GENE DEMBY, HOST:
What is good, y'all? This is Gene. And just a heads-up - this episode is about Juneteenth. (Laughter) I did not mean for that to sound like a disclaimer. Like, I was like, oh, hide your kids; we're about to talk about Juneteenth. Nothing like that, of course.
After we taped this episode, the U.S. Senate decided to vote to make Juneteenth a legal federal holiday, which is a big deal. And had we known that, the beginning of this episode would be very different. We would have spent the top talking about, you know, what it means for something like Juneteenth to be "legitimized" - I'm doing air quotes - "legitimized" by an institution like the U.S. Senate. Because if Juneteenth is fundamentally a celebration of liberation and emancipation and freedom, like, it's about to get rubber-stamped by an institution that was deeply invested in making sure that liberation and emancipation and freedom didn't happen. You know? So those are all questions that we don't get into this episode. But we wanted to let you know that we know that you know that this went down and that this episode does not get into that very much.
This episode is about Black foodways and how Juneteenth provides us a way to celebrate those foodways. But we will get to those big questions another time, just not in this episode. All right, on to the show.
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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
I'm Karen Grigsby Bates, sitting in for Shereen.
DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this, this is CODE SWITCH.
BATES: From NPR.
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BATES: Gene, the other day I was browsing through the Betty Crocker website.
DEMBY: As one does, I guess. What?
BATES: Stop laughing. Don't ask why. And...
BATES: ...I stumbled upon a 2017 article called "Juneteenth Celebration."
DEMBY: (Laughter) On the Betty Crocker website? Word? Really?
BATES: That very website, yes. It begins in typical cheery Betty fashion, (reading) Hooray for June 19. What better way to celebrate African American freedom and family than with a laid-back barbecue, picnic or outdoor party full of soul food favorites, old and new.
DEMBY: Hooray. OK. Questions, questions, questions - I have many.
BATES: I'll bet you do. But soon that really got me thinking about how food traditions are braided into so many aspects of African American culture and history, like, you know, our favorite - black-eyed peas.
DEMBY: Mmm hmm. Love black-eyed peas.
BATES: And to be fair to Ms. Crocker, she did start out her Juneteenth menu with a little history lesson about Juneteenth.
DEMBY: I am very curious. How did Betty and them describe this?
BATES: Well, they said - and I am reading this directly from them - (reading) the Emancipation Proclamation effectively freed American slaves in January of 1863, though in many cases this fantastic news did not reach the slaves themselves. Things stayed as they were in highly Confederate Texas in particular. It wasn't until more than two years later, in June of 1865, that union soldiers reached the far southern town of Galveston, Texas, and took control of the state, finally and truly freeing Texas slaves.
DEMBY: That is not a bad synopsis. Yeah, that's pretty much it.
BATES: It's pretty decent. But we can add more context. So Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, was a day of great jubilation in the now-freed population, obviously. And today, 49 states and the District of Columbia, Gene, recognize it as an official observance or holiday.
DEMBY: You said 49, so someone is missing from that number. Let's put them on blast. Which state does not observe Juneteenth?
BATES: Ah, talking with a math major. You are right.
BATES: South Dakota. And Hawaii's bill still needs to be signed by the governor, but it was passed.
DEMBY: Huh, OK.
BATES: By the way, I am curious, Gene. Did you grow up celebrating Juneteenth?
DEMBY: You know, KGB, I didn't. We had a lot of big Black festivals in Philly in the summertime, like Odunde, which is this, you know, gigantic festival that is literally around the corner from the house I grew up in. It's usually sometime in the second week of June - so like, you know, around the time of Juneteenth - you know, lots of big barbecues. But I didn't know Juneteenth. I didn't know it was a thing until, like, much later when my friend Erin (ph), who's from Dallas, told me that she had grew up celebrating Juneteenth. But how about you?
BATES: I didn't. As you know, I grew up in Connecticut. In fact, I don't think I even really learned about Juneteenth celebrations until I was in college - again, like you, with friends from Texas.
