Summers are special for African-Americans, a time to reunite with friends, dine alfresco and celebrate Juneteenth, the holiday that remembers the day — June 19, 1865 — when enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, learned from Union soldiers that they were free, two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Widely considered to be African-Americans’ independence day, Juneteenth is a time to share verdant family memories and indulge in the season’s bounty. Over patio tables dotted with half-full cans of strawberry sodas — red drinks are nods to hibiscus and kola nuts, which made their way to the Americas as part of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — revelers share the ruby-hued foods of the holiday: fiery sausages, watermelon-scented shaved ice, juicy stone fruit cobblers and barbecue.
But this year, the fanfare has been underscored by uncertainty as the killings of unarmed black men and women, the subsequent uprisings and the coronavirus pandemic have made the holiday a symbol of unfulfilled promises. Still, many black Americans will lean into joy as a form of resistance rather than choke on the smoke of inequality.
For black chefs, like Greg Collier in Charlotte, N.C., the unrest isn’t just a hashtag; it’s lived experience. “I can’t bring myself to watch those videos because I don’t want to be in the position that I’m mad at the system of white supremacy and putting that on everybody,” said Mr. Collier, referring to the filmed deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. “As a business owner, I have to try to figure out how to handle my anger, pain and frustration, so it doesn’t affect my source of income.”
Structural racism stands in the way of black chefs reaching their highest potential. In recent years, the dialogue about their lack of access to investors and loans to help them grow their culinary empires has started to swell, and the pandemic and protests add yet another hurdle. Juneteenth is a continuation of the legacy of resilience, and a reminder of a people’s ongoing anguish.
“All of this is heavy,” said Edouardo Jordan, the James Beard award-winning chef and an owner of JuneBaby, Lucinda and Salare, in Seattle. The recent protests there have reminded him of the two riots he lived through in his hometown, St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1996, after Tyron Lewis, an unarmed teenager, was killed by the police.
“I’ve never been a political or social activist. It’s not my career,” Mr. Jordan said. “But I have a platform. I have to use my platform to stay alive and to survive.”
At JuneBaby, the mission has always been to teach diners, many of them white, about the food of the African diaspora. Since the pandemic began, Mr. Jordan has been feeding essential workers and sharpening the restaurant’s takeout and batch cocktail offerings.
Juneteenth offers an opportunity for black Americans to take a pause under banners of red, green and black, and claim some happiness, which can be itself a form of protest, as pleasure is living.
“It’s different from any other cookout,” said Jonathan (Jonny) Rhodes, the owner of Indigo, a restaurant in Trinity Gardens, a mostly black and Latino neighborhood in Houston. “It’s a time of collective freedom.”
African-Americans define and celebrate liberation in a number of ways, and peace and a glorious feast are just two. But the holiday is also a reminder of “complacency in the system,” Mr. Rhodes said. “Democracy is slow, and we have to continue the fight for equality.”
Before the pandemic, reservations were hard to get for Mr. Rhodes’s “neo-soul” tasting menu at Indigo. Now, the restaurant operates as Broham Fine Soul Food and Groceries, selling sandwich components like whole wheat loaves, pickled vegetables, smoked chicken salad and vegetable “ham” (a cured, smoked and pickled rutabaga).
While his fine-dining establishment has morphed into a general store, Mr. Rhodes has been able to stay hopeful as he aims for one of the most valuable assets in a restaurant’s success: ownership of the approximately 800-square-foot building that houses his business, and six acres outside the city.
“It’s the final chain in the supply chain for us to become 100-percent self-sustaining for our community,” he said.
Figuratively, Mr. Rhodes will then have his “40 acres and a mule,” the property to be given to freed black people under a Civil War-era order by the Union general William T. Sherman that was later reversed.
Danielle Bell, an operator of de Porres, a dinner series and catering company in Los Angeles, has been scrolling through her old Juneteenth Instagram posts, zeroing in on photos of her anticuchos, or Afro-Peruvian grilled cow heart, and pig feet terrine, in anticipation of the holiday. She checks in on her mother, Grace Bell, who lives 15 minutes away from the spot in Louisville, Ky., where David McAtee, a barbecue man her mother knew, was fatally shot by law enforcement officers.
Before the pandemic, Ms. Bell and her business (and life) partner, Pablo Osorio, were slinging Southern-style biscuits and gravy, savory greens pie, caramel poundcake, ají de gallina and causa at the Hollywood and Altadena Farmers’ Markets. They also hosted candlelit farm dinners, which is how they marked Juneteenth in the past. The pandemic has made all of that impossible, and so Ms. Bell and Mr. Osorio pivoted to delivery.
Inspired by the continuing public conversation around black foodways, Ms. Bell decided her annual Juneteenth celebration will take a new form; she’ll send out a newsletter menu, which customers can use to place orders. “The holiday is a starting point for embracing the best parts of the past,” she said.
She ventured out last week to decompress — the death of Breonna Taylor weighed heavily on her mind — and plan for the holiday, as protests took place in Los Angeles and a curfew, which has since been lifted, was imposed.
“I visited Moonwater Farm in Compton — their neighborhood didn’t have helicopters or a police state,” she said. “I picked some mulberries and pet baby goats. My visit was cut short by the curfew, but I went home with eggs and clary sage.”
For observers and participants alike, Juneteenth is nourishment for the community; it’s fried green tomatoes, okra rice, peach pies, hot peppers and a moment to exhale. It’s an occasion to tease cousins about who makes the best potato salad, and for an unbroken circle of belly laughs, which are a balm while the storm clouds loom over every aspect of black Americans’ lives.
“For black folks, we don’t have a choice: We have to make it through,” said Mr. Collier, the chef in Charlotte. “How we get through this is the question.”
Mr. Collier, a native of Memphis, Tenn., runs two restaurants with his wife, Subrina Collier. To ring in the Juneteenth festivities, they’ll hold a grand reopening for Leah & Louise, their “modern juke joint” in a repurposed Ford Model T factory in Charlotte. (The space can seat 42 people, but to adhere to social distancing guidelines, they’ll serve only 20, six feet apart.)
The couple had planned to open the space in late March, but the pandemic forced them to do curbside orders instead. “It’s less about our opening, but about celebrating the freedom to feed people and make them happy,” Mr. Collier said.
With dishes like smoked lamb ribs topped with peanuts and sweet potato pikliz, Mr. Collier’s food storytelling salutes African-Americans’ leisure, and a whirling and enduring food entrepreneurship tradition.
Mr. Jordan, in Seattle, has avoided making holiday plans. Instead he is taking each day as it comes and brainstorming entrees for his menus to coincide with the summer harvest in the Pacific Northwest. Carving out time for jubilant deep breaths is medicine.
“I’m working harder than ever,” he said. “It’s a different type of work, we aren’t on the line for 12 hours. It’s a mental challenge to navigate all this.”
His voice brightened while drifting back to young adulthood, when he was the official party-time punch maker.
“We used anything from Kool-Aid packets to Hawaiian Punch to make red drink,” he said, painting an image of a dapper uncle gliding across the freshly cut lawn and waving to the neighbors before reaching the drum barrel grill sitting on the edge of a rectangular concrete slab.
Heads tilt toward the sky, as the rain starts to pours down — an imperfect Juneteenth, just like our nation.
Recipes: Memphis Dry-Rub Ribs | Memphis Dry-Rub Mushrooms | Sweet Potato Pikliz | Juneteenth Red Punch | More Juneteenth Recipes, Curated by Nicole Taylor