.
From the very beginning, praying, preaching, playing, singing, storytelling and eating were Juneteenth canons. To embrace the reminders of slavery and poverty — including the gastronomic vestiges like red soda water, catfish and the sweet treats of childhood — can be hard, but to do so is to honor the suffering and affirm the contributions made by generations of freed African Americans.
Fried chicken, for example, is a soul-food tradition that can be traced to the enterprising women who used chicken to build lives for themselves and secure their economic freedom. Serving fried chicken takes on an entirely new meaning when served at Emancipation Day picnics celebrating freedom.
With any luck, the families who share a homemade picnic in the park will recall the artistic spirit and selfless determination of generations of African American cooks who were finally able to decide how they would prepare vegetables and set the time and manner in which the family ate its suppers; they can cheer the restaurateurs who for so long were denied the opportunity to serve.
Toni's Juneteenth menu
The dish we've come to know as warm spinach salad — greens tossed with a hot bacon dressing — wasn't really a salad at all, to hear the Black cookbook authors tell it through the years. Survey the vegetables section of soul food and early 20th century Black cookbooks and look for this uber-popular combination with titles like "wilted" or "killed" lettuce or spinach, or you might miss it.
Back in the day, farm folks tossed combinations of bitter greens and herbs, such as escarole, chicory, purslane and watercress, with a warm dressing they stirred together right in a hot skillet after cooking bacon. In harder times, wild weeds like dandelion and poke, as in "poke sallet," answered the call. Soul cooks carried on the tradition of wilting lettuce leaves instead of spinach.
I returned to the wilted lettuce tradition here with so-called power greens. These greens are dark and rich in vitamins and minerals and taste delicious. Try it my way, then experiment with your favorite combination of tender baby greens and herbs.
I once wrote that an informal review of the most influential Southern cookbooks in my collection revealed as many ways to fix fried chicken as there are cooks making the iconic dish, with innovations appearing in all time periods.
But, through it all, marinating in buttermilk remains a classic go-to technique for succulent chicken; the acidic cultured milk tenderizes the meat.
For generations, chocolate was a luxury food item that families stretched their budgets to afford, making its presence on our tables an expression of affluence. In flush times, bakers added extra chocolate to standard chocolate cake batter, which yields a deep, dark fudge cake known as devil's food cake.
This quick and easy recipe is a departure from standard mixtures that start by creaming together butter and sugar — what the old cooks meant when they said, "Bake a cake in the usual way." Coffee gives the batter a subtle richness. The cake is delicious topped with billows of fluffy white marshmallow frosting or a light buttercream or a chocolate cream cheese frosting. Baked in layers, it will make a lovely statement on your next special-occasion dessert table. A sheet cake is easier to serve and is de rigueur at the annual Martin family reunion.
Juneteenth starters and sides
"In my American South, fresh shelled lady peas, crowders, cream peas — delicate and pearl-shaped — show up at the neighborhood market as a welcome sign of summer," writes Nicole A. Taylor in her cookbook "Watermelon & Red Birds."
"But frozen varieties of these delicious peas are so much more common that I have taken to making mental notes of where I can buy them," she continues. "At the Forsyths Farmers' Market in Savannah, Georgia, Joseph Fields Farms sells shelled peas in sealed storage bags, sitting in iced coolers. Farmview Market, a local food emporium located in Eatonton, Georgia, stocks their varieties in a refrigerated section alongside Rock House Creamery buttermilk. When I'm in Athens, I stop by Bell's Food Store, a family owned store and country-cooking emporium."
Looking for a richer take on deviled eggs? Add some pimento cheese. Looking to make it even more festive? Add popcorn shrimp.
The goal is to serve the greens raw so that they're thought of as something healthy and delicious, rather than something that's always combined with bacon fat and cooked down. Simply balance the natural bitterness of collard greens with a bright, sweet and spicy dressing for a delicious change.
Cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet is a simple, rustic pleasure that can be adapted any way you like. It can be a little sweet, or a little bit savory. You can add cheese or bacon, or just enjoy it hot out of the oven slathered with butter and a dab of honey.
For Kardea Brown, Juneteenth starts with a crudités spread, and she ups the ante by grilling the vegetables instead of serving them raw, using a medley of red bell peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, carrots and asparagus served alongside her smoked red pepper dip, a mix of feta, Greek yogurt, lemon juice, garlic and smoked paprika.
"Red rice (tomato purloo) is important to me because, not only is it good, it also ties my heritage and the history of (South Carolina) to West African influences," says BJ Dennis.
This bright and juicy salad combines two summertime favorites in one delicious dish. The colorful contrast of the yellow tomatoes and red watermelon makes for an exceptionally attractive presentation.
In this Southern-style pickled relish, Al Roker combines his favorite summer produce, from green tomatoes to cabbage to vibrant, multi-colored bell peppers.
"Inspired by smoor tomatoes and onions — a traditional South African dish eaten as a sauce, relish or side — I caramelize onions, then sauté them with tomato paste," says Bryant Terry. "I top slow-braised mustard greens with this mixture and finish it with minced jalapeños and hot-pepper vinegar. Warm, savory and tangy sweet, this dish is everything a side of greens in potlikker should be."
