Meatless Monday, Juneteenth Edition…Or, Lessons from African American Cooking

If you read my Celebrating Summer post, you know this is one of a series of posts about recent celebrations. But I’m starting with this one because it was actually on a Meatless Monday.

I’m not an African American, so Juneteenth has only recently become one of my regular holidays. So I don’t have a food tradition around it like I do some other of the other holidays. That means it is a great opportunity to start a holiday tradition based on a plant-based diet.

I’m a homeschooler mom–or I was; I homeschooled my son from birth all the way through high school. I’ve always approached holidays as teaching and learning opportunities. In this case, it was a learning opportunity for me!

I knew African Americans typically celebrated the day with a “cook out,” which apparently means what I think of as a potluck, not necessarily a BBQ. However, grilled foods figure predominantly in their menus. I had recently done something close to vegetarian BBQ (that post is coming), so I didn’t really want to do that again. So what to fix?

My research led me to a WONDERFUL documentary series on African American cooking called High on the Hog (available on Netflix). In four episodes, it discusses the contributions to American cooking by African Americans, most of which have never or rarely been acknowledged. Although there is an episode focused on Juneteenth, that is not where I got the inspiration for my main dish. Instead, in Episode 2, I discovered that America’s love affair with macaroni and cheese can be traced back to one man: James Hemings (brother of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman with whom President Thomas Jefferson had six children), an enslaved man serving as chef to Jefferson. Jefferson brought James Hemings with him when he was ambassador to France, and James Hemings studied French cooking with some of the experts of the day. Macaroni, or any extruded pasta, was basically unknown at the time in the US, so it was James Hemings who brought that dish to our country, served via Jefferson’s dinner parties. I was so excited about learning the source of this ubiquitous dish at American barbeques that I knew I wanted to make what Hemings called “Macaroni Pie” for the main course of my vegetarian Juneteenth meal.

Now, while the TV show makes Macaroni Pie during this episode, it doesn’t give a precise recipe. Nor could I find a definitive recipe on the Internet from a confirmed source, such as the TV show or Montecello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation (their webesite has a lot of recipes and information on food of his time). However, Hemings had a unique approach to mac and cheese. He boiled the pasta in a liquid that was half water and half milk. He then laid the ingredients in layers–first pasta, then butter, then cheese, for a total of three or four layers–and placed the pot in the wood-burning stove, including coals on the top of the pot so the upper crust of the pie would brown.

Fortunately, as my long-time readers know, I’m a self-proclaimed Pirate in the Kitchen; I approach recipes like Captain Barbasso’s quote: “They’re more like guidelines than actual rules” (click here for reference.) So I embraced this chance to try this revolutionary (to me) approach to mac and cheese with my own preferences. I got a pound of regular elbow macaroni (although I usually use whole wheat) and actually measured the amount of liquid I cooked it in to make sure it was half water, half milk (I think it was 2 1/2 cups of each). I boiled the pasta for about 8? I think? minutes.

I shredded a pound of extra sharp white cheddar and added about a quarter pound of gruyere (it seemed like Hemings would have included at least some French cheese) and a quarter pound of smoked gouda (the Dutch were also prevalent in the early American country, so that seemed appropriate, and I wanted to add a bit of smoky taste).

I boiled the pasta until tender rather than al dente as I usually do for baked macaroni, then layered the pasta with a coating of butter, then cheese, then another layer for three layers.

I put it in the oven and cooked it at 350 degree for 45-50 minutes, then took off the top and broiled it for a few minutes to create a browned top crust.

While that baked, I returned to my main vegetable. In looking at Juneteenth, collard greens were a recurring theme. But I’ve never cooked collard greens. However, I noticed that collard green recipes often cooked for many hours. The recipes said that gave them the collards more time to absorb the flavors of the other ingredients. Now, I didn’t have collard greens, but I did have kale I had gotten from the Downtown Cary Farmers Market. I will admit that I don’t love kale. However, I buy it regularly and throw some of it into various dishes to up their vegetable quotient. But if I cooked it like this, could I like kale on its own? I decided to give it a try.

I sauteed some onions and garlic, which I got from the Farmers Market, added some spices, then two types of kale I had bought at the Farmers Market (Lacinto and Curly), and covered it with water. Then I left it to simmer for almost three hours.

Finally there was dessert. Having just gotten the first fresh peaches from a Farmers Market, I thought I would make a peach dessert. Looking on the Internet, I found a recipe for “Black Folks Southern Peach Cobbler Recipe” (click here for recipe) by Shaunda Necole, who has a wonderful website entitled: The Soul Food Pot-Ethnic Food Made Easy. I know I will be returning to this website as I seek to continue my education about other food traditions.

The thing about Necole’s recipe is that she makes a crust using Bisquick that she puts on the bottom, rather than over the peaches, because it rises and envelopes the fruit. I’d never heard of that before, but it sounded interesting so I gave it a try. My dish before cooking looked like this:

The picture at the top of this blog shows how it looked after baking it for about an hour.


The Macaroni Pie was really good. It is definitely more mac and cheese than mac and creamy sauce and cheese. So if the orange mac and cheese from the box is your vibe, you may not love this. But we really liked it.

Some people, such as on the TV show, talked about how silky and coated the noodles were, and I didn’t really get that. But it was good. On the Internet, several people commented on how well this heated up as leftovers. I will admit, many of my home-made mac and cheese recipes haven’t done that well as leftovers. Often the pasta is hard and/or there is a lot of oil that separates from the sauce. So, in YOUR interest, I heated up some of the leftovers for lunch. And I would say this Macaroni Pie heated up as leftovers better than almost any other mac and cheese I’ve ever made. The pasta was still soft and there was no extra oil. It was as good as the night before, which almost never happens with my home made mac and cheese without emulifiers and such.

So, James Hemings, my hat is off to you. Your approach is easier, because I don’t have to make a roux or a sauce in addition to everything else, and tastes as good with less fat. I’ll be following your technique for Macaroni Pie from now on. I’m sorry it took this long for me to learn about you, but I’ll try to spread your legacy.

In terms of the kale, I think it was better. It’s still not my favorite vegetable, but it was more flavorful and less bitter. So I appreciate knowing this new way to cook a very prevalent and healthy green.

Peach cobbler was also a win. The batter kind of envelopes the peaches, making it almost a fried cake thing? But it was delicious. And it was easy.

And, to be honest, I enhanced it with an ice cream that some national organization said was the best commercial ice cream in the country:

So this may not seem very Juneteenth except…

Jeni’s is President Joe Biden’s favorite ice cream. I believe it is from the North East, where he is from. Jeni herself has supported a lot of Democratic candidates and causes, including Joe Biden. And Joe Biden is the President who signed making Juneteenth into a Federal Holiday a law, so I think it has at least a bit of a Juneteenth connection.

All I can tell you if you make this recipe with fresh local organic peaches and this ice cream, well….

I think it is the very definition of celebration. And a lovely finish for a meat-free meal that recognizes an African American chef who introduced us to a favorite American dish. What a great dinner!

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