What Are the “High on the Hog” Producers Cooking for Juneteenth?
Celebrate the new federal holiday with a delicious buffet in remembrance of those who didn’t make it to freedom.
The fourth episode of High on the Hog, the new four-part Netflix documentary series examining the influence of African-American cooking on American cuisine, begins with a moving bit of audio. Entitled “Freedom,” the episode hones in on Juneteenth in Texas and enters with a slow zoom shot of an old American home accompanied by a recording from 1941 of Laura Smalley, a former slave in Hempstead, Texas. She recalls the master of the house calling everyone inside and on the 19th of June, everyone was turned free. With a southern drawl in her voice she says “That’s why, you know, we celebrate that day. Colored folks celebrate that day.” Now, in 2021, it’s not just people of color in the United States celebrating their freedom from over 200 years of legal slavery, but the Senate has just passed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
Juneteenth is celebrated across the United States with festivals, parades, and most importantly a whole lot of eating—because what celebration isn’t centered around a good buffet-style spread? I had the pleasure of chatting with the executive producers of the docu-series, Fabienne Toback and Karis Jagger, to pick their brains on all things food, Juneteenth, and the importance of the series they’ve been working to crank out since 2016.
In beginning to discuss their Juneteenth plans this year, Karis tells me, “I will definitely be enjoying a hibiscus cocktail.” Fabienne agrees that she too will be enjoying a hibiscus cooler and chimes in to add, “We have a food blog called Hey Sistah. Once we optioned the book we realized that we had a lot of hurry up and wait, as is common in the true nature of being in Hollywood. Karis in all of her genius suggested we start a food blog so we could do research in this interim period. So we started Hey Sistah by bringing together our love of food and all of our research into the burgeoning black food scene which extends far beyond southern food. Black cuisine is not monolithic in that regard.”
After five years of working on the show, and weekly updates to their blog, the duo plan to enjoy Juneteenth this year with a spread of dishes and hibiscus coolers in hand. Commonly, red dishes, drinks, and strawberries are seen in a Juneteenth spread, “The red foods are representative of the blood of our ancestors who were not able to celebrate their independence. A nice red velvet cake, a hibiscus cooler, and some hot links or ribs maybe, that’s what I’ll be eating.” Karis tells me.
Fabienne expands on her personal path to understanding Juneteenth by telling me, “I’m from New York City, my grandmother was Black and I never heard Juneteenth mentioned in our family at all. But I see and I understand and really embrace what it is to the African American community here in the United States, it’s really special to have this opportunity to celebrate our resilience and that’s what we looked to exemplify with the show.” Then Karis jumped in to add, “We knew about Juneteenth before we read Jessica’s book but that was when we really started to delve into it, that’s when we made the historic dive. The pictures we found from the old parades really blew us away, I think it was really a Texan thing. I think a lot of the big celebrations were going on there, in the 30’s they had these beautiful cars decorated with flowers and more recently people going out and dancing to music. We really wanted to highlight Galveston where they have a huge celebration but the timing of filming didn’t line up, we were, however, able to get a few readings to share though.”
As a Black woman, I, like Fabienne, didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth even though my family moved from Arkansas to San Francisco not too long after freedom was granted. I can recall two years ago, I was told at work that we would be given the day off. I remember thinking, “Awesome, a three day weekend!” without much understanding of what the day was about.
After talks with my grandma and dad, a whole lot of Googling, and a deep dive into many articles that discuss how long it took for slaves to find out they were actually free from state to state, as well as various theories as to why it took so long, I realized it was more than just a day off, but a day of remembrance and respect for my ancestors. That’s why this year I’ll be celebrating with a feast of sorts inspired by the dishes mentioned by Fabienne and Karis, and I invite you to try a few recipes in honor of the holiday as well! They’ve shared a couple of recipes with us from their blog Hey Sistah that are indicative of some traditional dishes you might find at a Juneteenth celebration. Find their recipes for a rum hibiscus cooler and pickled shrimp below; as well as a few Sunset recipes to add to your buffet assortment. Happy Juneteenth to those who came before us and those who will come after us—we celebrate for them!