3 ways to celebrate Juneteenth in Tennessee with food, family & history

Bianca Morton holding strawberries on the vine.

Most Tennesseans know Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery, but beyond that, some of us may need help filling in the picture.

Bianca Morton outside the Nashville Food Project

Bianca Morton outside the Nashville Food Project

“Juneteenth is essentially the Black community’s Fourth of July — our Independence Day,” says Bianca Morton, chef director of the Nashville Food Project, a local organization dedicated to bringing people together to grow, cook and share nourishing food.

“Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, which was the day the last slaves were finally freed,” says Morton. “That’s several years after the Emancipation Proclamation became law. Most people — including many people of color — don’t know it took that long for slavery to actually end. It’s great to see Juneteenth finally getting some recognition, in the Black community and beyond.”

Morton didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth, which is another reason she’s excited to bridge that gap in her family and community.

What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth is the oldest national celebration of the end of slavery in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, a Union General rode into Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African Americans that the Civil War had ended and they were free.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation became law in 1863, many places were still under confederate control, which is why it took more than 2 years for 250,000-plus Texan slaves to learn their freedom had been secured. The occasion has been known as Juneteenth — a combination of “June” and “19” — for more than 150 years.

What’s the significance of red foods and Juneteenth?

“Everybody has their own interpretation,” says Morton. “For some people, the color red signifies the blood shed during slavery. For others, it’s one of the colors of African heritage.

Some experts say that red beverages are symbolic of West African tribes (Asante, Yoruba) that were forced into slavery and whose customs included animal blood offerings to ancestors on special occasions. Today, they say the color symbolizes strength and resilience.

“Honestly, sometimes I also think it’s a little like making fun of ourselves, too. When people talk about ‘red drink,’ I always think, ‘Red is not a flavor!’” says Morton, laughing. “But when we take our own lingo and traditions and even stereotypes and turn them into something we can be proud of, that’s emblematic to me of what Juneteenth is about.”

3 ways to celebrate Juneteenth

“As I said, I didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth, so I’m starting new traditions for my kids,” says Morton. “I want to give them information that makes sense on their level but still teaches them why this day is significant.”

1. Teach (and learn!) something

Start with flashcards or a trivia game. Ask family members age-appropriate questions about African-American history, keep score and give a prize to the winning team. Focus on making it a learning opportunity and a starting point for conversation.

“I got the idea when I asked my 14-year-old son who we celebrate on Christmas and he answered, ‘St. Nick?’” says Morton, laughing. “But it made me realize that we need to be intentional in the messages behind our celebrations. The Fourth of July should be about more than fireworks, and Juneteenth should be about more than red food.”

2. Take a field trip 

Another way to explain the significance of slavery is to show kids what their ancestors’ lives would have looked like.

“My dad grew up in West Tennessee, and his relatives took us to an old plantation where their great-grandparents worked the cotton fields,” says Morton. “They talked about how, even just a few generations back, their grandmother had them out in the field right as the sun cracks up. Once you were outside, you were out there until you were done for the day. There were no lunch breaks!”

Physically going to a place is a concrete way to show what historical lives looked like, says Morton, to both kids and adults.

“It’s important to understand what the people who came before us had to live through, and the humility they had to have. It’s something to be proud of. We’re still not where we should be, but their work wasn’t in vain. And it makes those strawberries at the cookout later taste a lot better!”

If you don’t have access to your own family tour guide, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to explore your heritage wherever you are:

3. Cook your story

“What better way is there to tell a story than through food?” asks Morton. “The best part of community is bringing everyone together, and food does it better than anything else.”

Focus on seasonal food

Summer in Tennessee is beautiful and bountiful,” says Morton, “and the African-American story traditionally revolved around eating what was in season. I love taking it back to that by focusing on what’s fresh and ripe, and talking about the importance of eating seasonally with my kids.”

Check out this list of produce that’s in peak season in June.

“Personally, my kids love a kale and strawberry smoothie,” says Morton. “One of the benefits of having a mom who’s a chef is being exposed to healthy foods early, but honestly, all kids like it because all you taste is the strawberries.”

Eat the food of enslaved people

Another Juneteenth tradition is eating the foods enslaved people would have eaten in remembrance.

In Tennessee, the rations of enslaved people would have likely consisted of:

  • Cornmeal
  • Pork
  • Greens (collards, beets, kale, dandelion, purslane)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Black-eyed peas
  • Turnips
  • Molasses

Enslaved people needed to consume a high-calorie diet in order to perform exhaustive physical labor everyday. So they often breaded meat and fish with cornmeal, fried foods and fortified vegetables with meat — putting pork in collard greens, making one-pot meals such as stew — to maximize their energy. Eventually, this style of cooking was adopted into Southern culture as “soul food.”

Enjoy red food and drink

For Morton, Juneteenth staples include watermelon, peaches, tomatoes and strawberries — all of which happen to feature the signature Juneteenth red.

“But let’s be honest: We’re also having red velvet cake,” says Morton, laughing. “You deserve something sweet after all that learning!”

When it comes to “red drink,” Morton is quick to remind people that there are more interesting and nutritious options than powdered drink mixes. Make lemonade sweetened with red fruits or tea from plants that originated in Africa. Hibiscus, for example, is a dried flower that’s popular in Mexican cooking and makes a beautiful, deep-red tea that’s packed with vitamin C.

Eat at Black-owned businesses and consider your community

Don’t feel like cooking? Take Juneteenth as another opportunity to support Black-owned businesses in your community. Eat at a Black-owned restaurant, shop at a Black-owned store or visit a market that specializes in African foods or goods.

What’s important, says Morton, is finding ways to make Juneteenth matter to you and your family.

“With so much happening around the world and this country, Juneteenth is a reminder to take stock,” she says. “We’re working through big problems like systematic racism and basic human rights. The best way to do that is to ask ourselves: ‘What am I doing to make somebody else’s life better?’ Thinking about your fellow man is a lesson we can all take the time to learn.”

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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