There’s a big celebration happening across America this weekend, and I don’t just mean Father’s Day. Sunday is Juneteenth, and Black American families will gather to recognize the anniversary of the day many of their ancestors actually became free. I wrote about this last year when I created a cocktail that I called “Long Time Coming,” and I believe the message bears repeating. As a person who values diversity and inclusion, I feel humbled by the fact that Juneteenth and its meaning was not on my radar until only a few short years ago. I won’t go into all the feelings I have about the blatant omission of this important occasion in my public-school education because I’ve already said it and, well, it isn’t about me. The point is, Juneteenth is significant, and well worth celebrating! Last year, it finally became recognized as a U.S. holiday.
What is Juneteenth?
The word itself is a portmanteau, that is, a mashup of two words—in this case, June and nineteenth. And the occasion of Juneteenth is a big deal, especially to families with African-American ancestors. It was on June 19, 1865 that Union solders rode into Galveston, Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln had issued more than two years earlier. Though slavery had been abolished throughout the land, approximately a quarter-million people had remained enslaved in Texas. One year after the enforcement, the freed people organized a celebration called “Jubilee,” which evolved over the years into Juneteenth, as we know it today.
How do people celebrate Juneteenth?
Juneteenth is a joyous occasion, and many people celebrate with family reunions, picnics and church activities. Because this holiday happens in summer, most typical celebrations are held outdoors, and though there are many cookout-type foods you might find on the table, a few dishes are considered “traditional,” including pulled-pork barbecue, spicy sausages (known as “hot links”), collard greens, fried chicken and red velvet cake.
Why are red drinks served for Juneteenth?
The color red, in general, is significant for this holiday, which is why you’ll see watermelon on every table, and red drinks are considered traditional—most notably, strawberry soda. Around my part of the South, there’s a soft drink called Cheerwine that is bright red in color, and I expect it also is a typical offering at Juneteenth celebrations. The brilliant red color signifies two distinct themes—the blood shed by enslaved ancestors, as well as the courage and resiliency they exhibited in moving forward as freed people. Hibiscus tea, which has a tart-bitter flavor, is also a popular beverage for Juneteenth, and I have infused it into a simple syrup to give it prominence in this watermelon-hibiscus sorbet.
Ready to make this gorgeous, refreshing Juneteenth dessert? The ingredients list is short, thanks to the intensely complex flavor of the hibiscus ginger beer I discovered last year. This product will likely be found in the cocktail mixers section of your supermarket, rather than the soda aisle, as its founder created a full line of mixers to replace the sticky-sweet ingredients that had been standard for cocktail-making. What I like about the Q mixers is that they are not cloyingly sweet, and this hibiscus ginger beer has infusion of interesting spices, including chili pepper, coriander and cardamom. On its own, it is very intense (almost takes my breath away, frankly), but it is not designed to be consumed straight. It makes excellent cocktails, which I learned last year with my Juneteenth drink. And, it adds a lovely, zesty zing to this sorbet. If you can’t find the hibiscus ginger beer, substitute a regular ginger beer. My favorite is Reed’s brand, which is sweetened with honey and a touch of pineapple. Don’t let the “spicy” notes of ginger beer scare you away; by the time it’s blended with the watermelon, the kick is quite subtle. You could also substitute milder ginger ale, but I would recommend adjusting down the additional sugar if you do so.
Because the hibiscus ginger beer is not super-sweet, I needed to add some sugar to the mix and I did so by creating a simple syrup, which I infused with hibiscus tea for more of the sharp, tart flavor it offers. It is pretty easy to find hibiscus tea bags—most of the larger supermarkets in my area carry some brand of it—but if you can’t find it, a perfectly good substitute for this sorbet would be the Red Zinger tea by Celestial Brand. The flavor is different, but it’s red, and made from the flowers of African rooibos, which fits right in with the occasion of Juneteenth. The ideal ratio of sugar to water in the simple syrup will vary, depending on the ripeness of your watermelon and the sweetness of your ginger beer.
Finally, the star of the show is fresh summer watermelon. My husband reached way down into the display crate at the supermarket to grab the last personal size watermelon they had. When cut up into chunks, I had almost exactly 8 cups of this hydrating fruit. I couldn’t help nibbling on a few of the chunks and, of course, sharing with my favorite good dog.
When I was ready to make the watermelon-hibiscus sorbet, I fitted my new food processor with a large blade and added all of the watermelon to the processor bowl. Pulse a few times, then run it continuously until no pieces remain and it is very liquid. Add a pinch of salt to bring out the best in all the other flavors that are about to happen. Strain it into a large pitcher bowl, through a strainer with a fairly open mesh. You want to retain most of the pulp, but limit how many bits of seed make it into your sorbet. Yes, even the so-called “seedless” watermelons do actually have seeds; they are just smaller and more tender than the black seeds of yesteryear melons.
Add the hibiscus ginger beer and hibiscus-infused simple syrup. Squeeze both halves of a fresh lime and add that juice to the mixture. Freeze in an ice cream machine until it is nice and frosty.
Unlike ice cream, there is no risk of “over-churning” a sorbet. The main thing is that you want to be able to easily transfer the soft, frozen mixture to a freezer container, so it may be easier to stop churning when it is still somewhat “wet,” rather than completely frozen. Give it four hours in the freezer to firm up completely, and scoop to serve.
If you want to add a bit of booze (I think a bit of Jamaican rum or blanco tequila would be nice in this), limit it to no more than 1/4 cup, or it won’t freeze well. And if you’re serving kiddos, obviously, skip the booze.
No ice cream machine?
You can still make homemade sorbet—just give yourself a little bit of extra time. Consider adding a small amount of light corn syrup to the puree base—3 tablespoons ought to do it—to help keep the sorbet stable and avoid too many icy crystals. Pour the base directly into a freezer-safe container with a lid and freeze it for a couple of hours. Remove it, slush up the mixture with a fork and freeze two more hours, then repeat until it is fully frozen. If the consistency is too chunky, don’t worry. You can let it freeze as solid as you want and whirr up the chunks in a food processor or high-power blender just before serving.
- 8 cups fresh watermelon chunks
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 hibiscus tea bags
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup fair trade sugar (adjust amount to suit sweetness of watermelon and ginger beer)
- 1 can Q brand hibiscus ginger beer (or 1 cup of another ginger beer)
- Juice of 1 lime
- a pinch of salt
- Fit the bowl of a food processor with a large blade. Add watermelon chunks (in batches, if necessary) and pulse a few times, then puree until liquid. Stir in a pinch of salt. Strain the puree into a pitcher bowl through a large-mesh strainer to filter out lingering seed bits. Chill until ready to proceed.
- Heat water over medium heat until boiling. Turn off heat and add hibiscus tea bags. Steep five minutes and discard tea bags. Stir in sugar until dissolved. Cool completely.
- Add ginger beer and hibiscus-infused simple syrup to the watermelon puree. Give it a taste to check sweetness. If it needs additional sugar, make a small amount of rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) and add to the puree. Alternatively, stir in a few tablespoons of light corn syrup. Squeeze lime juice into the puree. If the mixture is not completely cold, chill it down in the fridge for an hour or so.
- Freeze in an ice cream machine until slushy. Transfer to an insulated freezer container and freeze several hours until firm.
Want to make a boozy sorbet? Add no more than 1/4 cup of light or Jamaican rum, vodka or blanco tequila before freezing.