BATES: My family did observe New Year's Day, which we're going to talk about a little bit more later. Now a whole lot of corporations are acknowledging Juneteenth, Gene. Amazon encouraged employees to cancel all meetings and participate in a, quote, "a range of online learning opportunities" provided by the company.
DEMBY: Mmm hmm.
BATES: Musing over that. Nike declared Juneteenth an annual company holiday for its employees. All its U.S. stores will be closed. And our very own company, NPR, did the same last year and will again this year.
DEMBY: All right. So I mean, Nike, Amazon - you know, two gigantic companies that have had, let's say - how do we say this? - spotty...
DEMBY: ...Track records as it pertains to labor and compensation. It's just very sort of - I want to say - it's just kind - it's a little rich. I don't know how we're supposed to feel about this. And this is June, and we're also having conversations about Pride. Right? And there's a lot of conversations that sound like this - right? - about what the corporate embrace of Pride does to all these celebrations.
BATES: Exactly. And as Juneteenth has broadened, Gene, I've begun wondering if it's getting diluted by its very popularity. Like, if everybody is into it - everybody - does its original meaning just get lost? I wanted to find out more, so I started looking around for experts and found one. I sat down with author and food historian Rafia Zafar of Washington University in St. Louis. Rafia wrote a book called "Recipes For Respect: African American Meals And Meaning."
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BATES: It seems to me in the past couple of years anyway, that Juneteenth has sort of turned into, like...
RAFIA ZAFAR: It's a thing.
BATES: ...The Black equivalent of Cinco de Mayo. You know...
BATES: ...Everybody goes out and has a Juneteenth lunch...
ZAFAR: Yeah, mmm hmm.
BATES: ...Or a Juneteenth weekend. But it's not about the history that surrounds the food and maybe even birthed the food.
BATES: It's more about having a good time, you know, enjoying yourself, drinking, eating, being with your friends. Are you worried that Juneteenth itself may just get sort of deracinated into be another good-time day?
ZAFAR: Yeah. Well, you know what's interesting? I was actually - of course, I was reading more about Juneteenth because I knew we would be talking. And apparently, in the late 19th and early 20th century, African American newspapers, some of the journalists, were even saying, all people are doing is, like, partying and drinking red stuff (ph). I mean, so this kind of...
BATES: There's chicken bones on the lot (ph).
ZAFAR: Yeah, exactly. Right? And then the white folks are going to come and look at us. Right? And it's like - think of Zora Neale Hurston - my people, my people; my race, but not my taste; my skin folks, but not my kinfolks. Right? (Laughter). But Juneteenth was, you know, from June 19, 1865, General Granger, I think, in Galveston was - you know, he had three government orders. And one of them was Southerners - you know Texans, Louisianans, you guys have not freed slaves. But actually, January 1, 1863, was Emancipation Day. So you all are, like, 2 1/2 years late, and people are free. And you should hire them, not expect them to work for free.
So it - Juneteenth was in the midst or, say, amid the Reconstruction period. That was very much in people's minds. They knew exactly what Juneteenth was about. Right? But it's like a lot of holi (ph) - think of Memorial Day. Right? You know, Juneteenth, is that going to be something - I don't know - whether when - I don't know - kitchen appliances are on sale every Juneteenth? Or I - don't know - shoes or...
BATES: Yeah. It's a really different thing from, say, watch service on New Year's Eve...
BATES: ...Where people would go to church and wait until it's January 1 to be able to acknowledge this was the day our ancestors were freed.
ZAFAR: Exactly, exactly. I mean, watch night - was it, I think, Frederick Douglass was sitting up like everyone else saying, is this really going to happen? President Lincoln said it was going to happen. Is this really going to happen? And it did. So it becomes folded in, not just to the Methodist church, but to many churches that you stay up. It's that tradition that gets layered not just with the religious significance, but with a political and a cultural significance. So people still have watch night services. But they have perhaps fallen away, like Juneteenth, from sort of the political sort of antecedents or the political valence that was grafted onto what was, say, largely a religious or a cultural institution. Juneteenth is a Texas holiday, a Black Texas holiday. You know, migration brought it up to people. It waxed and waned.
