Food & Drink

Hot links and red drinks: The rich food tradition of Juneteenth

A strawberry slab pie in New York, June 9, 2017. Red is the symbol of perseverance, making the pie ideal for a Juneteenth gathering. The holiday, which celebrates the abolition of slavery in the United States, is an occasion to gather and eat.
A strawberry slab pie in New York, June 9, 2017. Red is the symbol of perseverance, making the pie ideal for a Juneteenth gathering. The holiday, which celebrates the abolition of slavery in the United States, is an occasion to gather and eat. The New York Times

L. Kasimu Harris, a writer, artist and Louisiana native, recalled the booth his mother and father ran in Congo Square in New Orleans at a Juneteenth festival, where customers ordered crispy catfish from a handwritten poster board price list. “They sold grilled chicken and smoked sausage on pistolet,” Harris said, referring to the miniature French bread rolls, the sandwiches draped with onions and peppers.

His parents cooked at festivals all over the South, as far away as Atlanta. But those Juneteenth festivals on the cobblestones in the tree-lined square remain vivid, a family event. “I helped my parents out by taking the money and handing out paper napkins,” he said. “My sister would sometimes be the opening vocalist for a musical act. My father was always on the grill, and the line was always long.”

For over 150 years, African-Americans have gathered on June 19 — the day known as Juneteenth — to celebrate freedom. The holiday is rooted in Texas, signifying the day in 1865 when, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a Union general who had made his way to Galveston delivered the news that slavery had been abolished. Texans who had been chattel erupted in triumph.

Many of the largest Juneteenth celebrations are still held in Texas: old-school parades with horses and souped-up cars; local bands playing; tender, fatty brisket on hand. But the day is observed widely all over the South, and in cities throughout the United States. Street fairs spring up, where R&B and gospel acts perform, and where you will find proud dandies like Harris forming lines for fried fish, spareribs or Fred Flintstone-style turkey legs. The Harlem Renaissance singer Gladys Bentley described the scene in her anthem “Juneteenth Jamboree.” “Dressed to kill from head to feet. Baskets full of food to eat. You can’t get this on your TV.”

Some families hold picnics or cookouts. Smoke clouds billow from drum grills, scalloped-edged paper plates are pried apart, and self-appointed Southern potato salad queens set out bowls covered with crinkled aluminum foil. Chargrilled oysters may turn up on the buffet table in Mississippi; meaty baked beans appear in Kansas; in the Carolinas, add heaps of vinegar-tinged pulled pork. For dessert, pies.

Red foods are customary for Juneteenth, the crimson a symbol of ingenuity and resilience in bondage. Watermelon, Texas Pete hot sauce and red velvet cake are abundant. A strawberry pie wouldn’t be out of place. Spicy hot links on the grill — most commonly made with coarsely ground beef, and artificially dyed red — are a Juneteenth staple, too, and “a distinctive African-American contribution to barbecue,” said Adrian Miller, a James Beard award-winning author and soul food expert.

Red drinks, like strawberry soda and Texas-made Big Red pop, generally rule the Juneteenth bar, and link present to past. “Two traditional drinks from West Africa that had a lot of social meaning are kola nut tea and bissap,” Miller said. (Bissap is more commonly known as hibiscus tea.) Both came to the Americas with the slave trade; red kola nuts and hibiscus pods colored the water in which they were steeped.

Traditions are changing, though. Newer-wave celebrations have become more spiritual and intimate. Wanda Blake, who handles finances for small culinary businesses and nonprofit organizations in Oakland, California, participates in a Juneteenth Ritual of Remembrance there. It’s a day of meditation and multicultural prayer for which Blake creates an altar with symbolic foods: brightly hued produce, cornbread, black-eyed peas.

To Blake, the event is an ode to ancestors. “Juneteenth today is a collective thank-you to a people who made a way out of no way,” she said.

Strawberry-Ginger Slab Pie

Yield: 12 to 16 servings


2-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons/360 grams all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out dough

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 cup/226 grams cold unsalted butter (2 sticks), cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus more for buttering the pan

3 / 4cup/177 milliliters ice water

2 tablespoons buttermilk


3 pounds/1.3 kilograms fresh strawberries, small berries cut in half and larger berries cut in quarters (see note)

3 to 4 tablespoons/40 grams loosely packed dark brown sugar, depending on how sweet your berries are

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 / 2teaspoon grapefruit zest

1-1/2 teaspoons grapefruit juice

1 / 2teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 / 4teaspoon vanilla extract

1 / 8teaspoon coarse kosher salt

1. Make the crust: In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, 2 teaspoons granulated sugar, the salt and the pepper. Using a pastry blender, cut butter into flour until the largest pieces of butter are the size of lentils.

2. Sprinkle ice water over dough a tablespoon at a time, stirring and scooping the dough with your hands as you go to incorporate the water, until the dough just begins to adhere and you can gather it into an imperfect ball. (You may not need all the water.) Transfer dough to a piece of plastic wrap and press into a disk. Wrap tightly and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.

3. Lightly butter a quarter sheet pan with a 1-inch rim, including the top edge of the rim, and set aside. (Quarter sheet pans are usually 8 by 11 inches or 9 by 12 inches, depending on the manufacturer.)

4. Lightly flour a large work surface, a rolling pin and the dough. Roll the chilled dough into an 1/8-inch-thick rectangle. From that, cut a rectangle 3 inches bigger than the dimensions of your pan on each side (i.e., an 11-by-14-inch rectangle for an 8-by-11-inch pan, or a 12-by-15-inch rectangle for a 9-by-12-inch pan). Reserve the extra dough.

5. Gently press the dough rectangle into the quarter sheet pan, trimming excess dough at the edges. The dough should go all the way up and over the top edge of the pan, if possible. Transfer pan to refrigerator and chill for 1 hour.

6. Meanwhile, line another baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll out reserved dough to 1/4- to 1/8-inch thickness. Using 1- and 2-inch biscuit cutters, cut out about 30 circles of different sizes (or use all one size if you prefer), rerolling dough as necessary. Transfer circles to parchment-lined baking sheet and refrigerate.

7. Make the filling: Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and stir well. Set aside for about an hour, while crust chills.

8. Heat oven to 375 degrees. When oven is hot, paint some of the buttermilk on the edges of the pie crust. Transfer berry mixture to crust, patting the berries down into a roughly even layer. Place pan on a larger baking sheet to catch any drips. Bake for 30 minutes.

9. Paint buttermilk over reserved pastry circles and sprinkle with remaining tablespoon granulated sugar. Place circles all over the bubbling berries. Continue baking pie until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling, an additional 50 to 60 minutes.

10. Run a small knife around the edge of the pie while it’s warm. Transfer the pie in its quarter sheet pan to a wire rack. Let cool for at least 2 hours before cutting and serving from the pan.

Note: Use smaller, fresh farm strawberries rather than conventional supermarket berries, if possible. The farm berries release less juice, which makes for a less runny filling.