Juneteenth Food Traditions Are Rooted in the Black American Diaspora, Texas Native Joi Chevalier Explains

Joi Chevalier is CEO of Chef’s Nook in Austin. As a native Texan, she’s recognized Juneteenth her entire life.

Juneteenth is the newest federal holiday to join the calendar since Martin Luther King Day was first acknowledged in 1983. And like every American holiday, food is involved.

Joi Chevalier is CEO of Cook's Nook in Austin. As a native Texan, she’s recognized Juneteenth her entire life. She recently chatted with Inside Edition Digital’s TC Newman about the holiday and the traditional food associated with it.

“The story of Juneteenth and the story of Black Americans is an American story,” Chevalier explained. “We grew up acknowledging the day, whether it was in service, or whether it was marking with dinner or some family group activity.”

Owing to roots in the Black American diaspora, Juneteenth food is typically mobile, has to travel well, and has to last. And according to Chevalier, if you open up a family picnic basket on June 19, and you’d be likely to find a broad array of food.

“Prepared chicken, or you get something like macaroni and cheese because it doesn't go bad very quickly. It's cooked, and everything's cooked in it. So you can take that in different forms with you,” she said.

“Things like pound cake, especially down here, easy to travel, easy to wrap, or you would get sandwiches. There was very traditional sandwiches, cheese, pickles, things that can, again, move and survive being in motion.”

And if you’re looking for vegetables on Juneteenth, it's most likely going to be collard greens. “They actually travel really well, especially if they're vinegared, which you do use in a lot of collard green dishes in order to remove a little bit of the bitterness,” she said.

Chevalier pointed out that even the drinking of red drinks, like hibiscus or sorrel tea, on the holiday, has a deeper meaning. “Very symbolic of blood that's been spilled. It's a representation of all of those who've come before and what they lost or what was sacrificed," Chevalier said. 

And although there are people who maybe have not had food traditions that have passed down through generations, there is still always an opportunity to learn to make these types of dishes.

“You may go back to your own family and ask questions. Ask about, ‘Did our family ever do these things? Are there particular foods that we always cook that you learned, mom or grandmothers, aunts, uncles?’ Who are also great preservers of tradition and ask, and then take that food and make it yours and just repeat it," Chevalier said. 

Juneteenth park celebrations were not just about food and fun, Chevalier said. In the early days, they offered the possibility of family reunions for Black families that had been ripped apart by the atrocities of slavery.

“Little notices would say that they were in the park and who they were related to, and people would find lost family members in that way as well," Chevalier said. "So being in those public spaces had a dual role.”

In the past, Juneteenth was primarily celebrated by African Americans, but now its opened up to all Americans in general. And there are several ways for people who aren’t Black or African American to participate in a respectful way.

“Even if they don't have friends who experienced Juneteenth directly, there's so many celebrations that are now local, that you can go and participate in,” Chevalier said.

“I mean, parades, park events, things at the local libraries. It's no different than understanding the history, I think, of the Liberty Bell, as artifact, or the Constitution as artifact and how we store and we keep and we memorialize those events and activities," Chevalier said. "I would encourage Americans to know that.

"Change delayed sometimes is what happens here, but it eventually comes," she continued. "I think that's the beauty of the story of America that change does happen.”

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