Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations
African Americans crave locally harvested, coast-to-coast, USDA Prime liberty, in all its bitter sweetness.
On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that all enslaved people were now free. For the more than 250,000 enslaved Black Texans, the impact of the order was not immediate; some plantation owners withheld the information, delaying until after one more harvest season. But a year later, in 1866, unofficial Juneteenth celebrations began in Texas.
Gradually, Black people in other parts of the country embraced Juneteenth as the unofficial holiday commemorating the origin point of their American freedom. One hundred fifty-four years later, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act. Among others at his side was Ms. Opal Lee, a Fort Worth, Texas–born nonagenarian and retired educator who had lobbied for the holiday to be recognized nationally, gathering more than 1.5 million signatures on her Juneteenth petition. Much like Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the nation’s second national commemoration honoring the triumph of the African American experience became an institution with the stroke of the presidential pen. But the jubilation was mixed with trepidation, coming as it did amid troubling news of the increasing spread of COVID-19, new laws aimed at suppressing the Black vote, and the unrelenting community trauma resulting from the numerous killings of unarmed Black people, many at the hands of law enforcement officers. Black joy often emanates from Black sorrow, and so it has been with that small Texas tendril of freedom, which has continued to spread and strengthen.
In my own way, I have been a part of that spread. I’ve celebrated Juneteenth with the brightest people in the culinary space at a Soul Summit, a symposium founded by Toni Tipton-Martin in Austin, Texas, that celebrates the food history of African Americans; in New York, on a rooftop with my dearest friends; and in Georgia, tucked in the woods with humidity enveloping the guests. I’ve sat under my carport with chipped paint overhead and mosquitoes buzzing around a plethora of foil-covered foods: plump supermarket-bought Italian chicken sausages, buttery sweet pound cakes, pork ribs bathed in smoke and spices, and summery salads of heirloom tomatoes and roasted eggplant. I’ve hosted plated dinners with ceramic platters loaded down with whole roasted fish and summer bean salad, then carefully passed around a table draped in tea-dyed linens, accompanied by rum-spiked red punch. One year, I hosted a pop-up at Pelzer’s Pretzels, a now-closed small-batch pretzel company, and served root beer floats drizzled with caramel and studded with pieces of Philadelphia-style pretzel, and another time I organized a neighborhood dinner and farm tour for Brownsville Community Culinary Center and Café. Guests feasted on Gullah Geechee classics like red rice and okra stew. Each of these celebrations was a time to block out the extraneous noise of the workaday world and feast on food and freedom. Through the years, Juneteenth has become my annual tradition, even when I am miles away from the places I call home.
Hosting all-day brunches and dinner parties is not something I was trained to do. It’s a skill I picked up watching the deaconess board members at East Friendship Baptist Church (founded in 1882), respected women who led the church’s outreach ministry. They masterfully organized family-style suppers of creamed corn, fried chicken, turnip greens, and cornbread for church anniversaries and youth days. Many of my best food memories are of those particular Sundays. By contrast, I spent my early adult years working for community-based health and environmental organizations. Later, I dabbled in selling real estate. While I always cooked for those closest to me, writing about food for a living was the furthest career choice from my mind. But I know the cadence of Black celebrations—the cheap fireworks, the whole pig barbecued for hours, the hot link sandwiches, sweet potato pie, red drinks, and dapper uncles gliding through the festivities, careful not to get dirt on their new ’gators. I felt a need to chronicle those cultural expressions. Increasingly, food publications and their editors have grown to see this need as well. So food has become both my life and my livelihood. These days I write “wandering victuals club” pieces for the New York Times Food section. I write about peach brandy for Wine Enthusiast and the magic of maple sugar for Epicurious. I develop recipes for Food & Wine and EatingWell. I now write about those things and much more, like where to eat Gullah food in Charleston, South Carolina; openings of New York City natural wine bars like The Fly; and how to make orange cocoa catfish.