But Emancipation Day was New Year's Day was the holiday - why everybody visits on New Year's Day, like, the importance of being able to visit, to be able - the importance of actually having your family around you because during...
BATES: Having agency over your own body.
ZAFAR: Exactly - because during this - during slavery, the period of enslavement, January 1 was Hiring Day. Right? So your husband could be hired out on some plantation where you wouldn't see him again. Maybe, if you were lucky, you might see him for a year. It might be the day that people were sold. It actually was known as Heartbreak Day because that was the day your sweetheart, your sister, your mother, people could be torn from you legally, and then you might or might not ever see them again. So New Year's Day, as a day of seeing family and friends, was its own commemoration of Black freedom, even though, again, it's like how the antecedents of holidays get diluted and sort of forgotten. But that's really what New Year's Day visiting is all about. I mean, it is Hoppin' John - right? - you're eating black-eyed peas and rice for good luck, having collard greens so you have money. But it's a holiday for just - you know, these days - right? - you put on a Crock-Pot of black-eyed peas, and you have your rice cooker going. And you're going to have people fold them together, and you have a hot sauce. But it's that ability to be with people that was not guaranteed.
BATES: So there's food culture. There's emancipation. What does Black food culture have to do with emancipation? What's the relationship?
ZAFAR: Well, I mean, again, I think often of January 1 - Right? - because - and the tradition of us celebrating New Year's Day, being able to provide food to people who are dropping in - right? - welcoming people. That's saying a lot. Right? And you use traditional foods. They signify enslavement. They signify the South. They signify African diasporic foodways. I mean, black-eyed peas are African. Collards may be - I think they're from Europe originally, the cabbage family. But they're, like, 200 different kinds of greens, so they were a kind of green that people of African descent sort of took on, like, hey, these are our greens. But the idea that there are certain foods that you can celebrate because you maybe can have a lot of them - maybe you don't - maybe when you make your collard greens during enslavement, you could only use, like, a little scrap. Right? But during freedom, you could put in a pig knuckle. Maybe you could even put in a nice juicy hambone left over from the smoked ham. Right? So it's traditional foods that then become and literally enriched - right? - by the addition of ingredients you might not have had access to, but enriched by the notion that you can offer second or third helpings. Right?
BATES: The abundance is the luxury.
ZAFAR: The abundance. The abundance itself is a luxury.
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DEMBY: All right. So this is not the point of this interview, Karen. But all this talk is making me real hungry. I want to cook something.
DEMBY: I mean, I'm going to just hop off the podcast real quick and make that happen.
BATES: Save me a bowl of black-eyed peas, please? And there's even more that'll get you in the mood to cook coming soon.
DEMBY: Stay with us, y'all.
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DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. And Karen, we're back with more of your talk with the food historian Rafia Zafar.
BATES: That's right. And if you know anything about the food of Juneteenth, there's probably one very specific question you want answered, Gene. I know I did.
ZAFAR: Why is everyone drinking red soda...
ZAFAR: ...Or pink lemonade? Or what is this red thing going on with Juneteenth? I mean, barbecue you can kind of get. Right, OK - barbecue, Texas. OK. But what's with the red? Well, there variety (ph). Now, some people say it's because in religious practice, they say in - among the Yoruba people, for one, like of various cultural and ethnic groups, red was - had spiritual significance in ceremonies. So red has this positive meaning to it. So if you have a red drink, it's, you know, propitious. It's good fortune. Other people say how the kola nut, as in Coca-Cola, but kola nuts could be used to keep the water from being bitter-tasting, so it was used. But - well, there are different varieties, I guess. So there were red ones. And then if you crush those, they tint the drink sort of a pink-red, so they think it could be from kola nuts. But there's also hibiscus. For those of us who are Red Zinger drinkers - like Celestial Seasonings or people who are from Jamaica.
