Cooking My Way Home For Juneteenth
I’ve never cooked soul food before. Juneteenth was the perfect reason to try it — with the help of my elders.
I’ve never really celebrated Juneteenth. The last time I noted the holiday was when the Black company I worked for hired a clueless white man as my supervisor who then, at their request, turned around and laid me off on Juneteenth — an apt day to get off a plantation, I guess!
My Virginia and North Carolina-rooted family has chosen the Fourth of July as our time to celebrate and gather together down in Roxboro, NC on our organic family farm, Abanitu. It's not because we believe in the lies America tells itself about liberty, justice or anything else; we just take advantage of the long weekend.
But this Juneteenth is hitting different. Maybe it’s because a year of quarantine (yes, I stayed in the house for well over a year!) has me longing for tradition. Maybe it’s because it’s 20-damn-21 and we’re still not free. Instead of abolishing police, prisons, and capitalism — the institutions keeping us in chains to this day — Congress is playing in our face by making Juneteenth a national holiday at the same time states are making it illegal to teach why we celebrate Juneteenth in the first place. I know freedom cannot be individualized; if one of us ain't free, none of us can be. But in this painfully frustrating time, I’d hoped that maybe finding connection with my ancestors and elders on this holiday through cooking would at least give me strength to keep chipping away at our chains.
Before this year, I’d never appreciated cooking as a liberating experience. Always prioritizing rest and ease, I am the takeout queen. When it comes to cooking at family gatherings, I am Bird in the movie Soul Food, politely volunteering to help cook just so an elder can say, “That’s okay, baby,” and I can happily go back to watching TV until dinner is ready and I can join the clean-up crew when it’s over.
"Trauma has never been our only inheritance."
When the viral meme blew up on Twitter of that random man crying about Black women who refuse to “[learn] from mom how to cook” (“We’re losing recipes!” he yelled in distress), I had a hearty laugh. While I’ve always appreciated and respected the women in my family who do the majority of the cooking, I resented the expectation that I should know how to cook since I’m a woman. I’d rather be the woman who makes men cry about it on Twitter. But early in June, I had a revelation; with my family far away on the opposite coast and my ancestors beyond the veil, cooking could be a way to bring us all together, wrap myself up in their love, and give mine back to them.
This revelation sparked, as most of my revelations do, while watching Netflix. What captured my heart was the new, deeply emotional docuseries, High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America, which follows chef Stephen Satterfield as he traces the roots of Black American cooking traditions from the shores of West Africa to the Carolinas, up the East Coast and down to the south. There’s even a Juneteenth episode centering Black Texan cuisine.
Adapted from culinary historian Jessica B. Harris’ book of the same name, Satterfield's series starts in Benin, the place where, according to my DNA test, 14% of my ancestors are from. Walking with his mentor Harris through the Dantokpa Market, dining on local cuisine, pointing out the origin and difference between the sweet potato and the yam and finding the clear similarities in Black American food, Satterfield finally breaks down in uncontrollable sobs in Ouidah, near the road where many of our enslaved ancestors walked to their doom, laying the path for our future.
"We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel, like love and God."
But as I always say, and this series highlights, trauma has never been our only inheritance. The joy of our food is not just about resilience or ingenuity with the enslaver’s scraps. The history of our people is about being in relationship with the earth and all creatures, using every part of the animals we killed for food. What the enslaver, in his ignorance and wastefulness, dismissed as scraps, we had been skilled at making into culinary feasts for generations.
"We call our food soul food," culinary historian Michael Twitty says in the beginning of the second episode. "We are the only people who named our cuisine after something invisible that you could feel, like love and God — something completely transcendental. It's about a connection between us and our dead, and us and those who are waiting to be born."
In the second episode, to my complete shock, Satterfield sits down for a farm-to-table dinner next to my Uncle Coy, the steward of our family farm! “Your turnip greens have transported me back in time,” my uncle says to the evening’s chef Gabrielle Carter at the Apex, NC event. “They are the closest, in terms of taste, that I’ve had since childhood, of greens cooked this way.” I was suddenly determined to make my first pot of greens and to make them like my grandmother’s. Juneteenth would be the perfect time to try it out — though I would spare any guests for this dry run, in case my freedom meal wound up tasting like oppression.
Deciding on the rest of the menu was simple. For Juneteenth, people usually cook fried chicken, mac and cheese, sweet potato, cornbread, and a lot of red stuff — like BBQ, watermelon, strawberry soda, and red velvet cake — to represent the struggle of our ancestors. Along with the greens, I wanted to make my grandpa’s famous cornbread, some fried chicken, mac and cheese, and a baked sweet potato like my mom told me she used to have when she was little. When I called my Aunt Paulette up to hear if she had any favorite dishes from her childhood, she told me that my grandma used to love to make a strawberry pie. That would do just fine for my red dessert. She emailed me the recipe. I’d finish it off with a watermelon vodka concoction for my red drank. Adorned with my dashiki apron from SoulPhoodie, I’d set the table for my first Juneteenth.
