Celebrating Juneteenth, from the Heart
A food-blogging couple marks Black Independence Day with friends, family, and memorable Juneteenth foods including Texas-style pulled pork, coleslaw, baked beans, fried pickles, and red velvet cake
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Fried Pickles, Texas-Style Pulled Pork, Classic Southern Coleslaw, and BBQ Baked Beans with Bacon. Article, recipes, and photographs by Krysten and Marrekus Wilkes of Cooks with Soul.
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For our family, Juneteenth represents freedom and celebration. It’s a holiday that is over 157 years old and recognizes the emancipation of African Americans from slavery in the United States. There are many ways we commemorate this special day, which is celebrated on June 19th, and enjoying good food with friends and family is among the most important.
I was raised in Denver, Colorado, where one of the largest Juneteenth celebrations takes place. As a kid I celebrated each year with my family in Denver’s historic Five Points neighborhood. Festivities usually included parades, musical performances, good food, and street vendors — many of which continue to this day. My father helped run a booth at Juneteenth every year in front of his friend’s shop where they would sell catfish plates to hungry festival-goers. My cousins and I would run around and throw bang snap (poppers) fireworks at each other, hang out with friends, dance, and play all day and night for the entire weekend. It is truly one of my favorite memories.
As a child, Juneteenth marked the start of summer and was followed by a long list of events such as the annual Black Arts Festival, the Winter Park Jazz Festival, the Taste of Colorado, and Jazz in the Park. However, as an adult, I have an even stronger appreciation for the holiday.
For Black Americans, Juneteenth commemorates freedom from slavery in the United States, and more specifically, in Texas. While President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freedom from enslavement in Texas wasn’t announced until June 19, 1865, in Galveston. In other words, Juneteenth is our Independence Day.
Although Marrekus grew up in the South, he never celebrated Juneteenth growing up. Still, in Memphis, where he’s from, Juneteenth is widely recognized. The Memphis City Council recently declared June 19th as Juneteenth Independence Day and may vote to make it a paid holiday for city employees. When Marrekus and I met, we adopted Juneteenth as our family tradition.
Juneteenth celebrations across the country almost always include cookouts. A couple of years ago we joined dozens of Black food bloggers to create a virtual Juneteenth potluck, since COVID-19 restrictions canceled festivities. This year we plan to gather with a group of friends, family, and neighbors to celebrate, listen to music, and eat good food. Our Juneteenth food menu will include Texas-Style Pulled Pork, BBQ Baked Beans, Classic Southern Coleslaw, Fried Pickles, and Red Velvet Cake, just to name a few.
The great thing about this collection of recipes is that they all pair well together. You can build a nice tall pulled pork sandwich, top it with the coleslaw and fried pickles, and get the best of each dish in a single bite. Or you can serve the recipes separately and savor their individual goodness.
We hope that these dishes will find their way onto your table. Celebrating Juneteenth is not just for Black Americans, but for all people who want to explore culinary traditions and contributions of the African diaspora. Our hope is that we can continue to pass these traditions down to all of our children and make this holiday a special celebration that will never be forgotten.
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How to make Texas-Style Pulled Pork
Smoked pulled pork is one of our Juneteenth food traditions, with slight variations each time. This year we went with a Texas-style salt and pepper pulled pork in commemoration of where it all started.
Texas-style pulled pork is the simplest, yet one of the most flavorful, ways to cook a pork butt. The combination of kosher salt and coarse black pepper is the perfect complement to the sweetness of the pork. We love that this recipe doesn’t require you to do any work overnight — but you will want to start it early in the day because the total smoking and resting time is about 8 hours.
What you need to make Texas-Style Pulled Pork
All you need for this recipe is a smoker, cherry wood for smoking, a meat thermometer (such as the Yummly Smart Thermometer), and a few simple ingredients.
• Pork butt. Also called shoulder, it’s one of the most forgiving meats there is to put on a smoker for a long, low and slow cook. The marbling that runs through the meat makes this cut ideal for the novice pitmaster because the intramuscular fat keeps it juicy. Look for a piece of meat that’s 8-10 pounds with the bone.
• Yellow mustard. The mustard acts as a binder to keep the seasonings on the meat and helps to add a beautiful color to the bark on the pork.
• Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper. The larger crystal size of kosher salt helps you see what you’re doing so you can season the meat evenly. The same is true for the coarse black pepper, which also gives a nice robust flavor.
• Cherry wood. Depending on what your smoker requires, you can use 2-4 cherry wood chunks or 1-2 cups wood chips. If cherry isn’t available, you can use apple wood or pecan.
Once you've seasoned the meat, it’s time to fire up your smoker.
Smoke the meat low and slow
We like to run the pit around 275°F because that allows us to get great smoke as well as render out that intramuscular fat that keeps the pork juicy. When the smoker is at the right temperature, add the cherry wood and wait a few minutes for it to start smoking. Then smoke the pork until the meat reaches 200°F, about 7 hours. When the butt is done you want to give it at least an hour to rest so that all those juices you worked so hard to preserve will have time to redistribute themselves back into the meat.
Pull the pork
For pulling the pork, we recommend wearing nitrile gloves with cotton liners underneath to protect your hands. Or you can use two forks to shred the meat.
Marrekus’ favorite way to serve this dish is to pile it high on sandwich buns and top it with coleslaw and the fried pickles.
Get the recipe: Texas-Style Pulled Pork
The combination of the salt and pepper from the seasoning mixed with the sweetness from the pork and the smoke from the grill makes this simple recipe memorable. (By the way, if you have leftovers, you owe it to yourself to try Memphis-style Pulled Pork BBQ Spaghetti.)
Stir up some coleslaw
Marrekus is a big fan of coleslaw and he has to make it any time he’s eating pulled pork. His version is traditional, but it tastes much better than store-bought. All you need is cabbage, carrot, mayonnaise, sugar, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, salt, and pepper. If coleslaw isn’t your jam, feel free to swap it out with potato salad.
To shred the cabbage, quarter the head of cabbage, and using a sharp chef's knife, slice the cabbage as thin as possible.
Slow-cook some baked beans
Next on our Juneteenth menu is BBQ baked beans. They are another staple we love to make any time we have a cookout or celebration. This version is irresistible! What makes the side dish special is that we ditch the canned beans and use a colorful, earthy array of dried beans including red beans, great Northern beans, and pinto beans.
In addition to using dried beans, we also add bacon, onion, bell pepper, garlic, and a homemade sauce. The sauce is simple to make and consists of ketchup, brown sugar, honey, molasses, spicy brown mustard, apple cider vinegar, and barbecue spice rub.
These baked beans are sure to be a crowd-pleaser but they do take a little time to make. For the most even texture, soak your beans overnight. We recommend starting your beans cooking when you get the pork on the smoker, due to them taking some time. Once you've got the beans good and soft, we like to bake them uncovered for a little while to help them thicken up a bit.
Have you tried fried pickles?
Fried pickles are one of our all-time favorite appetizers and are perfect for snacking on at a cookout. Pickle slices are battered in buttermilk and deep fried, then served with Cajun remoulade, ranch dressing, or another tangy dipping sauce. This is a Southern dish, but you can make it your own with different seasonings and flavor profiles. If you aren’t a fan of pickles, try this recipe with zucchini instead!
Red velvet cake for a sweet close
Last but not least is our sweet and decadent two-layer red velvet cake. This is hands-down one of our favorite dessert recipes. We chose to make this for Juneteenth because the color red represents the blood and resilience of enslaved people. What makes our recipe unique is that we use plant-based, natural food coloring. Originally, red velvet cakes were not super red. They had a slightly red hue from the acid in the cocoa, and no added coloring. Bright red food colorings were added later as the cake became more commercialized. Our cake has a brownish-red color. It’s buttery tasting with a mild cocoa flavor and a rich cream cheese frosting, and is perfect for celebrations.
The frosting is generous enough that you can pipe a border if you like. You’ll need a pastry bag and an open star tip #22 or #21. The cake can be baked one day in advance and covered at room temperature.
What are your heritage recipes?
Additional Juneteenth food recipes you might consider for a picnic or other Emancipation Day gathering include Southern cornbread; collard greens; black-eyed peas; red drinks like hibiscus tea, strawberry soda, or other red soda; and recipes from the African diaspora.
Does your family make special recipes that are meaningful to you? We'd like to hear about them! Post them on Instagram and Facebook, and tag @yummly. In these next articles, explore more ways that cooks share their heritage with friends and family.