BATES: The Caribbean, yeah.
ZAFAR: Right, Jamaica, the drink you get in Mexican restaurants, that's from hibiscus. Hibiscus, like kola, is indigenous to Africa, to the continent. And that also comes up red when you make a drink out of it. So there are a variety. You know, so people say, well, it's from, you know, religious practices. It's from, you know, botanical ancestry. Some people also have said, well, it also represents the sacrifice, the blood...
BATES: The blood of the ancestors, yeah.
ZAFAR: ...That was shed of our ancestors.
BATES: Oh, thank you for that because I have wondered for many, many years. And it isn't answered by seeing big jugs of, like, Big Red...
ZAFAR: Yeah (laughter).
BATES: ...On the grocery store shelves, which...
ZAFAR: I know.
BATES: ...If you've never drunk it, I would not advise it.
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BATES: You know, one of the things I was thinking about in reading your book was that - the sort of dilemma that people - cooks had during slavery...
ZAFAR: Mmm hmm.
BATES: ...That they're making these meticulous dishes that they're forbidden to eat.
BATES: But they can taste it to make sure...
BATES: ...That it meets the master's or the mistress's specifications. But they're not allowed to actually sit down and have a dish of their own.
ZAFAR: Harriet Jacobs records that - you know, people spitting in the pots so that the people who were forced to work with them couldn't even eat the food or share the food because...
BATES: Rather than...
ZAFAR: ...They would be so repulsed by it.
BATES: Yeah. Rather than - they'd rather waste it than allow...
ZAFAR: Than share it.
BATES: ...People that they consider beneath them to enjoy the leftovers.
BATES: So there's that. I'm thinking immediately after emancipation, you could eat what you want, but you didn't have any money to basically buy the things you needed. So you were maybe tasting freedom because this was your little patch of earth or what you could pull up, and you were eating a lot of what we would call now, I guess, foraged materials...
ZAFAR: Ay (ph).
BATES: ...Not necessarily cultivating materials.
ZAFAR: That's why I'm a George Washington Carver fan.
BATES: (Laughter) Yes.
ZAFAR: I mean, I'm a Carver woman. Like, yay, George Washington Carver was talking about gleaning and composting long before it was a household word.
BATES: He was ahead of his time.
ZAFAR: Yeah, yeah.
BATES: So when I think of the story of what Black people have eaten on this continent through this century, you know, through this - through our history, what we were allowed to eat, what we could physically eat, it seems like this is closely tied to our status, our changing status as Americans.
ZAFAR: Mmm hmm. But what's interesting, it's like, you know - that often that what we had to eat ends up being what we crave. Right? The food of poverty is what people, like - you know, that becomes our comfort food. Right? I mean, so maybe people who don't need to buy pickles and red Kool-Aid still eat it. If you ever been in Atlanta, there's that chain called This Is It. It's a fast-food place that has chitlins and offal - right? - O-F-F-A-L.
BATES: Both senses of the word (laughter).
ZAFAR: I read about it in the Times maybe 15 years ago, and I cut it out. And I tell my students about it because the reporter described seeing people drive up in Mercedes and, you know, they're doctors, they're attorneys, they're, you know, corporate workers. And it's because their families don't want the smell of chitlins. They don't want pig feet. They just reject them. But it's what they - you know, it's like sometimes you just want - well, if you're in St. Louis, sometimes you just want a barbecued snoot.
BATES: Cookbooks. I want to ask you about cookbooks before we left because...
BATES: ...You do - you have some originals. I have those cookbooks, too.
ZAFAR: You do. I know.
BATES: I do.
BATES: So I have a lot of cookbooks. I was happy to hear that you feel like cookbooks don't necessarily have to be cooked from, but maybe read, like novels or...
ZAFAR: Read like...
BATES: ...Anthropological treatises.
ZAFAR: History - they're histories.
BATES: That's true.
