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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ANTHONY BROOKS, host:

And I'm Anthony Brooks.

In a minute, a band from Iran rocks Los Angeles. But first, today is June 19th, a day that's become known as Juneteenth in Texas and much of the country.

BRAND: That's the day 142 years ago when word finally reached slaves in Texas that they were free, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation. And as champagne goes with New Year's Eve, red soda water is the drink of choice at Juneteenth celebrations.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates tries to find out why.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Some people keep checking the calendar as Christmas approaches. For Gwen Heard(ph) growing up in Galveston, Texas, June was the month.

Ms. GWEN HEARD: We used to look forward to Juneteenth. We didn't call it Juneteenth. We just said 19th of June. And friends would come from different parts of Texas and our house was always full of people because, you know, there weren't many hotels that would carry black people.

BATES: Mrs. Heard said that's when black folks crisscrossed the state to be with each other. It was a self-declared holiday to acknowledge June 19, 1865 - the day that slaves in the Port City of Galveston heard this life-altering announcement.

Unidentified Man: The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with the proclamation from the executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves...

BATES: Instead of protesting almost three extra years of servitude, Galveston freed men and women went to church to thank God. And then they got down to the business of celebrating. June 19th became an important day of commemoration. These days, June 19th has been abbreviated to Juneteenth.

Parties around the country today will feature table filled with barbecue, potato salad and coleslaw, all washed down with a tradition - red soda water. Gwen Heard doesn't know where red soda water originated, and it's been 65 years since she left Galveston as a teenager. But she can still remember the taste, even if her Mississippi-born husband Isaac doesn't share her affection for it.

Ms. HEARD: (Unintelligible) all the time, I want some soda water, and he didn't know what I was talking about. Yeah, we had red soda water and it was red too, you know, it was colored red.

BATES: What did it taste like?

Ms. HEARD: Taste like strawberry.

BATES: Jessica B. Harris is a food historian, cookbook author and the newly minted Ray Charles chair of African-American culinary history at Dillard University in New Orleans. Even she isn't all that clear on red soda water's origins.

Ms. JESSICA B. HARRIS (Dillard University): I really don't have a clue. I mean I've seen big old bottles in Texas supermarkets of Big Red, and I'm waiting till I go to a Juneteenth party where they serve it. I don't know that I'm quite getting ready to buy a big old liter jar.

BATES: Harris says at the time of the emancipation, soda pop was far more exotic than it is today. It was a special treat that the masses were just starting to enjoy in the mid 1860s. For freed slaves, red soda water was much more than a drink. It was a sign of upward mobility. Jessica Harris...

Ms. HARRIS: Well, today we might prefer to have lemonade. Lemonade was something you made. Something store-bought was something you had to have the money to go get.

BATES: Any red soda water can show up at the table, but the soda I heard people mention most frequently and that Jessica Harris referred to a moment ago is a drink called Big Red. It was born in a lab in Waco, Texas in the late 1930s. Unlike the red soda water of Gwen Heard's childhood, Big Red does not taste like strawberries.

But even the company's president, Mark Fowler, has a hard time describing exactly how it does taste to someone who hasn't experienced it.

Mr. MARK FOWLER (President, Big Red): But I will tell you the, you know, some of the aromatics that you pick up is gum. You do pick up gum and vanilla, and then a creamy taste.

BATES: Actually, Mr. Fowler thinks it has another familiar flavor.

Mr. FOWLER: To me, the beverage tastes like carbonated Juicy Fruit chewing gum.

BATES: My curiosity was killing me, so I bought a bottle, opened it up and had a sip. I thought it tasted like effervescent Robitussin. Apparently for people not weaned on it, Big Red is an acquired taste. But one that's caught on. The soda is a regional favorite that's now found in many parts of the country.

People mix it with everything from tequila to vanilla ice cream. Mixologists note: if you use Big Red instead of root beer in your ice cream float, your Brown Cow becomes a pink cow. In the end it doesn't matter whether you mix your red soda water or drink it straight, whether your Juneteenth libation of choice tastes like strawberries or carbonated Robitussin; the important thing to remember is to raise a glass of the red stuff today to tenacity and survival. And to the fact that Juneteenth is now an official state holiday in Texas.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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