Last year, in the wake of the Charleston massacre, I invited the family over for a Juneteenth dinner. Normally, I have misgivings about anything that might look like appropriation, especially when it comes to holidays, but this seemed like an exception to whatever rules I might have otherwise imposed on myself:
In the Christian tradition (as in other faiths), meals can take on sacred meaning, and that’s how I approached the 2015 Juneteenth meal. Juneteenth is intended as a celebration of freedom, an African American Independence Day. For us, as a white family, it was intended as a sign of our solidarity with mourners in Charleston, and of our ongoing commitment to stand for justice and peace, and to be on the right side of history.
So what about this year? The underlying historical event, which was the Union Army’s announcement to the enslaved in Galveston, Texas that the war was over and they were free, happened on June 19, 1865. But “Juneteenth” is, by definition, imprecise. The 19th usually falls on a weekday, when most folks are working, so it’s nice to have some built-in flexibility.
This year, the 19th fell on a Sunday, which was also Father’s Day. My Dad, who will turn 97 this July, was going to be with us, so I wanted to do the Father’s Day thing. But in the wake of the Orlando massacre, yet another domestic terrorism attack fueled by hate, I felt that the same motives we had for celebrating Juneteenth last year still applied. So we’d pass out the Father’s Day cards and gifts, but I also wanted to cook up a good meal with some symbolic significance.
And that’s where it gets tricky. For descendants of the enslaved, the whole idea of a Juneteenth meal is that you’re free to eat whatever you want. There’s no more master doling out meager rations. In other words, there is no prescribed menu for Juneteenth. It’s not like the bread and the wine of the Last Supper or the various items on the Passover plate.
Moreover, if I chose certain foods as more appropriate for Juneteenth, was I just playing into malicious stereotypes, especially when it comes to items like watermelon or chicken? There’s also been a line of thought since at least the 1960s that the whole project is suspect: Some insist that we call “soul food” is either the “slave food” of yesterday or an unhealthy menu of contemporary food selections warped by systemic racism.
Or the other possibility was that I was being over-scrupulous, and just plain overthinking the whole thing! I like certain dishes, so why not make them? I would also be cooking under a time constraint: I needed a menu with dishes that I could either prepare on Saturday, or that could cook unattended while we were in church on Sunday morning.
Anyway, this is what I came up with:
From top left to right:
1. Roast chicken. Roasted, not fried, because I can’t fry chicken and sit in church at the same time. The Sunday “gospel bird” is pretty traditional all around. Nothing fancy about this little guy: It was brined overnight, and then mustard-roasted. It cooked a bit faster than I anticipated, so by the time I got home from church, it had probably been in 5-10 minutes longer than it should have. But the brining kept it nice and moist anyway.
2. Mississippi pot roast, served with rolls. I don’t think this dish has any history behind it, certainly not in this slow-cooker version, which was a viral phenomenon dating all the way back to the beginning of 2016. But I like it, and it has a “set it and forget it” degree of difficulty that allowed me to make it the day before. (Sam Sifton’s NYT version is better, but I was feeling even lazier than that easy dish.)
3. Lima beans. I wanted to include some sort of bean dish. Lately, I’ve been messing with red beans and rice, but I was already planning on a different Cajun/Creole dish (see below). So I decided to go with lima beans. Of course, the Platonic form of lima beans is Martha Lou Gadsden’s, praised by folks like Andrew Zimmern and Sean Brock, and it seems that everyone on the planet covets her recipe. I don’t know if my version is even in the same continent as hers, let alone the same ballpark, but I was happy with it. As such, I’m letting this dish represent the Low Country tradition.
4. Sweet potatoes. My mom was the Queen of Candied Yams, a veritable Bloody Mary when it came to her ruthlessness in applying brown sugar and butter. I’ve given up trying to re-create hers. Lately, I’ve been mashing them rather than slicing. I’ve eased back on the sugar and butter, but added a little maple syrup for flavor, and worked in a good handful of pecan chips.
5. Seven-cheese mac and cheese. For the record, that’s three Cheddars (white, sharp, and mild), Colby, Monterey Jack, some Velveeta cubes, and Pepper Jack slices on top. We’ve discussed the curious place of macaroni and cheese on the typical soul food menu a couple of times. In this instance, it was included less as a symbol and more as a protein substitute for the two family vegetarians.
6-7. Collard Greens and Cornbread. This was definitely not for my poor vegetarians. Normally, I’d use either a smoked ham hock or a combination of smoked turkey neck and pork tail for flavoring, in chicken stock, but for this batch I used hickory-smoked bacon. It can be difficult to find good quality, reasonably-priced collards in my corner of the world, so I lucked out with this batch. The only “trick” I have for collards is to take a little nibble in the store. If they’re too bitter in their raw state, there isn’t alchemical transformation that will make them any better on the stove. (Full disclosure: I botched up the cornbread just a bit. It tested done with a toothpick, but as I cut into it, I realized that the center wasn’t quite done.)
8. Corn Maque Choux. I got the idea for this from the first episode of Kevin Belton’s “New Orleans Cooking with Kevin Belton” show on PBS. This version of his recipe isn’t quite the same as what he did on the show, and isn’t exactly what I did here either, but it will give you the gist. There’s a lot of very fresh sweet corn around this time of year, and this succotash-like dish does justice to it.
9. Potato Salad. Jokes about potato salad abound in the tubes of the Internets, and it’s part of the potato salad canon that white folks can’t pull it off. I only know how to make one kind of potato salad. I think by “white people potato salad,” folks mean something like these “10 Perfect Potato Salad Recipes for a July 4th Spread,” none of which look anything like mine. What you see on my table is potatoes (of course), eggs, mayo (Duke’s or Kewpie, depending on my mood), mustard, celery, pimentos, pickle relish (dill or sweet, again depending on my mood), a splash or two of hot sauce, and various other seasonings. My personal heresy is that I don’t use onions, because I can’t stand raw onions. I do, however, use onion powder.
10-11. The Pies. The Pecan Chocolate Cheesecake pie was a Father’s Day gift from one of my beloved children, so I can’t take credit for it, except that I graciously allowed other people to eat it. The fruit pie is Mulberry, made of berries from my own backyard. It was a meaningful thing to me. Any idiot can make a fruit pie, but I felt good about making one from fruit I’d harvested with my own purple fingers. Of course, historically, the enslaved would not have survived on their meager rations without the ability to find and utilize what the land would give them for free.
12. Watermelon wedges. These didn’t quite make it from kitchen to table, but I was eating watermelon throughout the preparation of this meal, for no other reason than that I really love watermelon. It’s basically the only thing that makes summer tolerable.
Here’s a couple of snaps from my 2015 Juneteenth dinner. The menu was smothered chicken breasts and baby-back ribs (oven-roasted, not smoked; I don’t recall why), with mashed potatoes, collards, sweet potatoes, field peas & snaps, and watermelon cubes, with Big Red soda, and red velvet cake. (I was on a cake-baking binge last summer.)
If there’s a designated food for Juneteenth, it’s probably a red drink. Big Red is a Texas thing. This year’s red drink didn’t make it into the photos, but for the record, it was a Tahitian Treat soda.