Food, Friends, and Tradition: Juneteenth Is a Reason to Gather

To celebrate Juneteenth is to recognize African Americans' resilience, creativity, and beauty.

My ancestral home is Detroit. A seat of freedom, the last stop on the Underground Railroad, and a Great Migration destination for Black people fleeing racist totalitarian regimes, my hometown is also a heart of art, manufacturing, music, and culture.

Black Americans' contributions to societywere an everyday part of my upbringing and education. For as long as I can remember, I've known there were Texans who remained enslaved long after the Emancipation Proclamation. But it was only while living in Minnesota in the mid-90s that I learned that there were Juneteenth celebrations to commemorate the end of U.S. slavery. I attended a small gathering given at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where the handful of Black students and professors gathered to share a meal, to enjoy each other's company—and acknowledge their existence.

I found this act of celebration moving and inspiring.

juneteenth gathering in backyard
Courtesy of Jamila Robinson

While we barbecue and launch fireworks for Independence Day, until recently, there was no formal acknowledgment of Emancipation, highlighting the inconsistency of 'freedom' on July 4. But with the passing of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, the entire country can acknowledge and embrace the jazz, style, dance, and foodways that emerged from our existence. To celebrate Juneteenth is to recognize African Americans' resilience, creativity, and beauty, qualities that shape American culture.

glasses of a pink cocktail
Courtesy of Jamila Robinson

Juneteenth has become a staple of my many summer parties, one where I bring my friends of all backgrounds together to honor the resilience of our enslaved ancestors, families, and compatriots.

I once turned to books like ($46, Amazon) by the late B. Smith to help shape my commemorations, and I learned the importance of traditional dishes—often red in color, like red velvet cake and hot links that mark the African American culinary journey. More recently, I've turned to Toni Tipton-Martin's seminal cookbook ($20,) for recipes like hibiscus tea and spicy grilled shrimp.

whole grilled fish
Courtesy of Jamila Robinson

While many Juneteenth dishes are rooted in Southern traditions, African Americans migrated to all corners of the country. Those flavors, from the oysters of the mid-Atlantic to the jambalayas and gumbos of Louisiana, are also worthy of tributes. Over the years, I've adapted my Juneteenth table to reflect the regions where I have lived. The steamed crab doused in Old Bay, and whole red snapper grilled with lime and harissa are inspired by the East Coast. My Midwest background comes through in fried corn with red bell peppers and sugar snap peas,and cherry pies from fruit grown in the western part of my state.

woman serving food
Courtesy of Jamila Robinson

History and tradition are on the table, too. The recipes James Hemings, the chef enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, brought from France for ice cream and mac-and-cheese are foundational to the American culinary landscape, and the latter is an essential Black celebration dish. For my Juneteenth dessert, I make batches of ice cream, rich with berries, rippled with caramel, or dotted with vanilla beans and cherries. This honors Hemings and my grandmother who taught me to churn ice cream by hand on the back porch of her Michigan home.

After a year of social distancing and separation, I called up some friends from all over the country to reunite and to bask in the joy of Juneteenth. We plan to celebrate our history, families, resistance, and all the parts of the United States that we call home. Here's what we're planning on having, starting with my recipe for Juneteenth Ice Cream.

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Juneteenth Ice Cream

For celebrations, I make batches of fresh ice cream customized for the occasion. For Junetheeth, I'm giving the custard base that essential red hue with strawberries and raspberries. I add a pinch of beet powder to give the color a bit of extra brightness.

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Paper Plane Cocktail

"The Paper Plane is great because it has familiar and not-so-familiar ingredients," says Mike Jordan, a drinks writer based in New Orleans. A sweet and sour bourbon cocktail will always be universal, but the amaro and Aperol give it a distinction that feels like a new experience for anyone enjoying it for the first time. "It's balanced, and a bit bittersweet, but accessible enough that any decent bartender, including you, can make it and use it to tell a forward-leaning story," he shares. "And we could all use one of those as we get back into the groove of humanity this year. Cheers to brighter years ahead."

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Mini Cherry Cobblers

Cookbook author Vallery Lomas is planning to make a cherry dessert. "Is there a better summer treat than a cherry pie? And at any party, there are some people who want more cobbler than fruit," she says. "With these individual pies, everyone is happy."

Buy It: Life Is What You Bake It ($18, Target)

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Southern Favorites

John-John Williams VI, culture critic for the Baltimore Sun, is serving baked mac-and-cheese. "It's a recipe I have perfected over the years. It's a crowd favorite and it feeds a lot of people. I would also bring my mini shrimp po'boy sandwiches. It's a nod to my mother's New Orleans roots," he shares. "I would also bring my soul rolls, which I serve with a soy, brown sugar, and ginger dipping sauce. It's an exciting way to sneak in collard greens, and convenient to eat if you have to stand up."

Related: Get the Free Juneteenth Recipe Cards

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