Juneteenth memories

Juneteenth is our first African American holiday. But it almost did not happen. The word Juneteenth is colloquial phrasing for an approximate June date when enslaved African Americans in Texas learned that they were free. June 19, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, also known in Texas as Emancipation Day. But like many black folks, I knew nothing about it growing up in New York. I learned about Juneteenth as an adult while living in Oakland during the eighties.

With the huge African American population that migrated from Texas and Louisiana to the Bay Area, Juneteenth was widely celebrated, especially in Oakland and Berkeley. I remember house parties and block parties everywhere back then! I could not keep up with the month-long festivities!

'One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series' at MoMA
‘One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series’ at MoMA

As I remember it, Juneteenth was highlighted by food, especially barbecue and Gumbo. Events were held in private homes and backyards of friends and neighbors. That was where I was introduced to deeper understandings about African American food legacy and regional culinary traditions. Folks cooked with recipes passed down from slavery. It seemed like everyone had ‘secret ingredients’ for gumbo. And talk about barbecue! Folks would talk about their sauce and meat preparation like religion. These discussions fueled fierce local cooking competitions or ‘throw-downs’ years before the Cooking Channel TV shows existed. I remember folks sharing stories about their legendary grandmothers, aunts and uncles who were great cooks, their original recipes and cooking techniques.

Gumbo fixings
Gumbo fixings

“Everybody knows Texans make the best barbecue!” Somebody would always make that controversial statement. Heated dialogue would ensue. What fun! What pride! Celebrants would passionately speak about how they prepped, brined, rubbed or smoked their meat and various ways to create delicious sauce. These epic food stories would go on year after year.

I also recall Juneteenth celebrants’ love of Blues music. There was a popular Blues venue in Berkeley where B. B. King often played. I don’t recall exact names but I used to go to blues clubs back then. So, Juneteenth was definitely a holiday marked with a Texas flavor of Black American culture– food, music, dance, art, crafts, theater, poetry, and Afrocentric fashion and designs.

Although US President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery after the Civil War by signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, (two years before Juneteenth) over 200,000 African Americans remained enslaved in Texas, a Confederate stronghold. Some slaveholders moved their slaves to Texas to avoid setting them free. It took a special decree (General Order 3) and 2000 Union (Federal) troops to make freedom happen. That’s how Juneteenth was born.

African American Civil War soldiers
African American Civil War soldiers

I believe that many of the African Americans in Texas probably knew that they were free, but would not take any risks to prove it. Word traveled too quick in our ‘grapevine’ back then for them to not know something so important. January 1, the day that the Emancipation Proclamation took effect, should be our official Emancipation Day. Click here for a link to my story about ‘Waiting for the Hour,” artwork that hangs in the White House today. It tells our pivotal history. “Watch Night,” a New Year’s Eve tradition, is a spiritual holiday celebrated in many African American churches. But few realize the connection to the end of slavery.

As a child, I celebrated a Caribbean-style Emancipation Day with my West Indian relatives during August. British slavery, also known as the Transatlantic Trade, ended about 30 years before American slavery ended. On August 28, 1834, slavery ended in the British Empire, including its Caribbean colonies. Today, Emancipation Day is celebrated widely throughout the West Indies with summertime Carnival events.

Here are my Top 5 Juneteenth Things to Do:

  1. Read about Frederick Douglass, New York and how the end of slavery was celebrated: When the Civil War ended in April of 1865, the racial hostilities that fueled New York’s draft riots two years earlier still smoldered. Amid preparations for Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession to pass through the city, the Common Council (now City Council) initially prohibited blacks from participating in the grand parade.” Read more by clicking here.
  2. Celebrate in Brooklyn, Sunday, June 14: The Fort Greene Brooklyn Juneteenth Arts Festival is coming to Cuyler Gore Park, Sunday, June 14th, 2015. All-day entertainment will be highlighted by music, dance, poetry, drama, Spoken word, and comedy. Check the website or on facebook.
  1. Black Ancestry webinar, Friday, June 19: The Great Migration of Black folks out of Texas to the West Coast caused the holiday to spread. We all know how difficult it continues to be to find and document African American ancestral records. My friend Sharon Morgan’s Black Ancestry site will sponsor a free webinar in honor of Juneteenth set for Friday, June 19. Records of the Antebellum Southern Plantation is accessible via computer or mobile phone. Click here for more information and to register.
  1. Celebrate in Texas: In case you did not know, Texas is like a separate country! Texas Emancipation Day is a huge holiday there. My white Texan Smith College schoolmates reminded me recently that they celebrated Juneteenth for decades! In fact, the Texas holiday became so respected—bigger than July 4th, that it was common for white politicians to join in annual celebrations that often drew crowds of thousands. “In 1872, a group of African American ministers in Houston helped raise money from the community to purchase a 10-acre plot of land in the Third Ward, which they named Emancipation Park. It has served as the cultural center of the city’s African American community, and the site of Juneteenth celebrations, ever since.“Blacks would come from all over,” said singer Kijana Wiseman, the chair of this month’s celebration. “People would dress up in their finery, they would dance, and there were bands and music. It was a real gala affair.”  To read the full article, click here.
  1. Read about Ralph Ellison’s book Juneteenth. It received mixed reviews. But the story about how the book came to be published deserves our attention. Click here for a link to a newspaper clip.

