Juneteenth has always been special for Oakland chef Amina Robinson-Briscoe, also known as Chef Mimi. As a child, Chef Mimi and her family would attend Juneteenth festivals in the neighboring city of Berkeley every June 19.
“Once I got older, and realized what it was about in terms of the freedom and liberation of Black people, it sparked something in me that made me want to learn more about it and also create something in connection to celebrating through food and beverage,” she says.
In 2016, she founded the Black Food and Wine Experience (BFWE), a mission-driven event to highlight Black culinary culture. It sold out. In the ensuing years, she moved BFWE to larger venues and continually evolved its programming. This year, the Black Food and Wine Experience spans a week-long series of events, June 11–19, and commemorates Juneteenth and the reemergence of Black Wall Street. It includes events like the Black Food & Beverage Summit, which support the professional development of BIPOC entrepreneurs to create the next generation of hospitality leaders.
Juneteenth marks an incredibly bittersweet moment of history. On June 19, 1865 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to free enslaved Black Americans two-and-a-half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“It’s heartbreaking to know that years went, and a group of people had no idea [emancipation] was going on,” says Deborah VanTrece, an Atlanta-based chef, cookbook author and founder of the VanTrece Hospitality Group. “So, there’s a sadness for me to this, and then there is a joyousness with knowing that, yes it marks a major point for the people who were affected during that time period.”
While Juneteenth has been celebrated in Black communities and cities like Galveston, Texas, since 1865, it only became a national holiday in 2021. As perceptions and commemorations of the holiday evolve, Black food and beverage professionals celebrate and honor Juneteenth in traditional and innovative ways.
Eric Wells, a private chef based in Cleveland, is hosting a sold-out, five-course Juneteenth dinner in collaboration with the Rid-All Green Partnership on June 18. The Rid-All Green Partnership is an urban-farm that aims to increase access to nutritious foods for members of the inner-city Kinsman community. Wells’s menu includes his takes on traditional dishes, like panko-crusted shrimp with heirloom tomato, Cajun tilapia with cheese grits, and blueberry cobbler.
Scott Bacon, executive chef of Magdalena at the Ivy Hotel, the first Black-owned Relais & Châteaux property, does not have a specific Juneteenth menu, “because our menu incorporates that narrative every day,” he says. “The globally-influenced Southern style that inspires me in the kitchen was a direct reflection of the food that was prepared by [enslaved people] in the kitchens of plantation homes in America’s early South.”
He sees Magdalena menu items like barbecue rabbit and smoked catfish croquettes as honoring that legacy. For Bacon, these dishes pay “homage to how cuisines of the Black Diaspora could be presented in a refined and upscale fashion.”
It’s important to Bacon and Chef Mimi to highlight the often-overlooked legacies of Black winemakers and distillers, too. And so, Magdalena’s team made the deliberate choice to serve the Black-owned whiskey brand Uncle Nearest, which commemorates Nearest Green, a Black man who was enslaved until 1865 and who helped teach Jack Daniels how to distill whiskey. Meanwhile, BFWE events highlights wines such as the Kenyan-American Wachira label, which is formulated to complement foods commonly found in the Black community.
Camari Mick, pasty chef at New York City’s Michelin-starred The Musket Room restaurant, chose not to work on Juneteenth or create a Juneteenth menu.
“I wanted to treat this as a normal holiday, and not be at work but rather be celebrating with friends and be around my people,” she says. She plans to spend the day exploring the African/American: Making the Nation’s Table exhibit on Black culinary history at the Museum of Food and Drink. It shows how “African foods is the basis for what we call American food today,” she says, and adds that she invited colleagues from The Musket Room to join her.
For Mick, spending Juneteenth this way makes it “more of an educational [experience], rather than a profitable one.”
Increased awareness of and attentions on Juneteenth raise questions about intention and commercialization, however. Recent controversies like Walmart’s ice cream fiasco demonstrate the complicated realities of capitalistic profit from Juneteenth.
VanTrece notes how holidays like Cinco de Mayo have largely become divorced from their cultural meanings and origins. She hopes that doesn’t happen to Juneteenth.
“Blackness in America is a story of hardship and misrepresentation, and I feel that the commercialization of this narrative is a complicated and unusual circumstance in American history,” says Bacon.
He encourages individuals eager to celebrate Juneteenth to patronize Black-owned businesses.
“I feel that to spread the narrative and make it common knowledge what this day represents, it must be commercialized in a sense, but it is very important to me who profits from it.”
In Watermelons & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations (Simon & Schuster, 2022), author Nicole A. Taylor encourages home cooks to stock their pantries with BIPOC-owned food products like The Plate Sale’s hot sauce and Michael Twitty’s seasoning line for Spice Tribe. “They are all quality products, and, in the spirit of Juneteenth, their very existence is a testament to the progress we’ve made,” she writes.
Chef Mimi also stresses the importance of supporting Black entrepreneurs and creators during and beyond Juneteenth celebrations.
“Within the food and beverage space, what I’m trying to do is to create an ecosystem, for us and by us, and to have our allies support our endeavors. Black entrepreneurs best understand where we need to go, we just don’t have the same level of exposure, resources and opportunities as others do.”
She believes Juneteenth is a chance to pay homage to Black ancestors while celebrating the culture.