Restaurant owners strive to spread the message of Juneteenth

Some of Oakland’s most prominent restaurateurs say they never heard about Juneteenth in school.

Oakland restaurateurs Elijah Brown (credit: Pimpin Chkn), Lala Harrison (credit: Chef Lala/Instagram) and Nelson German (credit: Nelson German/Instagram).

If you’re reading this website, you’re likely familiar with Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. For several years now, groups like Berkeley Juneteenth Cultural Celebrations and the Downtown Oakland Association have marked the occasion with music, talks and an amazing selection of food from Black restaurants and vendors. But Juneteenth wasn’t always so widely understood, three prominent local food figures say, and though many of the 2020 and 2021 celebrations have been subdued by the pandemic, a number of local chefs are working extra hard to mark this year’s Juneteenth any way they can.

Juneteenth has been an informal holiday since 1865, and in 1979, Texas became the first state to make it an official holiday. It wasn’t until 2003 that California followed suit, and on Thursday, President Biden officially signed a bill making every June 19 a federal holiday known as Juneteenth National Independence Day. According to several Black East Bay food figures who spoke with Nosh, however, they never heard about Juneteenth from official institutions like local governments or schools, but instead learned about its history from family and friends.

Chef Lala Harrison, the chef/owner of the Jusla Eats pop-up, thinks fondly of the Juneteenth celebrations she attended growing up. “We celebrated for most of my life. We used to go to different celebrations hosted in the Bay Area. It’s about freedom and independence, kind of like the African-American Independence Day,” she said, but noted that she never heard about the day or its meaning in any of her history classes.

On Saturday, June 19, Harrison is holding a Juneteenth fundraiser to generate startup funds for her upcoming Temescal District restaurant, Roux40. Like her soon-to-open restaurant, the fundraiser will showcase her Southern and Cajun-inspired cuisine. Harrison says the event is a way for the community to celebrate Black heritage by gathering and breaking bread together. 

“It’s never too late to educate. [Roux40] will be about celebrating Black heritage and history throughout the year, 24/7,” Harrison said. “People need to understand that Black people are still currently going through so much. Just a little bit of acknowledgement to the work and the history is nice.”

Bay Area restaurateur Elijah Brown, who also owns the L12 event space, is a relative newcomer to Juneteenth. He, too, grew up in the Bay Area but said that “I didn’t know what Juneteenth was until sometime last year,” when the holiday gained increased national attention following the police killing of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. That he was unaware of the holiday “just shows the amount of oppression that people of color have been dealing with for the past 500-plus years,” Brown said.

All this week, Brown’s L12 event space has showcased Black-owned businesses as part of Oakland’s Juneteenth Black Excellence Week. This weekend, Brown is hosting a fried-chicken pop-up dinner on Friday, June 18, and a Black Chef collective dinner on Saturday, June 19, both intended as Juneteenth celebrations. 

“My message to everyone is to keep learning, and keep diving into the past,” Brown said. “The whole week is to celebrate our freedom. We’re moving forward as well by learning these things and taking them with us — not for the hate, but for the success, and the achievements that all of us have been accomplishing.” A quarter of the events’ ticket sales will go to Farms to Grow Inc. and the Deep Root Center for Spiritual Studies.

Chef Nelson German, who owns Oakland’s Sobre Mesa and alaMar restaurants, isn’t from the Bay Area: He was born and raised in Washington Heights, New York, and has said in previous interviews that his Dominican family “denied our Black side.” He says he first heard about Juneteenth a couple of years ago, from restaurant guests arriving after celebrating the holiday in Oakland. 

This year, German won’t be in Oakland, though. He’s headed to Houston to join chefs Dawn Burrell, Kiki Louya and Chris Viaud for a five-course Jubilee dinner, organized by Burrell to commemorate the holiday. The term “jubilee” is a nod to the celebration of emancipation, as the earlier Juneteenths were also referred to as Jubilee Day. 

The dinner’s menu is focused on the African diaspora, which reflects German’s far-flung background, as well: He recently discovered that his family history extends back to Cameroon. “Africa influenced the world in so many ways. We’re honoring our roots and where we are now,” German said. 

For the Jubilee dinner, German will be preparing a plantain stuffed with oxtail dressed with Pigeon pea and coconut mousse, as well as a braised dish with West African red stew, honoring the African, Dominican and Spanish elements of his heritage. Proceeds for the dinner will go towards Lucille’s 1913, a nonprofit providing fresh meals to unserved communities in Houston.

Being in Texas for Juneteenth is especially important for German. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 and the Confederate army surrendered on April 9, 1865, it wasn’t until Union troops arrived in Texas on June 19, 1865, that the last American slaves were actually freed. “Juneteenth itself is about the African American slaves in Texas that were free, but they didn’t know that they were free,” German said. “Now the reverse is happening, where we didn’t know about Juneteenth, and now we do. … To have four Black chefs cooking together in a town that basically really felt what happened is really special, and we are doing this dinner to honor those that did not realize they had their freedom,” German said.

Like Harrison and Brown, German says that now that he’s aware of Juneteenth, he wants it to become as much as a part of U.S. life as the Fourth of July.

“It’s what’s been going on for years, where certain things are not talked about, or that we shouldn’t be celebrating something that was so horrible,” German said. “But, we should be celebrating the liberating aspect [of the historic date]. It’s something that we should be celebrating every day.”