A plate of barbecued meats, bread, coleslaw, pickles and mac and cheese

For Many Black Chefs, Juneteenth Means Barbecue

Juneteenth was first recognized as a federal holiday in 2021. We spoke to several Black chefs about the importance of the occasion and how barbecue is a favored centerpiece for Juneteenth celebrations.

Juneteenth, a contraction of the words "June" and "nineteenth," commemorates the date of the emancipation of slaves in Texas in 1865, with the arrival of the Union army to issue the order and to enforce the release of those remaining enslaved following the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.

Originating as a holiday in Galveston, Texas, over time celebrations of Juneteenth spread throughout the American South, and in 2021 Congress passed a bill, signed by President Joe Biden, to fully recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the first new such annual observance since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was made a holiday in 1983.

We spoke to ICE New York Culinary Arts Chef-Instructor Gill Boyd, as well as several other chefs of color, about the personal meaning of Juneteenth, and the imperative role barbecue plays in Juneteenth celebrations around the country.

The Meaning and Importance of Juneteenth

“Growing up, the date was not really discussed within my family,” Chef Gill says. “It was not until my adulthood that I understood the importance of the date from my uncle in Oklahoma who was a member of the local NAACP. Years later it does have great importance to me, because it acknowledges the slavery of the African American people in the United States. Currently it is also of national importance because it seems some states want to rewrite that history.”

To Chef Gill’s point, while Juneteenth celebrations have been common in the South since the late 1800s, the national importance of Juneteenth didn’t really start to take hold until the growing Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Now, as a federal holiday, it lends even more attention to the date’s significance to Americans throughout the country.

The other Black chefs I spoke to echoed this sentiment, regardless of where they call home.

Chef Alexander Harris is the Culinary Director of Brooklyn’s , which works with refugees to celebrate their cultural heritage and empower people with employment and culinary training. For him, Juneteenth represents the delivery of a promise set by one of the founding fathers.

“As Thomas Jefferson said, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’” Chef Alex says. “This was not a question or a thought experiment, but a statement by which we’ve defined our country. Juneteenth is a celebration of another step in that direction, embracing our country’s culture, past and present, good or bad, and moving forward consciously recognizing what and who made this country great.”

Chef D'Andre Carter, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Chicago’s brings up another important point.

“I’m just happy that everything African Americans went through is being recognized, and that everyone can celebrate our emancipation," Chef D'Andre says.

Juneteenth celebrations are also growing across cultures in the U.S., in the spirit of recognizing a difficult past, while looking forward in hope toward the future.

Chef Dominique Leach, Chef and Pitmaster of , also in Chicago, says “It's important to me to remember this history because without it I would not be where I am today, and it's a reminder of how much we fought for and still do. One of my missions as a chef is to create space in the BBQ community for Black pitmasters, especially Black women as pitmasters, who are very underrepresented.”

The Importance of Barbecue in Juneteenth Celebrations

Speaking of barbecue...

Juneteenth is traditionally celebrated with red foods, including brightly-colored beverages such as hibiscus tea and strawberry soda. Food historian Michael Twitty has previously spoken on this topic, explaining to Oprah Daily that the reason behind this was not only because such brightly colored foods would have been in contrast to what slaves typically had access to, but also showcasing Caribbean influence, with celebrations of Juneteenth beginning in Galveston.

“Texas was at the end of the world to the Antebellum South,” he says. “There were a lot of enslaved Africans who were coming to Texas from the continent and through the Caribbean. The color red is highly associated with the cultures that would've come through the later years of the trade, which would have been Yoruba and Kongo.”

Related Recipe: Cured Sumac Plum Cobbler

That all being said, when I reached out to several Black chefs for their favorite Juneteenth foods, expecting to amass a round-up of a variety red foods, instead I got a unanimous chorus of “barbecue.”

“The food of my childhood,” Chef Alexander says. “Soul Food, and barbecue.”

“Barbecue — and that means real barbecue, which is slow cooking meat with charcoal and usually cooked under cover.” Chef Gill says. “It’s all about the anticipation of long-cooked meat and how tender it will be.”

“Barbecue has always been my family's favorite celebration food of choice,” Chef D’Andre says. “We love to gather together around barbecued ribs, mac & cheese, greens and cornbread. That’s a party for us.”

“My favorite food for celebrating Juneteenth is Barbecue," Chef Dominique says. "There's something spiritual about firing up the grill with family and celebrating what we have overcome as Black Americans.”

This was Juneteenth’s lesson for me, and an important one.

While barbecue categorically holds the potential for plenty of symbolic red foods: not only in its crimson barbecue sauce, but sides and desserts such as watermelon, red beans and even red velvet cake, the color is not what’s important; it’s the community aspect of barbecue that resonates for Juneteenth celebrations. The feeding of a crowd. The gathering.

Moving toward equality in this country has always been and will always be a group effort. The communal aspect of barbecue is the perfect setting for Juneteenth in which to commemorate the events of the past, with an eye toward the future.

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