Do you celebrate Juneteenth?


Top 5 Food Poems

food and poetry books






food and poetry books with tea and fruit basket

My top five food poets were chosen in honor of National Poetry Month and Earth Day. Actually, I was somewhat inspired to think about my ‘top five’ things in life after watching Chris Rock’s comedy “Top Five,” where various folks were asked to list their top five rappers.

I don’t have any top five rappers because, well, I don’t know any. I don’t listen to modern rap music. I tried once and hated it. I do prefer old-school music artists who know how to rap like Arthur Prysock, Gil Scott Heron and Marvin Gaye.

As I began to research this theme of food and poetry, I discovered that poems about food and beverage especially wine, were written since the beginning of time. I read Horace ‘Odes III.21′  that opened with a line about a wine-jar. Rumi’s poem (1207) “The Grape Cure’ is about fasting. And then there is the Bible which is full of poetry from both the New Testament and Old Testaments, especially the Hebrew Bible, Song of Songs, and Lamentations. Here is a link to a lesson plan to learn more about Biblical poetry.

But to get back on track, I do have many  ‘top fives’  in a variety of categories like films, flowers, or songs. For April, I decided to draw up a short list of my top five African American poets who cooked up poems about food. I immediately saw a connection to Earth Day, another April holiday. There is a connection! Poems have a way of bringing us back to earth, the garden and memories. The poems that I chose were written by: Rita Dove, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander, Nikki Giovanni, and Langston Hughes. This was the theme of my recent story for the food magazine zesterdaily.com.

“April is National Poetry Month. For Zester foodies I bring — not a recipe — but a taste of the work of my favorite African-American poets who chose food as metaphor and main ingredient.

“I think poems return us to that place of mud and dirt and earth, sun and rain,” African-American poet Kevin Young said in an interview on National Public Radio’s “The Salt” program. “And that’s where food comes from, and so there’s this common link.

I agree.”

Click here for a link to read my complete story in Zesterdaily.com.




Turks & Caicos memories

Turks & Caicos is where I go to unwind and un-plug. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde

Spending time at the beach is my way of caring for myself. Here are photos from a recent trip to Turks & Caicos, a favorite getaway. Usually, my husband and I wake up early, have breakfast, and stroll along the shore. Later, we find a beach lounge chair and settle in. We live a very busy New York City life. So, this is one of our ways to relax. We breathe the sea air, lay in the sun, listen to the waves and gaze at the beautiful turquois Grace Bay. Sometimes we sit in the shade by the pool. We eat the local Caribbean Creole food and drink island beer. It’s a very simple life, if only for a few weeks.
We always visit our friend Amy, who lives there. I take a taxi to a nearby hotel and we meet-up for an outdoor yoga class. Afterwards, we pick up my husband and head back to her house where she cooks us lunch. Most days end by looking at the sunset while eating dinner.

Chinese New Years 2015

Cookie & Aunt DotMy Chinese family

Chinatown Tea Parlor
Happy Chinese New Year 2015! I am honored to acknowledge my Chinese ancestors who migrated from China to Trinidad and Guyana in the British West Indies as indentured workers. After the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, workers from China and India were engaged to replace the enslaved Africans. To learn more about this hidden Caribbean and Asian history, I recommend two amazing texts: Indentured Labor, Caribbean Sugar: Chinese and Indian Migrants to the British West Indies, 1838-1918 by Walton Look Lai, (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1993); and The Coolie Speaks: Chinese Indentured Laborers and African Slaves in Cuba, by Lisa Yun, (Temple University Press,2008).