ZAFAR: They're memoirs. I mean, Vertamae's a memoir, right? I mean, it's a memoir with recipes. So she was doing that before the whole vogue. Right. As we say in literary studies, it was a bricolage with multiple genres. Right? It was epistolary. It was autobiographical. It was a cookbook, which is now - cookbooks are - have a Library of Congress classification as a genre now. You know, some cookbooks are really to cook from. Some cookbooks are to get ideas from.
BATES: So you mention in your book a woman who has written a cookbook who is very specific to say that she is the mother of 11 children. She not only birthed them, but raised them. Why was it important? Why do you guess it was important to her to tell us this? And also, how usual was that to have 11 children and be able to raise them all if you were Black and female in that period?
ZAFAR: If you were white and female - the infant mortality in the 19th century, regardless of whether you were white or Black, was extremely high. For African American women who were held captive, who were enslaved, it's not just a question of your children surviving; it's were you able to see them? Right? Earlier we were talking about the significance of of January 1. Right? Those could be the days where that could be the last time you see your 12-year-old because he's being hired out or your 14-year-old is pretty, and she's being sent down the river - right? - to be working as a sex worker in one of the New Orleans bordellos. Right? So those are very sad.
But so - Abby Fisher, it's kind of a humble brag. She talks about making essentially infant formula, and she says, I have - I know this is good because I have birthed 11 children and raised them all. And that's the thing that really stuck with me. How many enslaved women or even women, say, who were free Blacks could say that they raised all of their children? This is saying something. You know, it's the story behind a story. Did that mean she was a favored slave? Did it mean she really maybe had been freed as a young woman? What kind of - you know, like, incredible luck that was, that you could have - give birth to 11 children and see every one of them grow up, at least until what was seen as more or less adulthood, teenage years. That's kind of an - it's incredible. So it's saying not only is she a super duper cook and she knows what she's doing, but she's also this wonderful mother, and she takes pleasure in being a mother and in raising - being able to raise your children as a Black woman. So she's saying this in the, you know, in the recon (ph) - you know, in late 19th century is pretty fantastic.
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BATES: So what do you think we ought to take away as we maybe dip into a cookbook or two over this weekend, if that's going to be our Juneteenth activity? What do we learn about African Americans through these books that we might not have known before?
ZAFAR: Well, it depends. Right? I think a lot of us knew, I think people, the sort of the the richness, the depth of the love, the depth of commitment to one another, the depth of commitment to building community. And it's not just about surviving. It's about survivance - right? - the Native American term. But it's about persistence. It's about loving and laughing and keeping together around a plate. Right? And some of those plates signify the past, and some of them are new. And then probably today those two strands - (unintelligible) - are we sure which is from which right? Like, where are these particular dishes coming from? But I think dishes actually tell us so much about hundreds of years of history and persistence and - I don't know - just the joy - over it all, just the joy of being together.
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BATES: That was author and food historian Rafia Zafar. But that is not the end of our show, at least not quite yet. Gene, after all this talk about food, I didn't think it was right to leave you or listeners without an actual recipe.
DEMBY: I am excited about this 'cause I was very hungry. I was like, OK, this is all too abstract. Tell me about the food itself. I want actual black-eyed peas in actual pots, et cetera.
BATES: All right. Well, for this, we had no choice but to talk to a Texan. So let me introduce you, Gene, to...
CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS: Christopher Williams. I'm the chef and owner of Lucille's restaurant and the founder of Lucille's 1913, which is our nonprofit, which to date has served up over 280,000 meals to those in need from Harris and Fort Bend County.
BATES: That last part is relevant because for Chris, Juneteenth was never just a celebration in the traditional sense.
WILLIAMS: Juneteenth for us, just like most holidays - and this is, I guess, really ingrained in our familial approach - is 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.
BATES: Christopher shared with us a recipe for watermelon salad, which he says incorporates the color red, like the soda water that we were talking about earlier, to represent the blood that was shed by our ancestors. So to make this salad...
