A food historian explains why the color red plays an important role during Juneteenth celebrations
- Culinary historian Adrian Miller spoke to Insider about the significance of red foods on
- Juneteenth commemorates the end of slavery in the United States following the Civil War.
Recent Juneteenth celebrations usually involve cookouts or neighborhood parties, but during its inception, observers held vibrant community-wide jamboree, inviting Black people to commemorate freedom.
Juneteenth originated on June 19, 1865, in Galveston, Texas, when federal Union troops ensured enslaved African Americans were free following the Civil War. Although slavery technically ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, not all areas under Confederate control acknowledged the decree, Insider reported.
Miller explained that African Americans at the time likely knew they were free because many had left their plantations and traveled to the nearest urban centers, including Galveston.
"It's the arrival of Union troops that brings freedom because they can enforce the law," Miller said. "Otherwise, slave-holding whites often flouted around like, 'you all can't make me,' but the presence of Union troops brought the legal force."
The first Juneteenth celebration took place in 1866
Miller told Insider the first Juneteenth celebrations began with prayer before segueing to patriotism — perhaps someone would read the Declaration of Independence — followed by musical performances, and finally, a party.
And as with any party,
"There would be a massive public feast, usually with barbecue," Miller said. "Barbecue is one of the premier party foods because it's scalable and demands community. Old school barbecue was whole animal cooking, so you had to have a lot of people eat that food."
Emancipation celebrations are typically public events, Miller said, so it makes sense that food is a focal point, even 157 years later.
"Community is an important feature of Juneteenth, and so few things build community as well as food," Miller said.
The color red plays an enormous role on Juneteenth, which usually embraces Southern and Black cuisine
The color red takes center stage on Juneteenth, especially when it comes to the food. According to Miller, there are several theories as to why red food and drinks have become the norm on the holiday.
"The one I hear frequently is that red symbolizes the blood shed by enslaved West African ancestors," he explained to Insider. "Red pays homage and respect to those ancestors who died during the Atlantic slave trade."
Red's significance to African Americans could also herald back to West Africa, where some dishes have a red and orange hue because they're cooked with palm oil, according to Miller.
"When people get to a new place, they try to recreate home and, oftentimes, they have to find substitutes," Miller said. "We see rice-based dishes reminiscent of African dishes show up in the Americas, but in a different format."
Miller pointed to South Carolina's Lowcountry, where locals make red rice by adding tomatoes.
A Juneteenth menu in Texas might include barbecue as the main dish, a red drink of choice, and a cooling dessert
Most Juneteenth celebrations serve traditional Southern food but can vary depending on the host's region.
"Barbecue is made red by the smoking of the meat and the addition of a tomato-based barbecue sauce," Miller said. "Then you would have some kind of red drink and watermelon for dessert. Lately, there have been some additions to the menu, like red velvet cake or strawberry pie."
But amid the potlucks and cookouts this year, Miller hopes that Juneteenth revelers take the time to truly observe the holiday.
"As a newly minted federal holiday and something that people are getting introduced to, I think Juneteenth will have multiple expressions," Miller said. "But I hope that people don't think of it as a party."
"It's like Martin Luther King Jr. Day," Miller added. "It's a day on, not a day off. It's a reminder to be committed to social justice."
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