Taste of Juneteenth

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African-American calendars are slightly different. Along with Christmas and Memorial Day, Easter and the Fourth of July, they include such specifically African-American Holidays as Kwanzaa in December; Pinkster Day, a holdover from Dutch Pentecost celebrations; and Juneteenth, the Emancipation celebration that ushers in the summer season. Juneteenth’s genesis goes back to the days of enslavement, and thoughts of the day the enslaved referred to as the day of Jubilee.

It began in whispers on Sept. 22, 1862, as a trickle, titillation, a corner of hope. Word slowly spread. Overheard by house servants plying heavy silver ladles and proffering bone china platters, it was passed along in unheated cabins where moss and rags plugged up the holes to keep out the winds of the upcoming winter. It was whispered over bowed backs in cotton fields, murmured in tobacco barns among the leathery leaves. It was shared in the boiling houses over vats of steaming cane juice: President Lincoln had issued a proclamation that gave the seceding states 100 days to abandon their pro slavery positions. Could it be?

Word spreads across the South

Then, on Jan. 1 1963, the day of the Jubilee finally arrived. As magnificent as the tidings were, news of the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t travel with the speed of today’s modern information. Instead it made its way slowly across the American South. Many plantation owners felt it best to withhold the information until crops had been gathered in. Yet, slowly but surely like a rising tide that enveloped the land with the sureness of inevitability, the word passed through the tobacco fields of Virginia, through the rice-growing marshlands of the Carolina and Georgia low country, through the cotton fields of Mississippi and Georgia and out to the indigo plantations of the Sea Islands where Africa’s descendants had been able to maintain their ways. It sped along the cane breaks on Louisiana’s sugar plantations, where some of the slave owners were black themselves. Finally it made its way into the hinterlands of Texas.

“The people of Texas are informed in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”  So read Gen. Gordon Granger from the balcony of the Ashton Villa in Galveston on June 19, 1865. The day of Jubilee had finally arrived. It had taken its time getting to Texas, but two years, six months and 19 days after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, those who had worked in slavery’s fields could finally lay their burden down. As the word spread throughout the state, a flurry of spontaneous and joyous celebrations broke out that are the ancestors of today’s Juneteenth festivities.

Black Texans celebrated their red-letter day with a fervor that made the holiday a second Christmas. The celebrations grew and flourished. They included entertainment ranging from heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving offered up by preachers in sonorous tones to cake walks and parades with lots of high stepping horses. New clothes were the thing at celebrations where the survivors of this American  holocaust were often the guests of honor.

A focus on the food

The backbone of all of these festivities, though, is the table. Those who had toiled in sorrow’s kitchen commemorated their liberty with some serious high-on-the-hog eating. Picnics and barbecues were the hallmarks of the festivities, with tables covered with bright cloths offering specialties like barbecued ribs and fried chicken, along with variations on summer produce like black-eyed peas, peaches and watermelon.

Today’s festivities are more likely to include beauty competitions and baseball games than the sermonizing of the past. The uniquely Texan holiday and the emancipation that it honors, though, has struck a chord with African-Americans around the country and increasing numbers north and south are celebrating Juneteenth in a variety of ways. The date became one of Texas’ 14 official holidays in 1979. All of the varied celebrations involve a shared meal of some sort, more often than not a barbecue. I like to think that somewhere on the table is the black-eyed pea dish that Texans call Texas caviar.

Texas Caviar

Ingredients

3 (16-ounce) cans black-eyed peas
½ cup minced yellow bell pepper
½ cup minced red bell pepper
½ cup minced scallions, including the green part
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried cumin
1 teaspoon minced jalapeno chile, or to taste (Use minced habanero, if you dare for extra bite.)

Directions

  1. Drain the black-eyed peas and place them in a non-reactive bowl.
  2. Add the remaining ingredients and stir well to make sure that all of the ingredients are mixed.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least five hours. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Jessica B. Harris, a contributor to Zester Daily, is the author of the new book, “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America,” and 11 other books on African-American foodways.

Photo: Texas caviar. Credit: Jessica B. Harris

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