On Cooking Through Uncertainty: The Power of Black Cookbooks on the Eve of Juneteenth
I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until I moved to Harlem, New York. Fresh out of college and still struggling to fill in all of the big gaps in African-American history that I knew to be missing from my education, the holiday was absent from my mind and calendar. Then one summer morning when I was on my way to work, I left my apartment on Striver’s Row and was met on the street by a crush of Black bodies walking down the avenue in their Sunday finery even though it was a Friday.
I stopped at the newsstand on the corner to purchase the paper and asked Mr. Albert what was going on. “Baby girl, it’s Juneteenth,” he told me.
It was that in between time where cell phones didn’t have web browsers, so I had to look the term up on a computer once I got to work.
In Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders that proclaimed that all previously enslaved people were free. The Emancipation Proclamation had formally freed them in 1863 but the westernmost slave-holding states were late in learning the news, as there were few Union troops in the area to announce and enforce the executive order. Over the years the celebrations have morphed into big community-centered events. Harlem had a Juneteenth parade and Southern cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Galveston, where the commemoration started, are known for their large celebrations.
Juneteenth sits at the crux of struggle and jubilation. Enslaved people believed systemic dehumanization was behind them and that their resilience would carry them towards a brighter future.
For the last decade, Juneteenth has been that sort of holiday for me—a bit of a marvel, a chance to contemplate the current moment, and a placeholder for hope for the hereafter. This year is different. Between the pandemic and protests, all the events that I looked forward to have been cancelled—rightfully so. As COVID-19 disproportionately affects Black people and the death count due to police brutality and racial violence soars, I wasn’t sure that there was much to celebrate this year. As the pandemic progressed, I worked my way through my cookbooks, searching for a way to understand the current moment, hoping to land on something poignant. It never came.
Food has always been my weapon of choice. Sometimes it’s an olive branch. Other times it is a club—it forces those around me to acknowledge my presence, where I come from, and my history.
Before I ever picked up a pen and called myself a writer, I was well-acquainted with a cast iron pan, and I knew how to cook.
After a week full of Zoom calls my brain was mush, but my heart felt the need to do something. I could not contain my anxiety and my hands were still good, so I decided to cook, to do what I could with what I had in order to turn this uncertainty into a celebration and a teaching moment. This year would be virtual. I was asked to do an Instagram Stories takeover to talk to my Dartmouth 2008 classmates about my life. I decided to tell them about Juneteenth.
I shared my memories of my hometown and the food I decided to cook with my fellow alumni. I posted photos of the shotgun house where my father was born, and how the Grahams moved from being dirt poor to having two Ivy League graduates in the family. It was a backstory I was ashamed of before.
Daddy saw us—my brother and me, his Dartmouth grads, as his embodiment of the American dream. I also shared with my classmates why I thought I’d let him down. I sent them pictures of the farm that I learned about agriculture on, that is now up for sale. I talked about what I'd lost, and what I worried I might lose.
I talked them through toasting Carolina gold rice for Alexander Smalls’s Chicken Bog, explaining that the staple crop fueled the slave trade in this region. I tell them more about the triumphs and tribulations that come with being Black in America as I make the marinade for Lazarus Lynch’s Baby Back Ribs. Off camera I pray to myself as I peel the skin off my Vidalia onions for Edna Lewis’s Simmered Squash.
As I chop the greens for Leah Chase’s Gumbo Z' Herbes, I think about the isms—racism, sexism, criticism, capitalism, and escapism.
I was open about all the reasons that I was reluctant to come back to campus. I unpacked the -isms I felt had held back my career, and created the second-class status many of us feel we have in this country. My ancestors helped build America and I see its vast beauty. I love it enough to criticize its policies in hopes of making it better.
Food is political. Why we cook, what we cook, and who we get to share that sensory experience with says a lot about our status in this country. I use food to explore all these things, and I hope my alumni audience understands.
All of the chefs I referenced in my takeover are civil rights activists in their own way—fighting to be seen, making sure their recipes, beliefs, and ways of life are written down. They produced so much more than cookbooks. Their tomes are survival guides and carriers of hope.
When dinner is done and I sign off, I think deeply about who this food should go to.
I decide to feed the folks that need it—some of them I chose because I knew they were hungry. Others, because they needed something to lift their spirits.
I put together a plate for the older man down the street, Mr. Barry, who lives alone but always asks me about my writing when he sees me. My running partner, and her husband, who is battling cancer, get a package too. I make sure there were plenty of ribs for the healthcare worker in my life who spends almost every waking moment helping clients navigate a system that was fraught with bias before COVID-19, but since has only gotten worse.
In total I drop off six packages. My efforts are appreciated—physically and virtually. Messages pour in from my classmates thanking me for speaking on what in the ivory tower has been deemed taboo. The people in my immediate circle send me texts to let me know they enjoyed the food. Unable to look on the current situation with much positivity, I’ve decided to look at Juneteenth this year as a placeholder for hope.
My Juneteenth Dinner Menu:
Carla Hall's Black-eyed Pea Hummus from Carla Hall's Soul Food: Everyday and Celebration
Toni Tipton Martin's Benne Crackers from Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking: A Cookbook
Lazarus Lynch's Dr. Pepper Up My Sesame Ribs from Son of a Southern Chef: Cook with Soul
Alexander Smalls's Savory Chicken Bog from Meals, Music and Muses: Recipes from My African American Kitchen
Leah Chase's Gumbo Z' Herbes from The Dooky Chase Cookbook
Sweet Home Cafe's Texas Caviar from Sweet Home Cafe Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking
Edna Lewis's Simmered Squash and Edna Lewis's Roasted Beets with Ginger Syrup, both from The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks: A Cookbook
Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor's Ginger Cake from Toni Tipton Martin's Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking: A Cookbook
Latria Graham's Fruit Punch