First, I had to find out what made Gabrielle’s greens so transcendent. “What did she put in those greens that made them taste like grandma’s?” I asked my dad’s older brother over the phone. “I didn’t ask her,” he said. “But you could taste the love.”
For the rest of the ingredients, I went to my mom. I’d helped her cut and clean greens plenty of times before, but always under her watchful eye. I decided to replicate that the best I could with a recorded Zoom call. I brought my two bunches of organic greens, my largest pot, fruit and vegetable wash, and a steak knife to the sink, with my mom on my computer, propped up high enough to see the sink and my hands. “Should we rehearse or something before we just start recording?” My mom asked. “Now you know you’ve been practicing being critical and telling me what to do for over 30 years. We don’t need a rehearsal,” I said and we laughed. Five minutes later, as I picked out the brown spots on the leaves and cut and split the stems, here she go:
“I aint never seen greens washed like that, Lord Jesus!” I swear I was doing it like she told me and like I’d watched her do a hundred times over the years.
“Where’s your cutting board? You’re gonna cut your fingers like that!”
“I’m not gonna cut my fingers!” I promised, just as I knicked my finger and glanced over at the screen to make sure she didn’t see.
When it was time to cook, I found myself without many of the ingredients my mom insisted were necessary for a good pot of greens.
“Where’s your bacon? Where’s your Worcester sauce? You aint got no red pepper flakes? No hot sauce? This child….”
I left the greens on low on the stove and my mom on hold while I ran to the grocer nearby to pick up the neglected ingredients. When I re-entered my home, I experienced something incredible: it smelled just like my Grannie’s on Sundays. We had to sell her home when she passed away and I never imagined I’d feel like I was back in her kitchen again. But there it was; in my home. I nearly cried.
I kissed my mom through the computer, finished up the greens like she taught me, and started in on the cornbread. My mom’s youngest brother, whom we call Uncle Bayeye, is the known family chef, BBQ pit master, and keeper of my grandfather’s famous cornbread recipe. I’d called him up the day before to find out the secret ingredient. “Bacon grease!” He promised. “Fry you up some bacon in a pan. Then get you some Jiffy cornbread mix, 1 egg, a tablespoon of sugar, 1/2 cup of milk. Mix all that together and pour the bacon grease in last, and that’s how grandpa did it.” Why bacon grease? I asked him, hesitant. “Cause they was country!” He laughed. “They used to use lard back in the day, but Daddy used bacon grease.” Lately, I’ve been in the “no pork on my fork, no swine on my mind” camp, but this is how my people make greens and my grandpa made cornbread. So, I would too.
By the time the greens were cooked and the cornbread was in the oven, it was hours past the time I thought I’d be finished cooking everything. I was supposed to use my mom’s best friend Mrs. Mikel’s famous crockpot mac and cheese recipe, but at that point, I couldn’t fathom waiting another two hours for it to slow-cook. I had cooked two things and I was exhausted. I needed it to be over! So, I put all the ingredients in a pot, accidentally made too much sauce, and had to swap that pot out for the bigger pot I’d cooked the greens in. I crumbled the bacon I’d fried for grease for the cornbread on top, threw that bad boy in the oven, and exhaled.
At the same time, my FitBit screamed out an alert: 10,000 steps! Except for my quick run to the grocery store, I’d barely left my kitchen. And I’d also only made three dishes — I’d given up on making my grandma’s strawberry pie, baking a sweet potato and frying chicken to complete the meal (There’s enough meat in the greens and the cornbread is sweet! I told myself). I was exhausted and yet, my mom, aunties, uncles, and grandparents did this and more, regularly. For my grandmothers, this was an every Sunday affair — at least. When I thought of the amount of labor they went through, the amount of time, the wear-and-tear on the body, and being on their feet for hours just to feed us, I realized that the meals were nothing but their heart and soul, poured into every bite.
When all of my food was ready, I plated my three-side-dish meal, mixed strawberry syrup with Ocean vodka over frozen watermelon cubes for my red drink, and sat down at the table. It was after 10 p.m. on a weeknight and I was too tired to do anything but photograph my setup for the ‘gram. But everything smelled sooooo good. I took a bite of my mama’s greens, a forkful of mac and cheese, a pinch of my grandpa’s cornbread and I couldn’t believe it. The flavor flooded my mouth and triggered my memories. I heard my grandpa calling me “Nannygal.”
“You all I got in the world,” he used to tell me. I saw my grannie throw up her hands and stomp her feet the way she did when something was really funny. I saw Virginia Thanksgivings and DMV Christmases and f*ck-Fourth-of-July-but-we-outchea family reunions on the farm. I saw me. I saw us. Happy and dancing and free. And I tasted every drop of our love.