Talk to kids about Juneteenth, and let food guide the conversation

At a recent school visit, I asked a library full of fourth graders, “Who likes to cook?” Nearly every hand shot up.

For our young foodies, recipes are a welcome learning tool. And we can use them to help celebrate Juneteenth, teach its story and spotlight Black culture and joy.

Juneteenth became our newest federal holiday in 2021, 156 years after Union Gen. Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to communicate and enforce enslaved Texans’ freedom. Many 21st-century Americans, including Black Americans, were unfamiliar with the holiday. Juneteenth wasn’t widely in school curriculums, either.

I wrote “The Juneteenth Cookbook: Recipes and Activities for Kids and Families to Celebrate” with chef Taffy Elrod to help pass along the holiday’s story to the next generation. Fortunately, our book is not alone. Other recent Juneteenth children’s books include board books, such as Tonya Abari’s “Let’s Celebrate Juneteenth”; and picture books, such as Alice Faye Duncan’s “Opal Lee and What it Means to Be Free,” about the grandmother of Juneteenth, and Tonya Duncan Ellis’s “They Built Me for Freedom,” which is about Houston’s Emancipation Park. Having grown up in Buffalo, home to one of the largest continuously-running Juneteenth celebrations in the world, I wrote “The Juneteenth Story: Celebrating the End of Slavery in the United States” in 2022 as an upper-elementary resource to tell the story of how the holiday originated and evolved.

I write to provide kids windows into others’ lives, but I especially strive to provide Black children mirrors of their own. They need validation while also exploring the roots of the holiday in a way that integrates familiar cookout dishes and ingredients with historical and cultural context. We want kids to connect to timeless Juneteenth themes, from traditions to diasporic connections to cookout culture, and even the complexity of the holiday.

Some of us have nostalgia grounded in memories of cooking or eating together — the essence of “comfort food.” But Juneteenth’s origins are not a comfortable topic, nor should they be: It’s rooted in the prolonged end to American slavery, one of world history’s most profound human rights crises.

Some adults try to avoid Juneteenth and other difficult topics with children because they don’t know what to say. Admittedly, kids’ questions can be tough! Parents, give yourselves some grace; we don’t know everything. But we can encourage dialogue, and use one of the many resources now available to learn along with our children.

Let’s lean into their inquisitiveness, and focus the dialogue on why we eat what we eat. Recipes such as red lemonade and red velvet ice cream sandwiches can help discuss Juneteenth’s tradition of eating red food. Theories around its origins are linked to the bloodshed during slavery, the novelty of red-colored foods during Juneteenth’s early days and the color the symbolic West African kola nut gives off when boiled.

While Juneteenth celebrates emancipation in America, we would be remiss to ignore slavery’s global impact, and the African origins of enslaved people and food we now call American. Our hibiscus-infused “jubilee tea” is a nod to the African flower now cultivated broadly in the Caribbean and Latin America, where the vast majority of enslaved Africans were transported.

Part of Juneteenth education is arguably about keeping Black cookout culture and the barbecue culinary art form — developed by Indigenous people and adapted by enslaved African people — alive. The earliest Jubilee Days (the name “Juneteenth” was adopted later in the 19th century as a portmanteau of “June” and “nineteenth”) were barbecue-centric gatherings where people wore their best clothes and enjoyed music and games. Kids can help make barbecue accompaniments to become part of the preparation process, saving the grilling for grown-ups. Today the soundtrack may be different, but the essence of cookouts remains the same, even the million-dollar question, “Who made the potato salad?”

But we must also note, like Blackness, Black America’s perceptions of the holiday are not monolithic. For some, it is empowering to celebrate a holiday that was created and sustained by formerly enslaved ancestors and their descendants. For others, the sheer injustice of Juneteenth’s origins of 900 days of delayed emancipation adds insult to injury.

That brings us to our Strawberry and Kale Salad With Blackberry Dressing. While it visually integrates the red, black and green colors of Black liberation, its flavors — a mix of sweet, fresh, tart and bitter — are not unlike the dissonance of Black perspectives on the holiday itself.

We hope you can start a conversation, make memories, learn together and enjoy tastes that tell a story of a holiday born out of awe-inspiring multigenerational resilience. It may not be comfortable, but that’s OK. That’s where the food can also do its primary job. When you need to, just pause and take a bite.

Strawberry and Kale Salad With Blackberry Dressing

This colorful salad offers a red, black and green color scheme for Juneteenth, with an enticing combination of fresh, sweet and tart flavors. Kale is a staple vegetable in the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. Baby kale is more tender and less bitter than more mature, thicker-leaved kale.

Make ahead: For the best flavor, refrigerate the dressing for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Storage: Refrigerate the dressing for up to 2 weeks.

For the dressing

1/3 cup seedless blackberry jam

¼ cup balsamic vinegar, plus more as needed

1 tablespoon honey, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon fine salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

3/4 cup mild olive oil

For the salad

6 cups (5 ounces) baby kale leaves

1 cup (4 ounces) fresh strawberries, hulled and halved lengthwise

1 cup (5 ounces) fresh blackberries

1 small handful fresh mint leaves

Make the dressing: In a Mason jar or glass measuring cup, whisk together the blackberry jam, vinegar, honey, mustard, salt and pepper until fully combined. (If your jar has a lid, you can twist it on to shake the mixture as well.)

Drizzle in the olive oil a little at a time, whisking as you pour. Taste the dressing and adjust the seasoning by adding a little more vinegar or honey until it tastes exactly right. You should get about 1 1/3 cups. Cover with a lid and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.

Make the salad: In a large salad bowl, arrange the kale and top with the strawberries and blackberries. Scatter the mint leaves over everything.

Drizzle about half the dressing over the top, offering the rest on the side for serving.

Substitutions: For baby kale, you can use regular kale or another hearty or bitter green of your choice.

To make it vegan, replace honey with agave or maple syrup.

Serves 8 (makes about 10 cups)

Nutritional Facts per serving (1 ¼ cups salad with about 4 teaspoons dressing) | Calories: 133; Fat: 11 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Carbohydrates: 10 g; Sodium: 89 mg; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Protein: 1 g; Fiber: 2 g; Sugar: 8 g

— Adapted from “The Juneteenth Cookbook” by Alliah L. Agostini with Taffy Elrod (Quarto, 2024).

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