This isn't your average cornbread recipe. It's super flavorful and very easy to make. The sweet honey, cheesy cheddar and spicy jalapeño work really well together in this dish.
Corn relish has traditionally been eaten throughout the South and stored in the larder for leaner months. Terry's family has found multiple uses for this tangy condiment: stuffing it into tacos, serving it atop beans and simply sautéing it to serve as a side dish.
"Cabbage is often steamed in Jamaica and served alongside oxtail, jerk chicken or rice and peas. It functions as a counterbalancing cooling element to spicier food," says Kwame Onwuachi. "I personally have always found steamed cabbage to be bland. So, to give it some flavor, I braise it in coconut milk, add the acidity of citrus and a punch of ginger-garlic purée."
"This recipe by Charles Hunter III is one that I often make," says Terry. "It is a fun dish that can easily pivot from a sweet breakfast treat, to a snack or a savory dinner dish that can be covered with sauce, legumes and the like."
Southern-style mac and cheese is hearty and sturdy. It's basically a custard-style baked macaroni and cheese with eggs, heavy cream and sharp cheddar cheese. And Brown's version, in particular, is irresistible.
This refreshing salad tastes like summer on a plate. The bright citrus, sweet watermelon and grilled shrimp really showcase the light and fresh flavors of the season.
"On 'A Different World,' a late-1980s sitcom set at the fictional Hillman College, the homecoming weekend episodes are the most memorable story lines," writes Taylor. "At the Pit, the campus café owned and managed by Vernon Gaines — played by the late Lou Myers — half-priced victory burgers were served during football games, and the Pit's ordering window, stuffed with bus buckets, was more than a place for laughs and french fries; it was self-affirming TV, at once aspirational and a time capsule of Black life. Because beef burgers are always on the cookout menu, I challenged myself to create a juicy chicken burger that's just as satisfying."
"I have to admit that when I first saw this dish on a menu, my body went through a wide range of emotions. At first, there was confusion. Well, is it chicken or is it steak?" says Scot Scott. "Then there was anger. Wait, someone took perfectly good ribeye and fried it like some chicken? Then there was joy. Oh, somebody took one of those cube steaks my momma used to make and battered it, fried it up golden-brown and bathed it in a gravy. Now that's something I can get down with."
This dish is incredibly simple to create and is a classic addition to any Juneteenth and weeknight repertoire. The five pounds of bone-in short ribs are braised for three hours until the meat is tender and falling off the bone.
Okra is such a staple in the Southern diet. This dish is a reminder of the influences of African American foodways and vegetables on not only the Southern landscape, but the landscape of America in general.
"Driving through the streets of Detroit, my hometown, it was common to pass by locals hosting fish fries, especially on Sundays," says Will Coleman. "It was a community celebration with good food at the center of it. As my homage to those fish fries, I combined two of my favorite Southern dishes — Nashville hot chicken and catfish po'boys — to create one over-the-top sandwich worthy of celebration."
Smothered chicken is a time-honored tradition in the South. This version from Carla Hall is a more nutritious version created my her grandmother, a hospital dietician. It's cooked completely in the oven for a perfect weeknight meal and is fall-off-the-bone delicious.
An ode to his grandmother, Coleman's creamy, decadent grits are prepared with coconut milk and white cheddar, then topped with fatty roasted tomatoes and crispy fried chicken.
This recipe stays true to the original Southern-style dish but kicks up the flavor. Smoked paprika adds depth to the gravy, the grits bring a rich creaminess to the plate and are a great textural complement to the crispy fried fish.
These ribs get infused with a ton of flavor from a wet rub and grilling process. Serve them with summery salads, seasonal grilled veggies and traditional barbecue sides like baked beans, potato salad or mac and cheese.
These sandwiches celebrate Southern food with fluffy, light biscuits and fried green tomatoes. It's a spicy twist to the typical breakfast sandwich.
"I love this dish because takes me back to my grandmother's kitchen," says Kevin Mitchell. "Black-eyed peas were one of the first things she taught me how to cook at six years old. I love using salmon with the peas and greens, because the fattiness of the salmon cuts through the spice and goes nicely with the slight sweetness of the coconut milk. The spices used in the recipe honor the enslaved cooks from Charleston who used the same ones."
"This dish really represents my Southern roots and my family," says Jernard Wells. "Growing up, I would always look forward to my mother's smoked Gouda grits paired with my father's barbecue shrimp."
"Jerk chicken is spicy by nature. What was once a method of preparing food surreptitiously by Jamaican Maroons has become Jamaica's greatest contribution to the culinary canon: a tapestry of flavors, aromatics and spices," says Onwuachi.
Peel-and-eat shrimp are a great interactive appetizer but also a conversation starter. Put out a big bowl of the flavorful morsels and let the party begin!
"This recipe is full of flavor and has ingredients you can find in any store. As much as I love fried food, blackened chicken is a wonderful alternative that has a slight crust from searing," says Millie Peartree. "And you still have that big, bold flavor that is synonymous with Southern food."
