Red Food

How Red Food and Drink Became a Staple of Juneteenth

From red meat to red velvet, red foods and drinks have been a staple since before the time of slavery.

The Celebration

On June 19, 2021, the Wheeling Community will gather to celebrate Wheeling’s third annual Juneteenth Celebration. June 19, or “Juneteenth,” is a day to celebrate and commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. It was on June 19, 1865 that Union Troops landed in Galveston, Texas and informed enslaved individuals that they were now free, over two years after President Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation.

It took many years before black communities were fully free, and the struggle for civil rights continues to this day. But these injustices have never stopped the celebrations that take place on June 19. In Wheeling, the day’s events will begin with a short ceremony at Market Plaza, followed with a celebration at Heritage Port. These public gatherings, full of food, music, and fellowship are an integral part of Juneteenth.

Red Food and Drinks

A staple of these celebrations are red food and drinks. Historically, the color red was often attributed as a symbol of the blood shed of the millions of enslaved individuals that lived and died in captivity. While certainly symbolic, the tradition of red foods may actually be traced back to the cultural practices of the Yoruba and Kongo, two populations from modern-day central West Africa.

These people were enslaved in the United States, but born in or descendants of individuals born in Africa. Culinary historian Michael Twitty writes, “after slavery ended, enslaved people began to recall and re-construct their experience through the celebration of Juneteenth. The practice of eating red foods—red cake, barbecue, punch and fruit– may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century. For both of these cultures, the color red is the embodiment of spiritual power and transformation.”1 Important not only in foodways, the color red is found in stories of spirituality and charm. Red objects, cloth, and symbols are found throughout the folkore of west African cultures.

Red in Wheeling

Wheeling’s own Juneteenth Celebration will keep the tradition of red foods and drink alive. The two main attractions? Fresh pulled pork and ribs slathered in red sauce and sweet treats and drinks of the same hue.

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Double D’s BBQ Food Truck will be serving up a selection of ribs, pulled pork, bbq fries, and chicken. Based in Wellsburg, Carla and her husband started their food truck as a way to share their love of food with others. They’re excited to share their signature BBQ recipe, as well as homemade sides.

GypsyLace Cafe plans to serve drinks and sweets for the event. In an effort to show their appreciation for the culinary history of Juneteenth, their booth will feature two special red items: red hibiscus iced tea and red velvet cupcakes. The tea will be offered to attendees free of charge. “We wanted to create something for this event that acknowledged the tradition of red food and drink because we’re so happy to be part of this celebration,” said Sarah Williams, owner of GypsyLace Cafe.

Whether eating red food and drinks is a part of your Juneteenth celebration or not, it’s important to remember that there is no one way to celebrate this holiday. Wheeling’s events will include a ceremony, musical performances, food, drinks, and even COVID-19 vaccines. Other area events will feature lectures, dance competitions, and virtual programs.

READ MORE: Celebrate Juneteenth Across the Ohio Valley

Ron Scott, Wheeling’s Juneteenth committee chair and Cultural Diversity and Outreach Coordinator at the YWCA said it best, “at the end of the day, we hope that these feelings of recognition and community extend beyond Juneteenth. We want this celebration to be one part of a lifestyle of inclusion and acceptance, not just one day.”

Betsy Sweeny is the director of heritage programming at Wheeling Heritage. She is an architectural historian, yoga teacher and dog mom to her rescue dog Marshall.


1 Twitty, Michael., Terroir Noire: African American Foodways in Slavery, Texas. Afroculinaria., Ken, Chef, Gary, Anna, & Name. (2012, January 10).