My Dream Juneteenth Menu Celebrates the Rich History of African-American Food in America

published Jun 19, 2020
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Credit: Patrick Clark: Boston Globe/Getty Images; Leah Chase: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

While Southern fare like barbecue ribs, potato salad, and red Kool-Aid were part of my summer menu growing up in Chicago, I didn’t learn about Juneteenth until I started writing about food 20 years ago. 

Juneteenth celebrates the day when on June 19, 1865 the enslaved people in Galveston, Texas learned they were free. The infuriating part is the Emancipation Proclamation had outlawed slavery nationwide more than two years earlier, but this news hadn’t been shared yet in Texas. Nonetheless, they were happy to finally be free and celebrated with barbecue, red lemonade, and other traditional Southern foods. 

This year for Juneteenth, I’ve been learning more about the struggles and accomplishments of Black Americans, including talented chefs, cooks, inventors and authors who never got their due. And I wanted to  thank them and pay homage to these culinary pioneers for their vast contributions to American food culture. That’s why I created this dream Juneteenth menu with signature dishes from some of my favorite Black chefs to inspire you to learn more about their lives, and add some new cookbooks to your collection.

Tom Bullock’s Bliz’s Royal Rickey

Tom Bullock (1872-1964) was the nation’s first celebrity bartender, holding court behind the stick at the St. Louis Country Club, where regulars included Augustus Busch and George Herbert Walker (ancestor of the 41st and 43rd presidents), who wrote a foreword for Bullock‘s book. His Mint Julep was so delectable that when Teddy Roosevelt, who wanted to appear temperate, claimed he only took a few sips, newspaper columnists teased him for weeks. Bullock published his book The Ideal Bartender back in 1917, making it one of the first cocktail books by an African American. It was revived in 173 Pre-Prohibition Cocktails. Since red lemonade is the traditional Juneteenth drink, I chose this tangy red drink with raspberries and citrus. 

Get the recipe: Bliz’s Royal Rickey

Lucille B. Smith’s Chili Biscuits

Lucille Bishop Smith (1892-1985) and her husband Ulysses were a power couple in their corner of Texas. She was a college-educated chef, entrepreneur, and caterer, while her husband was a master barbecue chef in Fort Worth, according to an account in the Chicago Tribune. She cleverly published her cookbook as a set of recipe cards called Lucille’s Treasure Chest of Fine Foods. Next, she launched a hot roll mix as a church fundraiser, and it was wildly popular, soon netting thousands of dollars. Then grocery store orders started rolling in. Her signature chili biscuits, rolls stuffed with chili, were served in Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House and on American Airlines flights. You can still find them at her great-grandson’s restaurant, Lucille’s. 

Get the recipe: Chili Biscuits

Maya Angelou’s All Day and All Night Cornbread

We think of Maya Angelou (1928-2014) as an educator, actress, author, screenwriter, and poet behind powerful works like “ Still I Rise” and Phenomenal Woman. But she was passionate about so many things, including civil rights activism with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and cuisine. She published two cookbooks: Hallelujah! The Welcome Table, A Lifetime of Memories With Recipes and Great Food All Day Long. Angelou liked to slice a square of her cornbread horizontally, add a piece of Swiss cheese and toast it until the cheese is good and melted. 

B. Smith’s Summer Green Pea Salad

Barbara B Smith (1949-2020) was a model, restaurateur, and TV host who loved to entertain. As a model, she appeared on 15 magazine covers and was one of the first Black cover models for Mademoiselle, according to her press materials. She and her husband Dan Gasby ran three restaurants in Manhattan, Sag Harbor, and Washington DC, serving eclectic global food. She launched a housewares collection with Bed, Bath & Beyond, the first Black woman to have a product line featured in a national retailer. Her summer salad, which can be made with fresh or frozen peas, has a basil vinaigrette and onions to make it zesty and aromatic. The recipe is from B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends.

Get the recipe: Summer Green Pea Salad

Abby Fisher’s Sweet Pickle Peach

Abigail Fisher (1831-unknown) is the first Black American to author a cookbook, according to historian Karen Hess. What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking was published in 1881. A formerly enslaved woman originally from South Carolina, Fisher married a man from Alabama and they headed west to San Francisco. By 1880, she and Alexander were in business producing her prize-winning jellies, pickles, relishes, and blackberry brandy in what is now the techie SoMa neighborhood. Her book is included in the Michigan State University archives as an essential part of America’s cultural food history. Fisher couldn’t read or write, but she hired a writer and to record how to make everything from crab croquettes to rice pudding to delightful pickled fruits, like these peaches.

