Culture

This Cookbook Is an Open Invitation to the Juneteenth Cookout

Authors Alliah L. Agostini and Taffy Elrod offer celebratory recipes and activities for the whole family.

SAWYER CLOUD (COURTESY BECKER&MAYER KIDS!)

By Jessica Carbone


Published on June 14, 2024

When Alliah L. Agostini thinks of the Juneteenth celebrations of her childhood in Buffalo, New York, she does so in sensory technicolor: via the thump of bass from speakers, the smoke of char-grilled hot links and the crunch of snow cones, and of course countless hugs from friends, family, and neighbors all across the city. Agostini’s grandfather was one of the founders of Buffalo’s festival in 1976, and for the community, Juneteenth became a destination event.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863 and the Thirteenth Amendment passed on Jan. 31, 1865, it wasn’t until June 19 of that year, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce these changes, that all enslaved African men, women, and children were truly freed. The federal recognition granted to the holiday in 2021 has elevated Juneteenth to a new level of widespread awareness, and people honor the holiday both by celebrating hard-won freedoms and by fighting for those freedoms still deferred. Together with chef Taffy Elrod, Agostini crafted The Juneteenth Cookbook, a family handbook featuring 18 delicious recipes as well as activities, playlists, and conversation starters. As Agostini and Elrod explain, the underlying joy of Juneteenth invites everyone to come to the table, from the youngest kids to community elders.

Sawyer Cloud (Courtesy becker&mayer kids!)

Jessica Carbone: What relationship did you have to Juneteenth growing up?

Alliah L. Agostini: Of course I went to the celebrations in Buffalo, and there are pictures of me in my stroller at the annual festival in Martin Luther King Park. (The book’s cover was based on a picture of me and my grandmother from one of those events.) My grandparents once did a tour to find different Juneteenth celebrations around the country, and that’s when they realized how special our experience in Buffalo was.

Taffy Elrod: To be honest, Juneteenth wasn’t a part of my family’s traditions. My grandparents moved out of the South during the Industrial Revolution, and when they pulled their family out of segregation, I think they may have left some of their memories behind. But the food in this book reflects how I connect to memory, and to family celebrations.

Sawyer Cloud (Courtesy becker&mayer kids!)

How did you decide to make it a family-oriented cookbook?

AA: My editor was interested in a Juneteenth cookbook for kids, and while I’m a good eater, we needed someone with amazing recipes, and Taffy’s recipes were delicious and very accessible. We also wanted to feature other elements beyond food: you can’t have a good cookout without a good soundtrack, so I created a playlist for the cookout. The whole book is a vibe, celebrating our culture and teaching kids how to connect to history and the fight for freedom.

TE: African-Americans have shaped American food—we were the ones cooking from the beginning! So this book needed comfort food, and recipes that honor being together. I told Alliah, “I want these to be party-sized portions,” which isn’t typical for a kids’ cookbook. But recipes for big groups, for all the grandmas and cousins and aunties and uncles, are the ones you take to the cookout, and luckily we agreed. The finished book has all these different components, including these beautiful illustrations by Sawyer Cloud, and both adults and kids are instantly drawn to it.

Sawyer Cloud (Courtesy becker&mayer kids!)

How did you select recipes for the book?

AA: We looked through books on Black cuisine to make sure that there was overlap between the history and what we knew from our own experiences. We wanted Taffy’s grandmother’s mac and cheese and my grandmother’s potato salad, both multi-generational recipes. We wanted red velvet cake, but we did it as an ice-cream sandwich, to make it accessible. We also wanted to feature ingredients from the African diaspora. The watermelon snow cups, for example, reminded me of the snow cones I’d eat with my grandfather, and watermelon of course came from Africa. We also seasoned them with lime and Tajín, because enslaved people also escaped to freedom by crossing the border from Texas into Mexico.

What books on Black cuisine have inspired you?

TE: My introduction to culinary history and to anthropology was through the books of Jessica B. Harris, especially The Africa Cookbook. I also love the books by Toni Tipton-Martin: Jubilee is all about celebration, and The Jemima Code is an amazing piece of historical journalism. Then there’s Edna Lewis; she was a keeper of heritage, and shared so much about Southern Black cooking that hadn’t been documented at that time. Each of these books helped me connect with my heritage, and to see this food in new titles is so exciting.

Sawyer Cloud (Courtesy becker&mayer kids!)

The color red plays an important role in Juneteenth celebrations. Why does it appear throughout the day and throughout your book in recipes like “freedom fizz” and the strawberry lemonade?

AA: Some say red is from the colors of the African liberation flag, or that red symbolizes the blood that our ancestors shed during slavery and the ongoing fight for freedom. But some other people say that in 1865, red was a relatively rare color to see in food, as everything was typically green or brown, and so it was more connected with festive occasions.

TE: There’s a well-documented history of red beverages, especially in West Africa, whether it’s made from the kola nut or hibiscus, which are very important in celebrations and in healing and spiritual rituals. Meanwhile I grew up in Michigan, where Redpop is a drink that’s red in flavor and color, it’s a huge part of the culture.

What do you hope Juneteenth will look like in 10 to 50 to 100 years?

TE: I’d like every town in America to have a Juneteenth parade, with a drumline.

AA: I feel like my childhood version of Juneteenth is what it should be throughout America, a celebration anchored in Black culture and joy. As things get a bit more commercialized, and as the silencing of Black voices remains prevalent, people might try to dilute its meaning. But Juneteenth is about the end of chattel slavery of African people in America, and I want to make sure that it retains that focus, even if it’s celebrated across the country.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Recipes

Photo: Murray Hall • Food Styling: Jessie YuChen
Photo: Murray Hall • Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

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