Juneteenth and racial injustice in food culture then, and now: Andrew Coppolino

CBC K-W food columnist Andrew Coppolino was joined by chef Derek Hines on Juneteenth to take a look at racial injustice in food culture from the holiday's roots in 1860s-America to now.

Observed on June 19th, it's considered 'Black Independence Day'

Chi Oriji leads a group in dance during the Juneteenth MusicFest and Parade, in Philadelphia on June 23, 2018. (Yong Kim/The Philadelphia Inquirer via The Associated Press)

Stereotypes in food marketing are in the spotlight this week.

Aunt Jemima is being retired and the companies behind Uncle Ben's and Mrs. Butterworth have committed to review their branding as well. 

Major food brands are just the latest group looking a little closer at how discrimination and racial injustice play out in our lives.

Friday, on "Juneteenth," The Morning Edition's guest host Julianne Hazlewood and I spoke with chef Derek Hines about the significance of the date — which goes back to June 19, 1865 — and racial injustice food culture then and now.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought wider attention to Juneteenth, outside the Black community, but it's still fairly new to many Canadians. 

Barbecues, picnics and celebratory outdoor parties characterize the holiday. 

Foods such as watermelon, red lemonade, strawberry soda and red velvet cake, consumed at the festive events, are culturally and historically significant to Juneteenth. The red is a tribute to the blood shed by the millions of people of African descent who suffered and died when enslaved.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

Julianne Hazlewood: Derek, Juneteenth dates to 1865. What is its significance?

Derek Hines: It was the date the last state in the Union recognized the Emancipation Proclamation. Two years after Lincoln freed the slaves, the news got to Texas.

You can imagine how excited they were to learn they were actually free. It's known in the south as Black Independence Day.

JH: And what are the food links in that long history?

DH: That's interesting. It happened the way a lot of food things happened to people. People come from a place and they bring what they can with them.

When they can't find what they normally cook with, they substitute what they can find. That's certainly true of slave cuisine that's sparked an entire food movement in the states.

JH: So there's a lot of resourcefulness that runs through it.

DH: Definitely. Interestingly, for the slaves on plantations, the food they got was the food the master wouldn't eat.

They got the dregs of the dregs, but that's where they got chitlins and other foods that they made edible, and making it taste like something they would have experienced in Africa. There was a tradition of passing that down through generations.

Andrew Coppolino: I'm interested, Derek, knowing the food culture here as well as you do, what do you see?

DH: It's really interesting in this community because you have a bunch of roads that lead back to Africa but in different ways.

You have traditional African restaurants operated by people who came from Africa and then you have restaurants which are cooking Black-inspired soul food. And then it's slaves from a different place with the Jamaican and Trinidadian influences in the food. It's really neat to see.

It's Africa from three different places. It's an awesome melange, for lack of a better word.

JH: When you look at the narrative we've seen recently, how do we change it? What needs to be revealed about our engagement with food?
Derek Hines runs Dinner by Derek and Boutique Catering in Kitchener. (Submitted by: KJ Bedford)

DH: That's a tough one. For a lot of people sometimes, I think we forget, because we're busy and what not, that we eat as a necessity.

We often don't think about where our food comes from.

Even if it's just once a week, when you sit down to a meal, take five seconds and try to find out where that food is from. Take the time to understand and appreciate what you're eating. Because most of the events that inspired that food happened a long time ago. We're experiencing it in real time now.

JH: What are you cooking up this weekend?

DH: I'll be eating some black-eyed peas and hopefully some red velvet cake. And if I can find some, I might even engage in a bottle or two of strawberry soda.

About the Author

Andrew Coppolino

Food columnist, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo

Andrew Coppolino is a food columnist for CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. He was formerly restaurant reviewer with The Waterloo Region Record. He also contributes to Culinary Trends and Restaurant Report magazines in the U.S. and is the co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare. A couple of years of cooking as an apprentice chef in a restaurant kitchen helped him decide he wanted to work with food from the other side of the stove.


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