5 Festive Juneteenth Dishes - The New York Times

June 11, 2024
Dining & Wine
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On Kiva Williams’s Juneteenth table, pops of red — barbecue ribs and watermelon, a symbol of freedom — share the table with hot dogs, burgers, potato salad and baked beans. Sometimes, foods from her past, like fried fish and spaghetti, and coleslaw, “my favorite meal from back home” in Tennessee, also make an appearance.

For Ms. Williams, who runs the Fun Foodie Mama blog, the celebration is a relatively small one, and recent. Ms. Williams, 44, didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth — she’d learned about the holiday from her parents, but didn’t celebrate.

But, “as I grew older and had a family of my own, I wanted to be intentional with my kids on celebrating,” she said, adding that she hopes to pass down the celebration, its recipes and cooking traditions to her children. She and her family attend local festivals, spend time learning about the holiday and, of course, gather around a meal.

Red foods are customary for Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the freeing of the last enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The scarlet hue symbolizes ingenuity and resilience while in bondage. It’s been three years since Juneteenth became a national holiday, and people are carving out their own traditions.

The daughter of Congolese parents who grew up in Paris, Karen Tshimanga, 37, of Harlem, started celebrating Juneteenth in 2020, after the George Floyd protests.

She honors the holiday in a number of ways: eating, dancing, laughing, volunteering. And when it comes to food, she celebrates with friends at a potluck, the table set with food from different parts of the world.

“We’re lucky to have some of the best West African food, so I like to use the time to get back to my roots,” she says, by eating dibi (Senegalese grilled lamb), attiéké (a slightly sour cassava couscous) or a good meat stew over rice.

The menu below isn’t labor-intensive or intimidating, even if you’re not normally the host. Light, bright, fresh and joyous, the menu here feels like a celebration, and it’s all made with the goal of feeding a group of loved ones: a strawberry ginger limeade, garlicky chicken sandwiches topped with a crunchy slaw, a deeply satisfying shrimp jambalaya, crisp okra made for sharing and tossed with a sweet honey-based sauce, all capped off with bright-red strawberry pretzel bars.

Make a few of the dishes or make them all, just make it yours.

Red drinks are central to Juneteenth, as the color red represents the blood shed by enslaved people. Strawberry soda is commonly served, but this punch builds on that tradition, adding honey for its sweet distinct flavor, lime juice and mint its freshness and ginger for a fiery warmth. And it’s a great way to use up slightly overripe strawberries. (It’s better to use overripe berries, since underripe ones can have bitter notes.) Serve over ice with a twist of lime juice for an extra burst of flavor.

Recipe: Strawberry-Ginger Limeade

Two heads of garlic sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil set the stage for these sandwiches, where tender chicken thighs are heavily seasoned, then pan-seared in garlic oil until a golden dark brown. A red-cabbage slaw nestled above and below the chicken adds crunch, and its vinegar (not mayo-based) base means you don’t have to worry if it sits outside for too long. But your guests will have eaten these up long before then.

Recipe: Garlicky Chicken Sandwiches With Red Cabbage Slaw

A savory rice dish with fuzzy origins, a strong Louisiana history and a number of influences (African, Spanish and French, to name a few), shrimp jambalaya is ultimate comfort. Here, both rice and shrimp are cooked separately in the oven, not the stovetop, for a more hands-off approach. It’s a meal on its own, but also wonderful as part of a spread.

Kwame Onwuachi serves a version of this dish at his acclaimed restaurant Tatiana in New York City. He halves and deep-fries his version, but in this adaptation, it’s quartered so every bit is extra crunchy. It’s lightly coated in a vibrant honey sauce bursting with Scotch bonnet chile, ginger and pungent garlic. The flavors are big but not overbearing, letting okra’s beauty shine. Finish with a dusting of mustard powder, if you like, and a squeeze of lemon, to bring this New York’s most-small plates to your dinner table.

Recipe: Crispy Okra With Spicy Honey Sauce

Old-fashioned strawberry pretzel salad, topped with gelatin, gets a modern makeover. Here, pretzels are tossed with graham cracker crumbs, then topped with a light cream-cheese mixture and finished off with strawberry jam and fresh strawberries, for a delicate sweetness. Cut the bars into bite-size pieces or bigger slabs. Either way, this old-new dish is sure to be a favorite.

Recipe: Strawberry Pretzel Bars

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