Get the recipe: Sweet Pickle Peach

Vertamae Smart Grosvenor’s Onion Pie

Vertamae Smart Grosvenor (1937-2016) was a cultural storyteller, actress, and food writer born into a Gullah family in South Carolina. The Gullah were descendants of enslaved people from coastal West Africa, who had expertise in cultivating rice. At 19, she moved to Paris where she met her husband, and hung out with a bohemian Left Bank set. Back in New York, she cooked for artists and friends including Nina Simone, David Bowie, Miles Davis, and Amiri Baraka, according to her remembrance on National Public Radio. Grosvenor dedicated her life to telling their stories and exploring the social and cultural history through food, sharing many tales on NPR. Her 1970 book, Vibration Cooking: Or Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, wove stories with recipes, setting a mold that many have followed. Her onion pie is like a delicate onion quiche sans cheese. 

Get the recipe: Onion Pie 

Edna Lewis’s Baked Tomatoes with Crusty Bread

Edna Lewis (1916-2006) was the original domestic goddess, a regal woman who brought Southern seasonal, farm-to-table cooking to New York City. Growing up in rural Virginia, Lewis learned to cook, sew, and forage for berries or wild honey for freshly baked biscuits. She went north to New York, made artsy friends and found her niche as a window dresser at Bonwit Teller, according to a New York Times Magazine piece. Friend John Nicholson hired her to cook at Café Nicholson, a cool East side boite that served Euro-Southern dishes like roasted chicken and chocolate soufflé to Paul Robeson, Salvador Dali, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Lewis wrote many cookbooks, but her Taste of Country Cooking is a collectible classic. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 2014. This dish, which is seasonal yet kind of French, is just the kind of simple, sophisticated fare she loved. 

Patrick Clark’s Barbecued Ribs

Patrick Clark (1955-1998) was one of the first Black celebrity chefs, earning fame in the 1980s for his innovative French-inspired cuisine. Clark staged in France with Michel Guerard, then went on to acclaim for his French nouvelle cuisine at Odeon and Cafe Luxembourg in New York City. He briefly ran his own restaurant Metro. His cooking at the Hay Adams Hotel in Washington, DC earned him a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic. He had a shot to become the Clinton White House chef, but he declined. Clark was running Tavern on the Green when he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He died at 42, waiting for a heart transplant. After his death, friends published Cooking With Patrick Clark: A Tribute to the Man and His Cuisine, which included the recipe for his barbecue ribs.  Son Preston Clark, chef of Lure Fishbar, carries on his father’s tradition.

Get the recipe: Barbecued Ribs

Leah Chase’s Butter Cake

Leah Chase (1923-2019), the Queen of Creole Cuisine, was the legendary chef co-owner of Dooky Chase, a restaurant that catered to regular folks, civil rights activists, celebrities, and presidents just the same. She started working in a New Orleans French Quarter restaurant at 16, and married musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase II in 1945. As their children grew, Chase started working in the small family eatery Dooky Chase. She filled it with African art, elevated the cuisine, and cooked hot lunches for Black professionals who couldn’t eat at white establishments, according to her New York Times obituary. She was the inspiration for Princess Tiana in the Disney movie The Princess and the Frog, and her Green Gumbo is served at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. Her second cookbook And Still I Cook, mixes classic recipes with reminiscences about her life as a restaurateur. Her butter cake, a riff on pound cake, would be perfect with ripe organic strawberries or sliced peaches.

Get the recipe: Butter Cake

Credit: Maria Hunt

Maria Hunt is a lifestyle journalist and author specializing in wine and food culture, interior design and wellness. She  believes pork should be its own food group, bubbly is meant for sipping anytime and the Sicilians got it right when they made ice cream a breakfast food. Her work has appeared in Architectural Digest, The New York Times, The Kitchn, Christian Science Monitor, and Forbes Travel Guide, plus she’s the hostess of The Bubbly Girl.com. She’s based in Oakland, California.