Across the country, Juneteenth represents a celebration of freedom and a commemoration for the ancestors lost to the harms of slavery. Also known as “Jubilee Day” or “Freedom Day,” the 19th of June marks the moment enslaved Americans in Texas were notified of their freedom, two and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Chef Alexander Smalls, owner and executive chef of The Cecil and Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, New York, explains that red food has always played a part in the celebration. “It was symbolic of blood on the field and the blood of our ancestors,” says Smalls, a James Beard Award winner and author of “Grace the Table: Stories & Recipes From My Southern Revival.” “So you would have dishes that were rich, and a red hue, which makes barbecue anything pretty perfect.”
Today in the U.S., Juneteenth—now a national holiday with President Joe Biden having signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act into law—is marked by parades, picnics, and cookouts. Celebratory food can include watermelon, red velvet cake, red beans and rice, and yes, anything barbecue. “Food is currency, particularly for African Americans, and was for the generations of folks who were enslaved,” Smalls says. At a time when Blacks did not own themselves, they took ownership and pride in their foods and recipes. “Not only was it a form of celebration,” he says, “but it was the form of dignity and respect. For the person who created that food, it was ownership that could not be taken away.”
For Juneteenth, CR tapped five Black chefs to share a recipe that can be made in a small kitchen appliance, a dish that’s perfect for a Freedom Day gathering. (No need to turn on the oven.) They shared typical cookout dishes such as mac and cheese and fried fish, as well as Juneteenth favorites like red beans and rice and barbecue—even vegan ribs.