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News / Life / Food

Celebrate Juneteenth with food traditions

By Rekaya Gibson, The Virginian-Pilot
Published: May 31, 2023, 6:04am
2 Photos
Kale salad (iStock.com)
Kale salad (iStock.com) Photo Gallery

Juneteenth — or June 19 — is a federal holiday to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

On June 19, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to tell the enslaved that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two years prior and that they were free. They first celebrated freedom with church gatherings. It then evolved into outdoor festivals with barbecue, red foods and baseball, said Leni Sorensen, a chef and culinary historian living in Crozet, Va. Even though she isn’t sure about the origin of the red, others have theories: Red represented the blood of enslaved people who died or it was linked to hibiscus, a native West African flower used to make reddish-purple tea.

“The significance of the color red is debatable and it could be symbolic,” she said. “It’s hard to know.”

A Juneteenth celebration brought together bakers and butchers for a community potluck of the best dishes. Traditional fare included: barbecue beef and goat, pheasant, catfish, shell beans (lima, butter, black-eyed peas), greens such as collards and mustard, traditional cornbread, red velvet cake, sweet potato pie, watermelon, vinegar-based hot sauces, barbecue sauces and sweet pickles. In Waco, Texas, Big Red soda was a popular drink for Juneteenth. Sorensen disclosed her own beverage of raspberry zinger tea bags, soda water and six to eight hibiscus blossoms which color the concoction.

Celebratory foods that the enslaved cooked before emancipation were included in Juneteenth parties later, such as Southern tea cakes, which are buttery cakelike cookies. The recipes were passed down through the generations.

Today, Black Independence Day festivities and meals vary across the country.

I planned my own Juneteenth menu for a gathering of up to six people and used red as the theme. I didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth; I first heard about it living in New Orleans and friends celebrated with a cookout.

This year I assembled watermelon skewers as the appetizer, turkey spaghetti for the main course and bought chicken and bread as sides. I went to E Mart International Supermarket in Virginia Beach for the infamous Farm Fresh fried chicken. I garnished the meat with a sprinkle of dried parsley flakes and picked up garlic bread from a nearby market. I prepared a kale salad with dried cranberries and baked Southern tea cakes for dessert. I paired the meal with a ready-to-drink hibiscus herbal tea with orange peel and cinnamon. I garnished it with fresh orange slices and strawberries.

Watermelon Skewers

Makes 10 to 12 servings

8 ounces feta cheese, chunk

2¼ cups watermelon chunks

Fresh mint leaves

10 bamboo skewers

Balsamic glaze or vinegar, optional

Cut feta and watermelon into cubes. Remove mint leaves from stems.

Assemble watermelon, mint and feta on the skewer. Repeat. Top with a watermelon cube. Drizzle with balsamic glaze.

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Ground Turkey Spaghetti

Makes 8 to 10 large servings


4 quarts water

1 tablespoon salt

1 pound spaghetti

1 tablespoon olive oil

Meat Sauce:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium green bell pepper

1 medium yellow onion

3 cloves garlic

2 pounds ground turkey (93% lean, 7% fat)

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce

14.5 ounces diced tomatoes

6 ounces tomato paste

2 tablespoons Italian seasoning

Salt, to taste

Fresh parsley, garnish

Optional: Crushed red pepper flakes, Grated Parmesan cheese

For the pasta, bring water to a boil and add salt. Add pasta and stir. Boil uncovered for eight minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and drain well. Return to pot. Pour in oil and stir to coat. Set aside.

While the pasta cooks, add oil to a large pan over medium heat. Pour bell peppers, onions and garlic and stir. Cook for about one minute. Add turkey. Break down meat and stir until combined with vegetables. Sprinkle with pepper and garlic and onion powders. Stir well. Cook meat until brown.

Add turkey mixture to pasta. Pour in sauce, diced tomatoes, tomato paste. Combine.

Add Italian seasoning and stir. Simmer on low for five minutes or until hot.

Garnish with fresh parsley flakes.

Kale Salad

Makes 4 servings

2 cups kale (fresh, cleaned and chopped)

1 teaspoon garlic powder

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 tablespoon dried cranberries

1 tablespoon Zante currants

1 tablespoon pine nuts

¼ cup shaved Parmesan cheese

½ medium lemon for juicing

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

Add kale in a medium bowl and season it with garlic powder and pepper. Add cranberries, currants and nuts to the bowl and stir with a large spoon. Sprinkle with cheese.

Combine lemon juice and olive oil in a small bowl. Pour dressing over kale and toss to coat.

Southern Tea Cakes

Makes 12 servings. Courtesy of Jocelyn Delk Adams at Grandbaby Cakes.

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

¾ cup granulated sugar

1 large egg at room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1½ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon baking soda

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together flour, salt and baking soda and set aside. In the bowl of your mixer, add butter and sugar and mix together on high until fluffy and smooth (4 to 5 minutes).

Turn mixer to medium and add in one egg and vanilla extract and beat until well incorporated. Turn mixer to slow speed and add flour mixture in three intervals beating after each addition to incorporate. After dough is well mixed, remove from mixer and place in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for at least one hour to firm up. Once dough is firm, remove from fridge and preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Line your cookie sheet with parchment paper. Taking a measuring tablespoon, scoop out cookie dough the size of the tablespoon and roll into a ball. Using your thumb, gently press the center to flatten a bit and place on the tray. Do the same for the rest of the dough leaving at least an 1½ inches between each dough ball.

Bake for 9-11 minutes until golden brown on the edges and remove from the oven. Cool for 5-10 minutes and serve.