My Chinese Trinidadian maternal grandmother taught me many of her traditions — from Buddhism, cooking, gardening, palmistry, face reading also known as physiognomy to astrology. I was born in the year of the Dragon, considered the most powerful and lucky signs in the zodiac. I learned from an early age about all of the Chinese astrological animals.

This is the year of the Goat. Celebrate if your birth year is listed here: 1919, 1931, 1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, or 2015. Your lucky colors are brown, red and purple. Lucky numbers are 2 and 7. Your lucky flowers are carnations and primrose. In Chinese astrology, goats are very different from Western Capricorn goats. Chinese goats are delicate thinkers, creative and love team activities. To learn more, click here.

Although it’s not a national holiday, New Yorkers will celebrate big time with a parade in NYC Chinatown, Sunday, February 22, 1-3pm. Please join me!
Here’s link.

How do you celebrate Chinese New Years?

February food passions

February foods, Trinidad Dahl soupFebruary food passions, Dahl soup ingredients
February foods hold many passions for me. Blessed with diverse cooking genes, I’m always torn between Creole foods served during Trinidad Carnival and Louisiana Mardi Gras, and/or Chinese New Year’s food. In the end, my mother’s Chinese Trinidadian Dahl won out. With New York’s frigid weather and a recent cold, this steaming hot, flavorful vegan pea soup hit the spot. Dahl, Daal, or Dal are common spellings for this aromatic soup.

Dahl is simple, easy and a great introduction to Indian cooking. All you need are some split peas, vegetable broth and Indian spices. This recipe is on the thick side because Trinis usually serve it with rice. You may add broth at the end to make it soupier. Use Chana Dal peas, when cooking for Diabetics (for better glycemic index). They look like yellow split peas and are found only in Indian grocers. My sister adds more vegetables and also uses coconut milk, a tradition for many. There are many ways to prepare Dahl. This recipe is a good starter. Let me know how it goes.

For a great introduction to Trinidad’s diverse culinary scene in New York check: “Roti, Shark, and Buss-up Shot-Get to know the Trinidadian food of NYC,” click here.

For one of my Mardi Gras recipes, check out a guest post on friend Patricia Patton’s site that featured my Vegan Creole Gumbo Recipe. Click here for details.

I will write about Chinese New Years in a future post. But to read my past holiday post, click here.

Trinidad Dahl Soup Recipe

Equipment: 5 qt. soup pot, medium fry pan, large bowl to wash peas, colander to rinse peas; optional potato masher or immersion blender. Total prep & cooking time: 1 hour 30 minutes or less. Serves 6.

1 T vegetable oil
1 chopped medium onion
4 garlic cloves, smashed or split
6 cups vegetable broth
2 cups split peas=1 cup yellow, 1 cup red
1 Bay Leaf
1 Scotch Bonnet Pepper or Habanero
1 T Tumeric
1 tsp. Ginger powder
1 tsp. Cayenne
2 tsp. Ginger chopped
1 T Brown Mustard seeds
1 T Cumin seeds
1 T Coriander Seeds
1 tsp. Sea Salt, to taste
Garnish: 1 cup Cilantro, chopped and sprigs, 1 Lemon.

Prep & Cook: Wash peas in cold water, drain in colander, chop onions, smash garlic, mince ginger, measure out all seasonings and put all aside.
Add peas to pot, add 5 cups of broth (reserve 1 cup for adding at end), 2 whole, smashed garlic cloves, 1 Bay Leaf, 1 whole Scotch Bonnet or Habanero Pepper, Tumeric. You should have at least 2 inches of liquid above peas. Bring to boil. Lower the flame to a medium heat, cook about 40 minutes, or until peas are tender. Almost finished!

To set up the soup for the finish, remove and discard Bay Leaf. Remove and put aside Scotch Bonnet or Habanero pepper. Use masher or immersion blender to puree it to your preferred creamy consistency. I usually skip that part or use a hand masher. Maintain a very low heat.
In fry pan, cook the rest of the ingredients in oil: chopped onion, remainder 2 garlic cloves, ginger powder, chopped ginger pieces, Cayenne, until onions are translucent. Add all the whole seeds as last items-Mustard, Cumin, and Coriander. Mix seeds into onion-garlic mixture just for a few seconds. Scrape contents of fry pan into soup and stir. Add pepper back to pot. Add salt and additional broth and water, to desired consistency. Heat to bubble, turn very low for about 10 minutes. Stir, and taste. Done!

Serve and garnish each bowl with Cilantro and a squeeze of Lemon. Eat with rice or Nan bread. Enjoy!