These Juneteenth Recipes Celebrate the Fruits of Our Labor

Amanda M. Rye

Juneteenth celebrations runneth over with finger and fabric battling: tomato-based barbecue sauce versus newly dry-cleaned white linen tops. It’s the day when excessively charred hot dogs get loaded with chowchow and fatty briskets get slowly smoked, hand slapped, and sliced. June 19, or Juneteenth, is a fast-growing U.S. holiday where Black people pause to commemorate enslaved Texans receiving the words “you are free” in 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

For Black Americans — the technology entrepreneurs, fashion educators, poultry plant workers — freedom celebrations mean pushing oppression into the broom closet. Smiles and laughter are the meditative drugs, and conversations about deep racial inequities are a buzzkill; merrymakers are around the table for more than one type of nourishment. For a few hours, pure liberation meets a plate of food. Families gather around summer fare: spicy sausages, juicy burgers, ripe watermelon. Iced-down coolers packed with American light beers, colas, canned pink wines, and bottled waters move from the kitchen to the garage and get rolled outdoors. The hustle of meetings is in the rearview mirror. Juneteenth is my time to leave fussiness waiting in the wings, to freestyle dance from the butcher block to the buffet table decked out with provisions.

I’ve made an alfresco Juneteenth feast every year for over 10 years, and each get-together centers on timeless desserts, chilled boozy beverages, and, most of all, glorious summer fruits. I’ve topped glazed yeast doughnuts with Long Island-grown strawberries and unsweetened whipped cream. I’ve smoked juicy peaches that swam in a vanilla-Moscato bath. I’ve made a spritzer using Aperitivo Cappelletti, Prosecco, and dehydrated Southern-grown baboon lemons as a garnish.

The dishes I make with fruit for Juneteenth that you’ll find on these pages carry the patina of endurance. Ancestors, memories of Juneteenths past, and the larder dictate each recipe’s flavors. The colors are symbolic, their sweetness is the promised land, and, by itself, any fruit can stand tall. Their ripeness gives more time to kick back, to do less. One can bow, take a seat, and partake in the meals — devouring the fruits of our labor.

Deep in Red Hook, Brooklyn, we would convene at my husband’s old art studio, where Black visual artists and writers would congregate with us for a rooftop cookout. My husband was at the charcoal grill, and I manned the long table. It was a magical moment to be loose. Most times, the send-off dessert started with my biweekly community-supported agriculture box. This CSA membership was scrappy, with no detailed newsletter, pre-distribution note about the contents, or poetic words about the farmer picking herbs before the sun came up. I’d always menu-plan on the semi-fly. When there was stone fruit, we’d grill it, which gave our guests an unspoken jolt of delight. I’d unload the large plastic storage bags with nectarines and lightly season them with a hint of sugar and a thyme sprig or basil leaf — any herb that promised not to take over the natural sweetness of the fruit. Nowadays, when I serve plums and nectarines, like in my Stone Fruit Salad with Collard-Peanut Pesto, I’m transported to parties where we dapped, hugged, boogied, and kissed under the moonlight.

My east Austin Airbnb was just a stone’s throw from Huston-Tillotson University. I was sharing the house with a group of colleagues; we were in the city for Soul Summit, a symposium founded by award-winning cookbook author Toni Tipton-Martin that celebrated African Americans’ rich culinary history. It was Juneteenth weekend in the Texas capital, and my goal was to capture all of the festivities with audio recordings. During my downtime, I explored H-E-B supermarket and Salt & Time butcher shop. Groceries bring me joy, and I lingered down the store aisles to beat the blazing sun. A fat, whole watermelon captivated me, and I bought it, hauling it back to the bungalow by Uber. I cut the watermelon in thick chunks and placed them in a giant white ceramic bowl. I let the melon chill in the refrigerator and then passed it around like Sunday dinner pot roast. Writers, nutritionists, chefs, and restaurateurs were munching on melon and talking at a small kitchen table. The moment was big, and the melon’s just-right candied sweetness remains on my tongue memory bank — a flavor that I expanded upon in my recipe for Grilled Watermelon with Chamomile-Cocoa Salt.

Fort-De-France, Martinique, 2016

Before taking a winter vacation to Martinique in 2016 and shopping at Grand Marché, dried hibiscus in a bag sold in grocery stores was my only visual of the edible blossom. I had never touched the slightly hairy exterior of fresh ones. But when I passed the bright scarlet tropical versions in hotel entrances throughout the Caribbean, I remembered that rose of Sharon — a white, wide-eyed, pink-flecked flower that flanked me in 1980s birthday Polaroids and punctuated the square corners of my front yard growing up — is a species of hibiscus. The hibiscus bud’s culinary use brings nature inside and can be used in everything from tea to salad dressing to cheesy quesadillas. When hibiscus is steeped in water, it creates a red drink, an essential menu item of Juneteenth. Kool-Aid, strawberry lemonade, and ice pops are traditions of Black celebration that tell a story of triumph. I tell it in my Hibiscus Snow Cones. A cultural bonding through good times and tragedy. The African diaspora, or global Black connection, in a glass or cone.

During the lull of a global pandemic, I temporarily moved back to my hometown. It was a break away from my confining New York City apartment. Donning a designer mask, I’d connect with my mother every Saturday morning at the Athens Farmers Market. Shopping for food without a list and with zero budget constraints was a first for her, and browsing the northeast Georgia harvest was our first rodeo. We were meeting each other in a new place, in a space where inspirational cooking seeds get planted, a cocoon where the distractions are tubers, pepper varieties, and collard greens. Mushrooms, local sausage, and crayon-colored dahlias were my go-tos — plus blueberries. My definition of togetherness expanded over figuring out what was next for the massive bags of berries I brought home. My mother always asked, “What are you cooking?” I responded with a snarky, “Mama, give it a try.” I’d make sweet potato waffles drizzled with warm maple syrup and fresh blueberries, and my mother would say it was “nice.” The banter made up for a Juneteenth that was fuzzy and somewhat lost, a summer day when the racial reckonings eclipsed my usual effervescent cocktail. For me, the uprisings in 2020 birthed a renewed commitment to scheduled moments of happiness — grilling pork chops on the Weber grill and fruit shopping with the ones I love. In my recipe for Grilled Pork Chops with Burst Blueberry Sauce, I combined the two for a sweet and savory take.

One winter night, I dream that chef Omar Tate, TV writer-producer Gabrielle Fulton Ponder, food writer Osayi Endolyn, and fashion educator Lesley Ware are huddling near the camellia bushes in my backyard, chatting about prosperity and “how we got” over a year of uncertainty. My dream is one part reality, one part hope of tomorrow. The dishes and scraps of food in the dream are vivid. I hear the birds chirping, and the full moon shows up before the sunset. Green grass is beneath us. The firepit is the gathering spot for the dessert hour, where we eat buttery pound cake spiked with sweet wine. Crushed dehydrated wild grapes scent the icing. (My Moscato Pound Cake with Grape Glaze evokes this dream food.) Guests cling to wineglasses half-full with low-intervention pét-nat produced in Emilia-Romagna, and Solange Knowles is performing “Cranes in the Sky.” My friends are lounging on the land; the physical sickness of the world is behind us.

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