WILLIAMS: You're going to take that fresh-cut watermelon, and you're going to throw it in the mixing bowl. And you're going to add the baby arugula and the thinly sliced red onions. We like to have them iced down in ice water because it takes a little bit of that pungency off of them and keeps them nice and crisp. So throw those in there as much as you want. I'm a huge arugula fan. And then you're going to take your vinaigrette, which could either be a strawberry-jalapeno vinaigrette made with a little bit of rice wine vinegar, olive oil, fresh strawberries and jalapenos. If you like it a little bit spicier, just use one serrano, a little bit of salt. Blend that up. And then you're going to just pour that over the salad, toss it. You're going to present it in the bowl, and you can top it off either with goat cheese or feta cheese. And then for a little crunch factor, we add honey roasted pistachios. And you can enjoy.
DEMBY: That sounds really good. I mean, like, really, really good. I would forego onions 'cause you know, Karen, I don't mess with onions at all - at all. But that sounds really, really good.
BATES: You're right, Gene. It's delicious. I actually made it and had it for breakfast today without the onions 'cause I couldn't find them this morning.
DEMBY: But you had the honey roasted pistachios on (unintelligible)?
BATES: I kind of rifted. I had some chunks of almonds, so I toasted them and drizzled them with a little bit of honey and a little bit of cayenne to make them spicy. And I tossed them in there. So I had the crunch and the cream of the feta and the sort of deep deliciousness of the watermelon and the peppery spiciness of the arugula and with the strawberry vinaigrette sort of pulling it all together. I liked it so much, Gene, I'm going to have it for lunch, too (laughter).
DEMBY: (Laughter) I'm not mad at that. I want some now. Save me some.
BATES: I'll trade for a bowl of black-eyed peas.
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DEMBY: All right. That is our show. Our guests were Rafia Zafar. She's a historian at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of "Recipes For Respect." Christopher Williams is not the singer, but the chef and owner of Lucille's restaurant in Houston. You can read more about him on our blog later this week. And don't forget to subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on social media. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. Follow me at @GeeDee215 and KGB @KarenBates - all one word.
BATES: This episode was produced by Brianna Scott and Summer Thomad and edited by Leah Donnella. There is original episode artwork by LA Johnson. Special thanks to Andrea Henderson, a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio and our very favorite Texan, for connecting us to chef Chris. And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Jess Kung, Alyssa Jeong Perry, Kumari Devarajan, Natalie Escobar, Steve Drummond and Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. Our intern is Carmen Molina Acosta. Shereen will be back soon.
I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.
DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all. And happy Juneteenth.
BATES: Happy Juneteenth, Gene. See ya.
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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Hey, hey. It's Shereen popping in to tell you what we've got coming soon on CODE SWITCH.
If you're the lightest shade of brown...
MARIA GARCIA: I received compliments from my family for my light skin.
MERAJI: ...Is it cool to call yourself a person of color?
GARCIA: It does not feel right for me to identify as a woman of color.
MARIA HINOJOSA: I absolutely want to own my space as a woman of color, as a feminist woman of color. I'll go even further.
MERAJI: In the next installment in our series of conversations about Latina, Latino, Latinx, Latine identity....
HINOJOSA: I don't use Hispanic.
MERAJI: I talk with Maria Hinojosa, the host of "Latino USA," and Maria Garcia, the host of the "Anything For Selena" podcast. They're both immigrants from Mexico who've both thought about the way their lighter skin color plays a role in how they choose to identify.
GARCIA: I can't deny that whiteness has favored me.
MERAJI: That's coming soon. And in case you missed it, listen to the kick-off episode of our Latinidad series, my conversation with The Kid Mero.
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THE KID MERO: My mom pulled me out of public school, put me in a Catholic school there was a lot of Irish kids in.
THE KID MERO: And they used to be like, yo, you're Black. That's very confusing to, like, a 7-year-old. Like, yes. But then it's like, I'm also Dominican. I speak Spanish.
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