For Many in Texas and Beyond, It's Not Juneteenth Without Red Drink

In this installment of our series on foods of the African diaspora, Jessica B. Harris offers a red-hued salute to her ancestors.

red drink for Juneteenth (sparkling strawberry ginger lemonade)
Photo: Cooks with Soul

Pictured recipe: Sparkling Strawberry-Ginger Lemonade inspired by red drink

In my Northern childhood, Juneteenth was an unknown holiday. There were no parades, no ceremonies honoring Emancipation and certainly no barbecues featuring red drink. The holiday would begin to come into Northern and then national prominence in the past two decades and somehow this year seems to be exceptionally relevant. With the activism of many like Texas's own Opal Lee, who is advocating for the day to become a national holiday, Juneteenth is a holiday on everyone's mind and on June 19, Black folks around the country will be settling in for meals that celebrate the end of enslavement in Texas with barbecue, watermelon and red drink.

The red drink of choice in Texas is Big Red soda, a carbonated drink that combines the taste of berries with that of cotton candy. It is consumed, according to popular wisdom, to commemorate the blood shed by those who had been enslaved in the state. However, the soda was only created in 1937 and couldn't be found outside of Texas, Kentucky and southern Indiana until 1970. Food historians have opined that the original red beverages may have been derivatives of more traditional West African ones prepared from the hibiscus flower's relative (Hibiscus sabdariffa), known as sorrel in the Caribbean, flor de Jamaica or simply Jamaica in Mexico, bissap rouge in Senegal and karkade in Egypt.

Red has long been a heralded color on the African continent. Nigeria's orisha, Shango, the venerated ancestor who is represented in thunder and lightning, claims it as his color. In Ghana, adinkra, the traditional mourning garment, is deep red. There is no monolithic interpretation of the color among the continent's many peoples, but it is interesting to note that its association with death for some of them has led to the red cross to represent aid services becoming a green one. Whatever the meaning, because of its connection with blood, it is a powerful color of importance and that is surely the reason for its centrality in contemporary Juneteenth celebrations.

This year, try a different twist on the traditional beverage with a sparkling strawberry-ginger lemonade. My take is loosely inspired by a shandy, a British mix of beer and lemon soda, but here the beer is replaced with ginger beer, the soda becomes sparkling pink lemonade, and it is colored red with muddled and strained strawberries. I'll be raising a glass of it to celebrate the holiday and honor my ancestors.

This essay is part of the series "Diaspora Dining: Foods of the African Diaspora." In this monthly column with essays and recipes by Jessica B. Harris, Ph.D., we explore the rich culinary traditions of the African diaspora. Harris is a culinary historian and the author of 13 books related to the African diaspora, including Vintage Postcards from the African World (University Press of Mississippi), My Soul Looks Back (Scribner) and High on the Hog (Bloomsbury USA), on which the Netflix documentary series High on the Hog is based. She is the 2020 recipient of the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. For more from Harris on EatingWell, see Migration Meals: How African American Food Transformed the Taste of America. Follow her on Instagram @drjessicabharris.

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