This Year, I’m Celebrating Juneteenth with Jollof Rice
The official start to summer is right around the corner, which means warm days and cool nights, freshly squeezed lemonade, BBQ, and fruit salads. To kick off the summer holiday stretch, my family celebrates Juneteenth. Also known as Freedom Day or Jubilee Day, this important day commemorates the official end of slavery in America. Nearly two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon landed in Galveston, Texas with news that slavery had ended, marking Juneteenth (June + nineteenth) a day to celebrate independence.
When the formerly enslaved Texans discovered news of their freedom, celebrations ensued. Today, Juneteenth traditions include rodeos, public readings, voter registration efforts, parades, community gatherings, street fairs, and fishing. Of course, Juneteenth celebrations wouldn’t be complete without food. In particular, red food and drinks comprise the bulk of traditional Juneteenth meals. The red, like crimson blood, symbolizes tenacity and strength. Watermelon, red velvet cake, strawberry soda, and red beans and rice are often served alongside other celebration staples like collard greens and barbeque, and tea cakes.
My husband and I (and eventually our daughter) have been celebrating Juneteenth for almost a decade. In the past, we mostly attended citywide events and hosted cookouts. But this year, with social distancing in mind, we plan to celebrate a little differently. For starters, we plan to observe Freedom Day from the comfort of our home. Next, I am kicking off a new tradition by including a popular West African staple – jollof rice – in this year’s Juneteenth celebration meal.
I am a descendant of enslaved Africans, while my spouse is a first-generation Nigerian American. We want our daughter to experience food culture from both sides of our family, and jollof rice is the dish on our Juneteenth menu that binds the two. In his book Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Barbecue historian Robert Moss noted the barbecue pit was a key component of early Juneteenths celebrations. Barbecuing remains a common Juneteenth tradition. The only food we’ll be barbecuing is cauliflower since we’re a vegan family. However, we also plan to make greens, sweet potatoes, sweet plantains, watermelon, and red juice. This year, jollof rice is a new addition – and a tradition that will hopefully last for generations to come. I want our great-great grandchildren to understand and appreciate their African and Black heritage.
In order to perfect this dish well before June 19, I went Internet sleuthing for the best vegan jollof rice recipe I could find. I landed on Tomi Makanuola’s Instagram page. Turns out, Tomi, “The Vegan Nigerian,” has a classic jollof rice recipe that has been passed down through generations in her own family. A month prior to Juneteenth, Tomi hosted an online cookalong for aspiring jollof rice enthusiasts. The cookalong was the perfect opportunity for us to learn how to make this dish as a family. My spouse chopped. I blended. And my 5-year-old was a masterful taste tester.
To make jollof rice, I simmer fresh tomatoes, red bell peppers, scotch bonnet, red onions, fresh ginger, garlic, curry powder, and thyme with two cups of brown basmati rice. When the jollof rice has been fully cooked (it takes about 45–50 minutes – less if you are using white basmati rice), it ends up being a fiery dark orange color, but the red base, or the roux, of the dish truly reflects its significance.
For my spouse, jollof symbolizes the courage his parents had to leave the only home they ever knew in search of better opportunities in America. For me, jollof connects me to the homeland that my enslaved ancestors once knew. For our daughter, jollof rice is far more than just a holiday food experience. It is a history lesson that bridges cultural heritage, teaches a new culinary skill, and merges rich foods across the African diaspora.
Juenteenth, the longest running Black holiday to date, is still not legally recognized as a national holiday. But in my home, we will continue to celebrate independence. We will honor the blood and sacrifice of our ancestors. We will partake in the joy of food bringing loved ones together – with plenty of red drinks and a side of jollof rice.
Tonya Abari is former teacher turned multigenre writer, editor, and digital content guru. She enjoys spending time with her spouse, discovering new places, cooking vegan comfort foods, collecting healing crystals, and unschooling with her inquisitive, free-spirited daughter. Follow her on Instagram.