Mawa McQueen recommends serving your jerk salmon topped with mango salsa and a side of jasmine rice, fried plantains, stewed beans and haricot verts.
Juneteenth drinks and desserts
"Juneteenth coincides with summer heat. It's a time when a lot of us are trying to spend as little time in the kitchen as possible. This dessert requires minimal baking and so is perfect for the dog days of June," writes Taylor. "When you think of red foods and Black food traditions, red velvet cake might come to mind, but red food coloring was a luxury until the late 1930s and cream cheese frosting was introduced to the masses in the 1940s. In fact, it was probably a fluffy dark brown cake made with chocolate or cocoa that showed up at Black celebrations. I'm throwing it back to the original color with this dessert."
"I love red velvet cake for the simple fact that I'm always sitting there eating it, thinking, 'What in the heck am I eating? I taste a little chocolate. I taste a little vanilla. I see a lot of red, but it ain't strawberry,'" says Scotty Scott. "Ultimately, my brain is like, 'I don't know what this is, but it sure is delicious.'"
"My favorite part about family gatherings or parties is dessert," says Coleman. "It’s an opportunity to be playful with your food and relish in sweet and decadent flavors. Growing up, banana pudding was at the center of our potlucks, graduations, funerals, baby showers and weddings. It was a dessert that everyone could agree on. Many years later, I found myself craving the banana pudding that the elders in my family made. I set out on a journey to find ways to bring a breath of fresh air to this classic dessert."
Nothing goes together better than fruity strawberry simple syrup and homemade lemonade! When strawberries are in season, we highly recommend grabbing as many as you can and making this ultra-refreshing drink.
This is an incredibly refreshing drink made from the vibrant dried flowers of the red sorrel plant, which is reputed to offer many health benefits, including reducing blood pressure and calming nerves. The flowers have a sharp-sour punch but the juice from the petals, once sweetened with sugar, resembles cranberry juice. It's ideal for summer parties and can be livened up further by the addition of vodka to turn it into a sorrel cocktail.
"These two dishes were a crucial staple on the plates of my ancestors — and this dish reimagines them by combining them," says Coleman. "This cobbler begins with a handful of warm spices, maple syrup, sweet potatoes, plums and blackberries. But, unlike my grandmother's cobbler, this one's topping is made from a few scoops of cornbread."
Need to get dessert on the table fast? This quick recipe is made from just four ingredients. The hardest part is watching the toaster. Yes, you can use the toaster for dessert!
This drink is summer in a glass, with three types of berries — strawberries, blackberries and raspberries — plus plenty of lemon to make it even brighter. It also has a good amount of technique to practice your mixology — shaking, straining and muddling — but it's definitely worth the effort.
The first recipe Joceyln Delk Adams learned to make was this one: a vintage recipe that's circulated her family for decades. It's her mother's all-time favorite — a perfectly bright and lemony cake for summer.
This cake has one of the most tender, melt-in-your-mouth textures around, but its main flavor is vanilla — the cocoa is in the batter only to deepen the red color. Boiled frosting has been around for years and is basically a sweet paste beaten into butter. The end result is smooth and creamy.
This refreshing spritzer gets an Instagram-worthy ombré effect from the bright red hue of the fresh strawberries. Putting all of the berries on the bottom of the pitcher makes the color rise from the base and diffuse through the cocktail up to the top.
"Who doesn't like something sweet at the end of the meal? It reminds me of the first time I had it with my mom and sister in New Orleans," says Peartree. "Whether served with pound cake and ice cream or frozen yogurt, it is the perfect closer to any meal."
"This recipe just reminds me of family getting together," says Sheinelle Jones. "My grandma makes this, and we eat it as a salad and as a dessert 'cause it's so yummy. The sweet strawberries, tropical pineapple, tangy sour cream and crunchy nuts cover all the flavor and texture bases you want in a great dish."
If it's too hot out, why bake? With this easy fruit-filled recipe you can make a delicious dessert without ever turning on the oven.
Besides the taste being irresistible, the "dump cake" process is beyond easy; no mixing is required. Just a simple layering of ingredients allows everything to come together wonderfully.
In Brown's favorite cake, her secret ingredient is white vinegar, which helps maintain the red color from the food coloring. She tops this beauty with an irresistible cream cheese frosting and chopped pecans for garnish.
Crisps are a flavorful and satisfying alternative for people who want the same peachy goodness of a cobbler or pie but don't want to fool around with pie dough. You can peel the peaches if you like, but keeping the skin on fits the rustic nature of the dish and it makes the prep easier.
If chocolate and cakes aren’t your thing, don’t waste that open bottle of red wine; instead, use the leftover glasses to create Brown's fruit granita, enhanced with a mixed berry simple syrup to create a deliciously different dessert.
"Because of the historic significance of the Great Migration, Southern cuisine had a major impact on Midwestern cuisine," says Delk Adams. "Pound cake, along with other soul food classics, became a huge part of Illinois' food map and are shared in many homes across the state."