This week’s Juneteenth festivities have included plenty of the region’s favorite foods. Some of these dishes have played a part in the celebrations ever since the first Emancipation Day parties held on June 19, 1866, commemorating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation’s arrival in Texas in 1865.
On June 19, 1865, the Union Army’s Gen. Gordon Granger stood on the steps of Ashton Villa, then — as now — one of Galveston’s finest structures gracing Broadway, and read aloud General Order No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired laborer.”
As early as the following year, Juneteenth — at the time known as Freedom Day or Emancipation Day — parties and picnics were held locally, in Austin and in other parts of Texas. Food historian Toni Tipton-Martin, an Austin resident and the author of “A Taste of Heritage: The New African American Cuisine,” has researched those early feasts and found similarities and differences between then and now.
Even though meat was barbecued and served at the first Juneteenth celebrations, Tipton-Martin points out that it had more significance at that time than it does for modern-day diners.
“We have so many more options,” she noted. “They had chicken or beef only on special occasions, so a barbecue was much more of a celebration.”
The barbecue was usually accompanied by an assortment of other foods, and it’s conceivable that some of those dishes were prepared from recipes published in the first cookbook written by an African-American woman. “A Domestic Cook Book: Containing A Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen” was written in 1866 by Malinda Russell, a Tennessee baker who passed along recipes for many of the desserts she sold in her pastry shop, along with recipes for fish, onion custard and omelets.
“What’s interesting is that the recipes cross all kinds of ethnic and social lines,” Tipton-Martin said. “Her catfish fricassee takes a common Southern item, catfish, but combines it with a classical French cooking technique.”
While many of the recipes in “A Domestic Cook Book” feature recognizable ingredients, cookbooks of the era generally had only the briefest instructions for the process.
“Malinda Russell prepared lots of very familiar things, but what is unfamiliar is some of the recipe constructions,” Tipton-Martin explained. “Anyone trying to duplicate these recipes might not understand the techniques because the language of domestic science was just beginning to emerge in America.”
There are always difficulties in reconstructing old recipes; wood-fired ovens were hard to regulate, and the temperature couldn’t be calibrated. Many ingredients, including flour, were different from what we buy today. Despite these hurdles, many home chefs have undertaken the challenge of trying to make modern versions of Malinda Russell’s recipes, and an important day in American history seems like the perfect time to recognize a milestone in American culinary history.
Sweet Onion Custard
- 4 large Vidalia or 1015 onions (about 6 medium), halved and thinly sliced
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup milk
- 2 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- Pepper, to taste
- chopped chives or green onion for garnish
In a large skillet over medium heat, cook onions in butter, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden in color — about 25 to 30 minutes. Turn the heat down if the onions start to brown as they cook.
Let onions cool to room temperature. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together milk, eggs and egg yolk, salt, nutmeg and pepper. Add cooked onions; stir well. Transfer to a well-buttered 11⁄2-quart baking dish or large deep-dish pie plate. Bake at 325 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes, or until lightly golden and a clean knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle with chives or green onion. Serve hot. Serves 4 to 6.
(recipe adapted by Jessica Webster, originally published in “A Domestic Cookbook”)
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
- 1⁄4 teaspoon salt
- 1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 egg
- 1 cup King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
- 1 cup toasted sesame seeds
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, salt, vanilla, baking soda, and egg. Add the flour and mix till smooth. Stir in the sesame seeds.
Drop the dough by tablespoonfuls onto parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheets. Bake the wafers in a preheated 350°F oven for 8 to 9 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove them from the oven, allow them to cool for 1 minute on the pan, then transfer the wafers to a wire rack to cool completely. Yield: 3 dozen 3-inch wafers.
(recipe courtesy King Arthur Flour)