Watermelon Rum Punch | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Watermelon Rum Punch | Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Though it holds distinction as being the longest-running African American holiday, this is the first year that Juneteenth is being observed as a federal holiday. It’s a recognition of June 19, 1885, the day that Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to free all enslaved people. Though President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had abolished human enslavement more than two years prior, slaveholders effectively evaded the order by moving to Texas—an estimated 250,000 enslaved people were living in the state at the time of the order.
Juneteenth celebrations can be traced to the following summer of 1886, with most taking place in Texas and neighboring southern states. As travelers belonging to the Great Migration left the South for cities in the Midwest and on either coast, they brought those traditions with them. The holiday also gained popularity during the Civil Rights Movement, with many using it as an opportunity to celebrate Black history with picnics, jazz festivals, Miss Juneteenth pageants, and family reunions.
Despite this legacy, many Americans only recently became aware of the significance of Juneteenth, when the racial reckoning of June 2020 spurred a nationwide campaign to recognize the holiday more formally. Figures like Opal Lee, a retired Texas teacher and activist who’s known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth” led those efforts, including an annual 2.5-mile walk to symbolize the two-and-a-half years it took for the news of abolition to reach Texas.
Arriving on the heels of spring, Juneteenth festivities typically involve picnics, with red foods and drinks dominating those spreads. While watermelon and barbecue represent popular choices at many summer soirées, a deeper investigation into Juneteenth reveals food traditions that predate the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
“The color red is believed to represent the bloodshed by enslaved African ancestors,” explains culinary historian and author Adrian E. Miller. “Red drinks as we know them in the U.S. are a nod to two ancestral red drinks from Africa. Bissap is a common drink that features a type of hibiscus that is native to West Africa. Red kola nut tea has kola nuts that are also native to West Africa. And in both cases, whether you’re using the flowers of the hibiscus or the red kola nuts, the process is the same. Get some water, steep it in either the kola nuts or the red flower petals to color it red, and then sweeten it to taste.”
In addition to bissap, hibiscus tea appears across Africa as roselle juice, sobolo, and zobo; in the Caribbean as sorrel; and throughout Latin America as agua de jamaica. With anti-inflammatory properties, antioxidant protection, and other health benefits, hibiscus is a great low-sugar option for Juneteenth celebrations.
How to Make Hibiscus Tea
• 2 ½ cups of hibiscus buds
• Thumb size of thinly sliced ginger
• 12 cups of water
• Honey or agave (to taste)
• 1 lime
• Cinnamon sticks (optional)
1. In a big stock pot, bring to boil the water, sorrel buds, ginger, and cinnamon to a boil. Once the water reaches a boil, reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 30 minutes.
2. After 30 minutes, turn off the heat.
3. Allow the tea to cool completely then strain out the sorrel buds, ginger, and cinnamon.
4. Serve the tea chilled. Add honey and lime to taste.
Though hibiscus tea is often credited as one of the original red drinks that most modern recipes draw from, red soda—usually strawberry-flavored—is another option that rose in popularity in the 1920s. It’s a convenient choice for anyone who prefers to grab a two-liter or a 12-pack before the picnic, and is always a crowd-pleaser with kids.
For those who want to try making red soda at home, you can’t go wrong with this recipe from Derrick and Tatanisha Worthey behind This Worthey Life. The couple first debuted the drink at a Juneteenth party they hosted in 2020 and—by popular request—have made it every year since.
“It’s something the whole family can enjoy and you can make it your own,” explains Derrick. “Just make sure it’s red, but if you want to use hibiscus, that’s great. You can use raspberries or cherries to customize it to your own taste and palette.”
• 1-liter strawberry soda or lemon-lime soda
• 1 ½ cups strawberry lemonade mix
• 1 cup homemade strawberry syrup
• 1 pint fresh strawberries, washed and sliced in half
• Fresh sprigs of mint
1. Make the strawberry lemonade by combining the strawberry lemonade mix with the strawberry soda or lemon-lime soda instead of water.
2. Stir in the homemade strawberry syrup (see recipe below), fresh strawberries, and fresh sprigs of mint.
3. Taste and adjust sweetness to your liking.
4. Pour into glasses filled with ice.
5. Garnish with fresh strawberries and fresh sprigs of mint.
Homemade Strawberry Syrup Recipe
• 1 cup of granulated sugar
• 1 cup of water
• 1 cup fresh strawberries cleaned with the stems removed and cut in quarters
• 2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1. Place a saucepan over medium-high heat and add water, sugar, prepared strawberries, and lemon juice.
2. When the mixture begins to boil, use a fork or potato masher to mash the strawberries to release the juices.
3. Allow the mixture to boil for an additional minute and remove from heat.
4. Place a tight-fitting lid onto the saucepan and allow the strawberry syrup to steep for 10 minutes.
5. Using a fine-mesh sieve, strain the syrup into a Mason jar. Store in the fridge for up to three days.
At its heart, Juneteenth is about celebrating Black resilience and the fact that, despite centuries of struggle and injustice, we’re still here. The innovation and imaginations of enslaved Africans cannot be overstated—they took literal scraps and created delicious staples that we still enjoy today. Along those same lines, we encourage you to work with what you have on-hand for these recipes and get creative with ingredients or make substitutions if you need to.
The final recipe is a collaboration between Miller, Black Food Futurist Nia Allen Lee, and me, which reflects the hopeful future of Juneteenth: collaborative, creative, and ever-evolving.
In addition to being a red drink, this punch honors history with watermelon, one of the original foods that enslaved people brought from Africa, and celebrates the broad reach of the African Diaspora with the inclusion of an Afro-Caribbean rum label.
Cheers to Freedom Day.
How to Make Watermelon Rum Punch
• 8 cups cubed seedless watermelon
• 16 ounces white rum (Afro-Caribbean-owned Ten to One white rum)
• ½ cup lime juice
• 1 cup of strawberry-lemonade
• 1 cup of ginger beer
• 4 cups of ice
• 1 sliced lime for garnish
• Fresh mint leaves to garnish
• Tajín rim to finish
1. Blend and strain the watermelon cubes.
2. Combine the watermelon juice, strawberry-lemonade, rum, lime juice, and ginger beer into one punch bowl.
3. Serve with ice.
4. Garnish each glass with fresh mint leaves, a slice of lime, and finish with a Tajín rim.