But perhaps even more than my food writing, my Juneteenth gatherings have become the fullest and most personal of those cultural expressions. Everything from the music blaring from the speakers (’90s hip-hop, alt-R&B, Black classical music, and funk) to the signed Spike Lee posters and original Broderick Flanigan art on the walls to the fashions of the invited guests (sustainable and bent to high-low Black-owned fashion designers like Telfar and Tracy Reese with department store gear) is calibrated in such a way that even this leisurely gathering speaks to a day as important as it is tasty.
Watermelon & Red Birds is the first cookbook celebrating Juneteenth. It is meant to be a bridge between those traditional dishes of African American celebration and those flavors that I have come to know and appreciate as my culinary horizons have broadened. This book is not an attempt to capture the tastes and recipes of that 1866 Juneteenth celebration. This is a testament to where we are now. It’s an attempt to synthesize all the places we’ve been, all the people we have come from, all the people we have become, and all the culinary ideas we have embraced. It’s an attempt to fashion a Juneteenth celebration for the twenty-first century.
The title combines a native-born African fruit—watermelon—with the African American and Native American adage that red birds flying in sight are ancestors returning to spread beautiful luck. I wrote these recipes and stories as my contribution to a growing genre of Black cookbooks that centers creativity over tradition. Books that seek more to chart a future for African American cookery than to celebrate and record its richly deserving past. This is my declaration of independence from the traditional boundaries of so-called Southern food and soul food. It’s my fulfillment of the dreams of those domestics, inventors, bakers, and bartenders who form the base of my family tree. It is my statement that we are free to fly.
When I wrote my first cookbook, Up South, I returned to Athens, Georgia, to ground myself. I did that again for this book. While I was writing, like clockwork and just as my mama would remind me as a kid, birds would appear at the exact moment when I needed their inspiration the most. And during solo weekend writing getaways in Charlotte, North Carolina; Pinpoint, Georgia; and Beaufort, South Carolina, I was reminded of what Black summer joy feels like: family barbecues and cookouts, Six Flags amusement park trips, Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn Festival, seeded watermelons, Cross Colours T-shirts, peanut butter parfaits, Vacation Bible School brownies, recreation center cakewalks, and, of course, Juneteenth.
Like the Great Black Migration itself, Juneteenth traveled aboard trains and automobiles from its Texas birthplace to every state in the Union where Jim Crow was not the de facto governor. Daniel Vaughn writes in a 2015 Texas Monthly article about Juneteenth BBQ: “Barbecue wasn’t the only item on the menu. The middle of June being the beginning of watermelon season in Texas, that also found a spot at the table. The Galveston Daily News reported on celebrations across the state in 1883 including one in San Antonio where ‘twenty-three wagons loaded with watermelons… were destroyed with marvelous rapidity.’ By 1933, the menu had been cemented per the Dallas Morning News. ‘Watermelon, barbecue and red lemonade will be consumed in quantity.’ ”
There is no perfect city to celebrate Juneteenth; you don’t have to be from the Lone Star State to experience it. Migrants in Oakland, California, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, created the largest public Juneteenth festivals outside Texas; Milwaukee’s public celebration dates back to 1971. It is fitting that Juneteenth celebrations not be confined to Texas. The Juneteenth theme of freedom delayed is one that recurs in American history, in every state. Even after emancipation, the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 was required to nominally ensure that the right to vote wasn’t denied to men on the basis of race. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, lynchings, and other terrorist techniques were used throughout much of the nation to ensure that Black men wouldn’t exercise this right. It wasn’t until 1920 that women were allowed to vote. It wasn’t until 1947 that Native Americans were given the right to vote. Asian Americans had to wait until passage of the McCarran-Walter Act (or Immigration and Nationality Act) in 1952. Not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did Black Americans gain federal protection against discrimination during elections.
This book is intended to be light with the pleasures of good food and heavy with the weight of history. Every morning, I stand at my altar and ask the Most High if she is pleased with how I’m moving through the world; do I reflect the goodness of my ancestors? On special occasions, when I’m slipping out of my clothes and jewelry, I wonder if I left bread crumbs for a future generation to follow. As my candlelight flickers, I hear, Well done. I know the red birds are out there, even in the dark.
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|Epub||June 18, 2022|