Red, green and gold foods eaten at Juneteenth gatherings have special meaning

In dozens of cities around the country on Saturday, the smell of smoky barbecue, salted collard greens and buttery cornbread will fill community parks and backyards in celebration of liberation. But it won’t be premature July 4 gatherings bringing people together this weekend.

Instead, the celebrations will mark the country’s newest federal holiday, Juneteenth, the day marking the end of slavery in the United States, dating back to 1865, and the color of the food that will be served has special meaning.

Red-colored foods are the most prominent fixture on menus for Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, according to culinary historian and writer Michael Twitty. Because slaves had become accustomed to food without color, red food sparked a feeling of excitement.

“After slavery, enslaved people began to recall and re-construct their experience through the celebration of Juneteenth,” Twitty wrote in Afroculinaria, a culinary food blog. “Red is the embodiment of spiritual power and transformation.”

Today, red drinks like soda, punch and hibiscus tea are part of Juneteenth festivities, along with foods like red velvet cake, red beans and rice, strawberries, and chicken, pork and ribs covered in tomato-based barbecue sauce.

Jonathan Talley, of Roxbury, grills chicken, ribs, and sausage at Franklin Park for the Juneteenth celebration on Saturday afternoon, June 21, 2014. (Photo by Zack Wittman for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Jonathan Talley grills chicken, ribs and sausage at Franklin Park in Boston for a Juneteenth celebration in 2014. (Zack Wittman for the Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Many side dishes symbolize prosperity. Black-eyed peas represent wealth, while leafy green vegetables like collard greens represent good fortune. Corn and sweet potatoes symbolize gold.

Food has always been an integral part of Black celebrations. Award-winning chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson believes you can’t properly tell the history of food without understanding the full breadth of culinary contributions from Black people.

“You have to look back in order to be present and look forward,” Samuelsson said during Yahoo’s special presentation “Juneteenth: The Soul of America.”

Chef Marcus Samuelsson (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Island Records)

Chef Marcus Samuelsson. (Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Island Records)

“The history of American food cannot be told without telling the Black tale as well because we have contributed so much in terms of labor, history and deliciousness, and it’s incredible,” Samuelsson said. “It’s late, but it’s finally here.” 

Chef and TV personality Carla Hall concurred.

“I think the more you know about [Black food] culture, the more you realize how much we contributed to this country,” Hall said.

“It’s not just the South. It’s the North, it’s the West, it’s the Creole coast,” she added. “If I can be inspired by that, then everyone else can.”

Friends preparing Juneteenth meal. (Getty Images)

Friends prepare a meal to celebrate Juneteenth. (Getty Images)

This realization of Black people’s contribution to American cuisine is on full display in the Netflix’s series “High on the Hog.” But many culinary experts and historians will admit there is no “right” way to celebrate Juneteenth.

“For me, it’s not just a day, it’s a lifestyle,” Michiel Perry, creator of the brand Black Southern Belle, told Oprah Daily. “Juneteenth will hopefully make people inquire about their own heritage, history and traditions. It’s a celebration worthy of the year.”

Watch Yahoo’s livestream special, ‘Juneteenth: Soul of America’ Friday, June 18 at 3pm EST live! We will speak to influencers in the Black American community about continuing the effort to celebrate American history and the impact of slavery, including the tremendous economic impact on American society:

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (3), Tom McCorkle for the Washington Post via Getty Images


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