“They really set aside that day for special cooking—you didn't eat the same thing, you know, like everyday—that day you had special food, barbecue beef, mutton, pork, everything is 'specially set aside for that day." With those words, a Texan named Paul Darby gushed about June 19th, commonly known as “Juneteenth".
Juneteenth is a “special day,” as Darby notes, because it’s the anniversary of the date in 1865 when Union Army General Gordon Granger announced in Galveston, Texas that enslaved African Americans in that state were free. Even though the news came two and one-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, it was a tremendous cause for celebration. Black communities in Texas have marked the occasion ever since, and Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday in 1980 and a federal holiday in 2021. Given the time of the year, barbecue is an obvious choice for any Juneteenth menu meant to feed a crowd.
Barbecue In Black American History
Barbecue has been a mainstay of African American emancipation celebrations well-before Juneteenth happened. Since the 1840s, African Americans living in the northern U.S. celebrated the August 1, 1834 anniversary of Great Britain ending slavery in its Caribbean colonies. One such celebration in Newark, New Jersey in 1852 featured a parade and a roasted ox which is the northern equivalent of southern barbecue.
Texas Barbecue History
Juneteenth and barbecue go together, but determining what type of Texas barbecue to serve is trickier? Why? Because “Texas barbecue” isn’t one thing. The Lone Star state is home to multiple barbecue traditions tied to people and place.
Latinos, heavily indebted to Native American techniques, make a type of barbecue in the southern part of the state that predates Texas becoming a country or a state. The tradition began as an “earth oven” approach where a vertical pit was dug and a mix of wood and rocks were set on fire. After the flames died down, the smoldering pit is alternately filled with layers of vegetation and meat until reaching the surface level where it was covered with dirt. Hours later, the pit was dug up and the cooks were ready to serve deliciously tender meat. Today, the pit may be dug or the cook may use or a steamer or oven. The type of meat used can beef (called “barbacoa”), a cow’s head (“cabeza”), or goat (“cabrito"). Instead of vegetation, the meat can be wrapped with aluminum foil, burlap, or butcher paper. The succulent meat is usually served with beans, salsa, and either saltine crackers, tortillas, or white bread.
By the 1830s, southern slaveholders moved into east Texas, and their enslaved cooks brought southern barbecue with them. Whole carcasses of cows, pigs, sheep, and small game were cooked directly over horizontal pits filled with burning, hardwood coals. Eventually, cooks transitioned from whole animal cooking to focusing on smaller cuts of meat, and today, beef brisket (usually chopped rather than sliced), chicken, pork spareribs, and sausage are the featured meats.
Another tradition is Hill Country-style, or West Texas-style, barbecue which is marked by cooking beef brisket and ribs, chicken, and lamb directly over mesquite wood. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, white immigrants from central Europe immigrants brought a tradition of indirectly smoking meat at a low temperature for a long period of time. The contemporary culinary stars of this “low and slow” approach are sliced beef brisket, pork spareribs, and sausage.
The side dishes and dessert served on Juneteenth widely vary, but over time, a culinary tradition emerged where red-colored foods mark the occasion because the color red symbolizes the blood shed by enslaved African ancestors. Barbecue is a “red food” when slathered with a tomato-based barbecue sauce, and the meal is rounded out with a strawberry-flavored, carbonated beverage like “Big Red” soda from Waco, Texas, and a ripe watermelon or red velvet cake for dessert.
Juneteenth Reflections and Menus From Black American Texas Pit Masters
Given the rich diversity of different Texas barbecue traditions, we asked four African American barbecue cooks from different parts of Texas to share a Juneteenth reflection and what will be on their Juneteenth menu.
Clarence Joseph - San Antonio
“Juneteenth has a special place in my heart. I think of that time with pride. Pride in the way black people were able to leave that period of bondage and enter into the period of successfully striving to fulfill the hopes and dreams of the average American. I've always barbequed on this holiday, never having a particular menu in mind. Now that I'm thinking of the holiday in advance, I think we'll be cooking a pork shoulder, some chicken and some sausages in celebration.”
Brent Reaves - Dallas
“It’s funny, 5-6 years ago Juneteenth didn’t mean much to me until our 87 year-old business partner, Ruth Hauntz, explained the history of Juneteenth to me. I took the idea of celebrating this day for granted. As a kid, I didn’t know much about Juneteenth. I knew it was a day that barbecue was popular and some type of red beverage was required. Hearing Ms. Ruth explain the joy that our people felt when they heard the news of freedom hits me in a different way today. I’m now filled with appreciation and gratitude for what our ancestors endured and for the opportunities I’m now able to enjoy today. As a Black barbecue restaurant owner, I feel honored to serve the celebrating meal of choice for this holiday.
What are we serving? We have a Juneteenth/Father’s Day special: a slab of ribs, two pounds of beef brisket, a whole chicken, two gallons of side dishes, rolls & sweet tea or lemonade for $195.00. We wanted to create a full family meal pack.”
Michelle Wallace - Houston
“Juneteenth, for me, is a celebration of many things. The abolishment of slavery and the moment when all African Americans had received knowledge of that was monumental and cause to celebrate. But I honor and celebrate Juneteenth because it is the moment when black people decided to live out loud and embrace their culture, food, music and families openly.
One of the ways that we as African Americans chose to celebrate was to PARTY and highlight our food, our culture, our music and our families. This holiday hits home for me because its origins are here in Texas. As a Texas resident and chef/pitmaster, it is an honor to uphold some of the things that were done and some of the foods that were eaten in the inaugural Juneteenth jubilee every year on that date through food. Gatlin's BBQ will feature smoked oxtails, a customer favorite for some time now, for Juneteenth.”
Hoover Alexander - Austin
"Juneteenth brings back memories of growing up in East Austin when there was an actual Community of black folks concentrated in one area, even though it was part of the legacy of prior segregation. This day would be an intersection of the Community's rural roots and its Urban existence. Seeing folks riding horses around the park and in the streets, small roadside stands selling watermelons, greens, and more. It was always a celebratory day filled with the smell of bbq, sweet music in the air, eating sweet homemade desserts, and drinking ice cold red sodas on a hot summer day.With school being out less than a month, it was a day families looked forward to being able to spend some quality time together without spending a lot of money.
Our menu always has many of the staples that were a part of those foods that I remember - bbq, mustard greens, collard greens, black-eyed peas, yams, cornbread, banana pudding, peach cobbler, and red soda. We put a slice of watermelon on each plate as a garnish as a nod to these memories on Juneteenth.