Before President Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday this week, the day — which memorializes the day in 1865 that enslaved Texans found out they had been freed — was mostly celebrated by Black folks in Texas. So we decided to talk to Christopher Williams, a Houston-based chef. Williams says people who are newly learning about Juneteenth can partake in the food and traditions, but should first and foremost acknowledge what the day represents, "before you throw that hot dog on the grill or whatever you're going to do. Know what this is really about."
Endowing food with deeper meaning is Williams' bread and butter. He has culinary entrepreneurship and community service in his DNA. The great-grandson of a pioneering Texas businesswoman, Williams feeds a lot of Houston's foodie crowd at his restaurant Lucille's, in the city's Museum District. That's where people come to meet and greet over plates of what Lucille's advertises as "well-refined Southern cuisine, defined by history." It's where then-candidate Joe Biden came last summer to meet George Floyd's family after Floyd's homegoing service.
In addition to feeding foodies, Williams decided it was important to help feed people who couldn't afford fancy restaurant meals. So he started Lucille's 1913, a non-profit that provides meals for people in underserved communities in Houston, and helps train people for jobs in the food industry.
Earlier this week, I spoke to Williams about the origins of Lucille's, the nonprofit that grew from it, and his mixed feelings about how to commemorate Juneteenth. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
I understand you and your brother Ben, who is also in the business, chose the name and place of your restaurant, Lucille's. You were an experienced chef in search of a restaurant, and you located it in an old house?
Yes. The house was built in 1923. And it was actually my older brother who suggested, "let's name it after Great-Grandma." And I said, "that's perfect," because it gave us a story, and it gave me a point of focus for our style of service and what we would actually serve.
You also have a nonprofit arm of things, which you named Lucille's 1913. Why?
The reason I named it "1913" is because I was trying to triangulate when exactly our great-grandmother, Lucille, started her business. We knew that it was right around the time she got married. And we also knew that she started her business for the exact same reasons that we did, which is that she knew she was a master of her craft and she was trying to find a way to better her community.
[Editor's note: In addition to being a home economist and educator, Lucille B. Smith created a hot roll mix that was sold in grocery stores, and ran a barbeque business and store in Fort Worth. She cooked for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, and received a thank-you note from then-President Lyndon B. Johnson for sending Christmas fruitcakes to servicemen during the Vietnam War.]
Your great-grandmother mastered the perfect quick hot roll. And you followed in her footsteps as a master chef. That's come in handy in the past couple years, right?
Well I am by no means a master chef—but I know how to cook and I know how to do a lot of cooking. And the pandemic really does shine the light on these food insecurities that have been here for ages. And so we just started to act. What I didn't expect was for her name and her legacy to really create and drive the ethos to how we do business. It's a very community-first approach that I guess is in our blood and in our entrepreneurial spirit.
As far as we know, Juneteenth was first observed in Texas, and while it's become nationally known in the past several years, it was thought of for a long time as a Texas holiday. You're from Houston. Did your family observe Juneteenth?
To be completely honest, Juneteenth is just like most holidays for us. This is, I guess, really ingrained in our familial approach; it's just a day of service. So it wasn't a day for us to go out and have a party in the park or whatever. It was a day for us to go serve our community. Juneteenth has always been work for me.
What do you think of the whole notion of the holiday, though?
I just drove from Houston to Halifax, Nova Scotia, all the way up the East Coast. And I'm looking at our beautiful, beautiful country. It's gorgeous! But at the same time, with every breath that I have taken at the beauty, it's followed by another breath, thinking about the horror of the history of this country and how it was only great for some, not most — especially not African Americans. So it's a tough thing for me because it's like, why? Why do we need to celebrate an awakening of decency? You know what I mean? The psychological chains of slavery are just so deep. I'm still struggling with what is the right way to celebrate. And I don't know if "celebrate" is the word for it, honestly.
Yeah, I think that we could call it a day of acknowledgement. But I don't believe it's a day of celebration. Personally, I'm not comfortable with celebrating it. I'm definitely comfortable with the acknowledgement of it.
As someone who comes from the state where Juneteenth began, any advice for people who do want to note the day in some way?
I'd say at least know the history. Tell me what it means before we get into the food and before you throw that hot dog on the grill or whatever you're going to do. Know what this is really about.
Is there a particular item on the Lucille's menu that is Juneteenth-appropriate?
One of our dishes that we've been serving since we opened up is our watermelon salad. It has that red component that most people have always associated with the holiday [representing the blood that was shed by enslaved Africans]. So that's just a simple watermelon salad with fresh baby arugula and a strawberry-jalapeño vinaigrette, with a little bit of feta cheese, and maybe some roasted pistachios and red onions.
Lucille's Watermelon Salad
4 cups fresh cut watermelon
2 cups baby arugula
½ c thinly sliced red onion
½ c roasted shelled pistachios
½ c mild feta cheese
6 fresh hulled strawberries
¼ c fresh lemon juice
½ c olive oil
Salt to taste
1 t sugar, depending on the sweetness of the fruit
For the vinaigrette:
In a blender, combine the strawberry, jalapeño and lemon juice. Puree until smooth. While the machine is on, slowly add all of the olive oil. Add salt and sugar to taste. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except pistachios. Pour in the vinaigrette and toss until the cheese starts to bind with the leaves. Separate into four portions and top with crushed pistachios.