Sweet Freedom


A shorter version of this was originally posted as a Brava Magazine web feature June 19th. You can view the story here.

seminaked red velvet layer cake buttercream.jpg

In the beautifully written The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes how people brought the Old Country with them as they migrated across the country. They did this through expressions and figures of speech, traditions, superstitions, music, food and ritual. She explains that “The people from Texas took Juneteenth Day to Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and other places they went. Even now, with barbeques and red soda pop, they celebrate June 19, 1865, the day the Union soldiers rode into Galveston, announced that the Civil War was over, and released the quarter-million slaves in Texas who, not knowing they had been freed, had toiled for two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.”

The most popular Emancipation holiday in the country, Juneteenth is, in some ways, the most American holiday of all, holding as it does, the tensions and ironies that mark this country’s history around ideas and practices of freedom and democracy. It’s more relevant now than it has been in decades for the same reasons. Much has been written about this relevance, but I’ll just post two recent, smart, and context-providing takes here. Vann R. Newkirk discusses “The Quintessential Americanness of Juneteenth” (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/06/juneteenth-celebration-police-brutality-justice/530898/) in the context of police brutality. In  “Hot Links and Red Drinks: The Rich Food Traditions of Juneteenth” (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/13/dining/juneteenth-food-slavery-abolition.html) L. Kasimu Harris shares some of the ways Black resilience and celebration of freedom get expressed through the holiday’s traditional red foods.

From hibiscus tea, to watermelon, strawberries, and barbequed hot links, red foods and drinks continue to be popular in the observation of Juneteenth—as Harris notes, the color represents a people’s ingenuity, resilience—and ultimately—freedom. In the spirit of the day, I’m sharing my red velvet cake recipe, which I adapted from the fantastic Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook. Also take note that although I reference gel paste coloring for vibrantly-colored cake, raw beet juice or beet simple syrup works well for a more muted, all natural version!


  • 3 C. cake flour

  • 1 tsp. baking soda

  • 2 tsp. cocoa powder

  • 8 Tbsp softened butter

  • 1 C. canola oil

  • 2 C. sugar

  • 4 eggs (*Consider adding two more for extra richness and moisture.)

  • Red food coloring

  • 1 tsp. cider vinegar

  • 1 tsp. vanilla

  • 1 C. full fat buttermilk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter, paper and flour two 9-inch pans. Next, sift together flour, soda and cocoa. Set aside. In a mixer bowl, cream butter, oil, and sugar for seven to eight minutes until very light and thick. Add eggs one at a time, blending well in between each before mixing in the food coloring, vinegar and vanilla thoroughly. Dry ingredients should be inserted last preferably in thirds while alternating with buttermilk and scraping the bowl. Pour into prepared pans and bake until an inserted knife comes out clean (about 35-40 minutes). Slather once cool with vanilla bean, cream cheese or goat cheese frosting and served with fresh berries for a crowd-pleasing finish.