The History and Tradition Behind Juneteenth Foods

Cameron Jenkins

Each year as June 19 rolls around, families, neighbors and communities across the country will come together to celebrate Juneteenth or Freedom Day. The celebration marks the period in 1865 in which enslaved people in Galveston, Texas received the news that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law, making them free. Though the law was passed two years prior, it still took nearly three years for the information to travel to the Galveston community.

In 1866, and the years that followed, many Black southerners acknowledged this historical day with all kinds of celebrations, including prayer services, BBQs, rodeos and fairs. And while Juneteenth has been recognized in many Black communities for decades, the federal acknowledgement of the day as a national holiday in 2021, has allowed more people to learn about its rich history and celebrate it more widely.

As with any celebration, the occasion to eat and indulge in flavorful cuisine. But when it comes to Juneteenth foods and drinks, there are some – like the red punch – that hold significance.

We spoke with James Beard Award–nominated food writer and author of Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations, Nicole A. Taylor, to get all of the details on popular foods served on Juneteenth and the traditions behind them.

Barbecue and sweets will be served on Juneteenth


The parties that occurred after 1865 were joyful events in which the formerly enslaved, and later down the line their descendants, would celebrate freedom with a variety of foods that were associated with good times and comfort. And for many people, were just their favorite meals. “It’s a celebration,” Taylor tells Good Housekeeping. “[With] Black celebration food, you’re always going to find something that is comforting, that quenches your appetite for comfort and most times, it’s sweet,” she said of dishes that make up a Juneteenth feast. Though, when it comes to specifics, Taylor said, “that really depends on where you’re from, family traditions; where you currently live.”

Most Juneteenth festivities will incorporate some form of barbecue, which Taylor said comes from Texas tradition. “There are accounts back in the day that there was barbecue lamb around. But barbecue for sure is an essential Juneteenth,” she said. The history behind chargrilling meats and even slathering them in a tangy sweet sauce dates back to pre-emancipation. “We know that Black people, along with indigenous people, helped to craft and create what we know as American BBQ, right now. So, you saw BBQ [on Juneteenth] because that is something that we knew.”

You can also expect to see seasonal fruits like strawberries and watermelon, potato salad, decadent desserts and any variation of a red drink at a Juneteenth celebration. “I think that a red drink is an essential at many Black celebrations, but on Juneteenth you are definitely going to start the party or continue the party with some sort of red drink,” Taylor said. These drinks could be a strawberry lemonade, a sweetened hibiscus tea or “[i]t may be a punch made from a supermarket punch added with pineapple juice and lemon lime soda,” Taylor added. “But you’re definitely going to find a red drink on the table.”

Red foods and drinks are important

iced tea with fruits, hibiscus, strawberries, mint, limes

Westend61//Getty Images

The color red gets a lot of recognition when it comes to celebrating Juneteenth. Not only is it boldly featured on the Juneteenth flag, but it also is featured in several foods that make up a Juneteenth menu. “You have ribs, and you may have a red sauce on top of it. Or we talk about the red drink. And in recent times, people like to have a red velvet cake,” Taylor said. But, according to Taylor, there isn’t one concrete explanation for why red foods are eaten on Juneteenth, but several.

One reason she attributes to the presence of red foods on the Juneteenth table is the season in which the holiday falls. “It’s the summertime, and it’s a time when you see bountifulness with fruits and vegetables.” she said. She also noted that during the time that Juneteenth first was celebrated, many Black people grew their own food. “You see a lot of accounts talking about watermelons at Juneteenth celebrations. We know that post-emancipation Black men and women were experts on growing and selling watermelon. So, you saw watermelons.”

Black communities at the time also had a connection to hibiscus, a flower that is native to tropical and subtropical regions and can be used to produce red juice. “Hibiscus tea, minus the sweetener, is known as bissap in Senegal, where it is the national drink. In North Africa, it’s karkadé. In the Caribbean it’s called sorrel, and in Mexico it’s called agua de Jamaica,” Taylor said. “It’s symbolic for sure across the diaspora and rituals around food.”

Another take on the inclusion of red foods within the Juneteenth celebration is the significance of the color across the diaspora. “Red signifies something special. Some scholars and some people say that the color red is representative of our resilience, ingenuity, our ancestors — of the blood we shed,” Taylor noted. “But there’s not one answer. I think there are a lot of theories.”

But there’s no “right” way to create a Juneteenth menu

From 1866 to now, Juneteenth celebrations have taken on many iterations. As Black people from the south moved to northern and north-western cities as part of the Great Migration they still took many traditions with them. “Black people who left Texas, who always celebrated this holiday, they took the same traditions of their family and they either stayed the same or they adapted based on where they were,” Taylor said. “They added on to their traditional Juneteenth dishes because [they were making] more money, had more people in the family and younger people in the family.”

She also said that through her research for her cookbook, she also encountered people who serve seafood like fried shrimp or even have gumbo. And more recently, vegan and vegetarian versions of loved foods have found their way into Juneteenth cookouts. “Juneteenth foods have definitely morphed and changed,” Taylor said. “But there’s always a baseline of seasonality. There’s a baseline of tradition. There’s a baseline of southern-ness, more specifically of Texas, always.”

If you’re still curious about how you should celebrate this year, just know that “there’s more than one way to Juneteenth,” according to Taylor. “The most important thing is honoring the enslaved Texans. Take a moment out to honor that tradition.”

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