How to Savor Juneteenth Through Food Traditions, According to Houston Chefs

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Juicy brisket, flavorful red drinks and dishes, and soulful sides are just the tipping point of a Juneteenth spread

An illustration of a Juneteenth spread, with watermelon, cornbread, red velvet cake, rice dishes, collard greens, Jello, red drinks, and more.
The Juneteenth holiday offers a colorful spread of food and drink with a dose of history.
Seita/Shutterstock

Juneteenth is a bittersweet holiday that marks the day when, on June 19, 1865, the last enslaved African Americans in Galveston found out they were free — two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that was issued to end slavery. Though this is only the third year the holiday has been federally recognized (President Joe Biden signed it into law in June 2021), Juneteenth, also known as Jubilee Day, Emancipation Day, or Freedom Day, has been celebrated by Houstonians for decades.

Considered a day to reflect, remember, and rejoice in freedom, Juneteenth — like most celebrations — would not be complete without a festive spread. When gathering for this joyous holiday, many come together to celebrate as a community with all hands on deck. From meats smoked to perfection by the recognized community pitmaster to potato salad curated by the trusted auntie, Juneteenth foods are filled with ancestral meaning deeply rooted in freedom and prosperity and offer a colorful lineup of dishes that often reflect the red, black, and green found in Pan-African flag. To honor and uplift the occasion, several local chefs tell Eater Houston what they are bringing to the table for this year’s Juneteenth celebration.

Red food and drinks

Juneteenth day picnic background with Black Liberation African American flags, bowls of cherries and strawberries, and slices of strawberry cheesecake.
Incorporating red into your Juneteenth spread can be easy as pie (or cheesecake).
DyrElena/Shutterstock

One highly recognizable part of the Juneteenth meal is the hues of red found in the food and drink. Symbolizing spiritual power and resilience, ancestors from West African countries held this color in a royal statue. “It symbolizes perseverance because, for our ancestors in West and Central Africa, red was one of the most important colors. It’s the color of creativity, the color of fire, the color of war, the color of resistance,” James Beard Award-winning writer Michael Twitty once told the Jewish publication Forward.

Incorporating red has continued as a tradition during Juneteenth, with those celebrating pouring up drinks like strawberry soda, hibiscus tea, or red Kool-Aid. This year, chef Keisha Griggs of Southeast Houston’s Kuji Kitchen brings her Caribbean heritage and food consciousness into the fold with a watermelon ginger beer — a combination of a seasonal fruit and a traditional Caribbean drink that makes for a fizzy, refreshing sip. “When I first heard of this drink, I thought the two would just sing together,” Griggs says.

Red foods are just as popular as red drinks, with dishes like red beans and rice, refreshing watermelon, barbecue sauce, baked beans, and even sweet potatoes landing on Juneteenth tables throughout the area. This year, chef Onyinyechukwu “Onyi” Akpa of the catering company Kitchen Finesser, will cook up her jambalaya for the holiday. Akpa calls the vibrant, spice-ladened red rice dish that’s flavored with sausage, a “quintessential American Creole and Cajun dish” with origins connected to West African and Spanish influences during the slave trade. “This dish resonates with me so much on Juneteenth because of my Nigerian Heritage and its ties to our beloved jollof rice,” she says.

Red desserts are also a Juneteenth staple, with the most popular and essential being red velvet cake. Find red velvet in slices and whole cakes at Lucy Pearl’s in Downtown’s POST Houston market, along with Sherry’s Strawberry Cakes, which are made with fresh, plump strawberries.

Barbecue

As with many Texas celebrations, barbecue is a true symbol of community and togetherness, and Juneteenth specifically serves as a reminder that in order for the ancestors who were enslaved to have survived and reached freedom, they had to band together.

Two slabs of The Smoke brisket, one on top of the other.
Barbecue is often a Juneteenth staple.
The Smoke

Chef Reginald Scott recognizes the communal and celebratory spirit of Juneteenth in his slow-smoked brisket — found at his restaurant The Smoke, located in Finn Hall. “With its rich flavors and tender texture, sauce-covered barbecued brisket stands as a testament to the resilience of the African American community,” Scott says. “It is a labor of love, requiring patience and a meticulous selection of handpicked seasonings and spices.”

Hot links, too, check several boxes as a popular Juneteenth food. Made with red spices and smoked on a pit, which helps give it its red hue and smoky flavor, Lonestar Sausage and BBQ serves up a bevy of juicy hot links, with owner Kevin Mason making each by hand to offer a one-of-a-kind experience.

Soul food and “prosperity” sides

Embodying Southern traditions, innovation, and resourcefulness in bleak times, soul food dishes are a popular way to celebrate and evoke the spirit of Juneteenth. The tradition is also rooted in improvising and thoughtfully using foods sourced from land and sea, as many enslaved and newly freed people did to survive. Chef Michelle Wallace of B’tween Sandwich Co. says she’s celebrating this year with smoked catfish, a soul food staple that is abundant and native to Texas. “Build a po’boy, or make smoked catfish dip,” says Wallace. The chef seasons her catfish fillets with cajun spices before smoking them for 30 minutes or until firm but moist. She then combines the flaky, smoky fish with a sharp yogurt, cream cheese, lemon juice, jalapeno, and herbs — often topping it with a Louisiana-style hot sauce for an added punch. Wallace says her dip pairs well with toast, biscuits, crispy fried okra, and even fresh or pickled vegetables. “It truly is a great shareable, festive dish any way that you present it,” she says.

A jar of smoked catfish dip topped with seasonings, with a side of fresh and fried vegetables.
Smoked catfish is a shareable dish that can be enjoyed on Juneteenth.
Michelle Wallace

Chef Mason Leverett, current resident chef of Kulture and owner of Bite Kitchen, will tap into the land aspect of soul food by serving an oxtail shepherd’s pie — his upscale take on a comforting and filling Southern soul food classic that evolved from its roots in the United Kingdom. “Shredding those oxtails by hand and incorporating a few veggies, [then topping it] with silky mashed potatoes and Parmesan cheese takes it up a couple of notches,” Leverett says.

an oxtail shepherd’s pie in a cast iron skillet pan, topped with green onion.
Chef Mason Leverett’s oxtail shepherd’s pie is a comforting, Southern spin on a dish that originated in the United Kingdom.
Mason Leverett

And a traditional Juneteenth soul food spread isn’t complete without a lineup of flavorful sides. Similar to the dishes cooked during the New Year, Juneteenth’s “prosperity” sides set the tone for the holiday, cementing well-wishes and goals for the year, with dishes like buttery cornbread representing gold and red beans made with bacon representing wealth and good fortune. Rashad Jiles, the Houston chef and influencer behind the food blog Rashad Eats the World, brings an international twist to a soul food classic with his kimchi collard greens. “Collard greens represent good fortune, and I add a Korean soul food staple — kimchi — to show how modern America is just a melting pot of cultures that can be one with each other,” he says.

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