It’s not often that fans can become pals, but The Roosevelt’s Executive Chef Leah Branch and food anthropologist, writer and podcast host Deb Freeman prove that mutual respect can make for a solid friendship foundation.
“I met Deb soon after starting at The Roosevelt [spring 2022],” says Branch. “When I found out about her podcast, I binged all episodes over the next 36 hours,” she laughs.
Freeman’s top-rated podcast, Setting the Table, explores African-American foodways and the indelible effect Black chefs, brewers and makers have had—and continue to have—on the American dining scene.
On Monday, June 19, Branch and Freeman—with libation assistance from The Roosevelt bar manager Zack McRoy and the restaurant’s wine consultant Troy Hancock—will present diners with eight carefully considered dishes, each bite honoring a Black chef from Virginia.
The event’s attendees will certainly recognize names like Edna Lewis and James Hemings, but Freeman will also discuss, in depth, lesser-known figures, like cidermaker and brewer Peter Hemings and the fried chicken women of Gordonsville.
“I knew about Juneteenth growing up, we definitely talked about it in my African-American history courses,” says Freeman. “But it wasn’t until the last few years that I viewed this as an event versus something that just happened in history.”
- Scott Elmquist
- Deb Freeman, food anthropologist, writer and podcast host of Setting the Table.
That history starts more than 150 years ago, when, on June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger informed the enslaved men and women of Galveston, Texas that the Civil War was over. They were free.
Well, freer than they had been—this new state of being was not without its own ugly strings attached.
Proclamation General Order No. 3 dictated that “all slaves are free” yes, but a few lines down instructed: “The Freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
In 2021, 156 years after Granger shared this life-altering news, Juneteenth was finally recognized as a federal holiday. The occasion may not have been marked for another 50 years if not for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the civil unrest of summer 2020 and calls to declare racism a public health crisis.
Still, the renewed interest and national recognition of Juneteenth has been a boon, birthing myriad celebrations over the past few years. In this case, a dream deferred is not a dream denied.
Connecting through food
“Food is one of the very few things enslaved people were able to hold onto in their culture,” says Freeman. “Their names were taken, their language, their religion. Food and how it was prepared and seasoned, that is something that is tangible over 400 years later.”
Juneteenth is not about celebrating General Order No. 3, a proclamation intent on telling newly freed men and women exactly who they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to do with their freedom. Juneteenth is a celebration of resilience, ingenuity, innovation and brilliance in the face of despair.
And nowhere is that brilliance more evident than in African American foodways.
“We have so few direct connections with Africa, in a lot of ways preparing food is one of those ways we were able to stay connected,” says Freeman.
The Roosevelt’s full Juneteenth Celebration dinner menu hasn’t been released, but Branch has offered a few teasers. “I’m probably most excited about the barbecue course,” says the chef. “I want to honor Black pit masters and make the best barbecue we can. I’ll be playing with parts of the pig and with using jams as condiments.”
- Scott Elmquist
- The Roosevelt is located at 623 N. 25th St. in Church Hill.
Branch’s barbecue will specifically pay homage to enslaved pitmaster Juba Garth, a man of great skill and little renown. Freeman mentions Garth and other similarly forsaken pitmasters in episode seven of Setting the Table, “Virginia: The Birthplace of Barbeque.”
“Each of these dishes is incredibly important not just to African-American history, but to Virginia culinary history as well,” explains Freeman. “A lot of people don’t know about barbecue and jam being a traditional pairing.”
McRoy, who will handle half the course pairings, is working on a cocktail to pair with the sweet/smoky/tangy elements of the barbecue course. “There’s a lot to pay tribute to,” says the bar manager.
McRoy says he started his own research for this special event in the spring. “I essentially took inspiration for the dinner by looking for any early mentions of African Americans in the cocktail industry, so I have a big list of names and I’m drawing from that.”
One of those names is Tom Bullock, a Kentucky native who put out the last cocktail book, “The Ideal Bartender,” before Prohibition. McRoy says this book is a “treasure trove,” and that he’ll be using one of Bullock’s original recipes for the evening’s opening drink.
“People forget that American mixology—especially southern mixology—is heavily rooted in the creativity of enslaved people,” says McRoy. “I’m taking some processes that these men and women used and blending that into a drink that’ll I’ll pair with one of the main entrees for the evening.”
Wine consultant Hancock’s Juneteenth dinner research was multi-faceted. As a wine pro, first and foremost he considered which varietals would pair best with Branch’s Southern-leaning menu.
- Scott Elmquist
- The Roosevelt's bar manager, Zack McRoy, and the restaurant’s wine consultant, Troy Hancock.
“You want to think about the dominant flavor of the dish,” says Hancock. “What wine could complement and embrace the flavor, or what could reduce the intensity of the dish?” Hancock found that medium-bodied wines—think Cab Franc, Viognier, Pinot Noir—paired well with southern-based dishes.
Hancock then looked for wines made in Virginia, which, serendipitously, pair well with Southern food.
“Virginia wineries are usually using high acid whites and reds due to the climate the grapes are growing in,” says Hancock. “That’s great for Southern food, when you’re cooking with a lot of fat you want high acid.”
Finally, Hancock looked for wine produced by Black makers. While there are not many Black-owned wineries in Virginia, Hancock was able to source a chillable red from Common Wealth Crush Co., a “custom crush and winery incubator” located in Waynesboro, VA and an Early Mountain Vineyard (Madison, VA) Chardonnay.
One of the leading voices in Black winemaking, Lee Campbell, is involved in both wine-making operations, partnering with Ben Jordan on the newly formed incubator project in the Shenandoah and serving as an ambassador for Early Mountain. “Campbell is so inspiring for Black wine pros,” says Hancock. “Having someone like her be a part the Virginia wine scene is really exciting.”
The Roosevelt’s Juneteenth Celebration dinner sold out in under two hours, but you can always inquire about waitlist status by emailing email@example.com or clicking the notify link on Resy.
Even if you cannot enjoy the sure-to-be brilliant eight courses on Juneteenth, you can find the same delicious ingenuity any given evening at The Roosevelt. Right now, you can get a taste of Freeman’s Nana’s collards, which Branch has integrated into her dinner menu, served as part of the tobacco smoked pork butt entrée.
“One of the really wonderful things about Leah is she is able to take this ancestral and cultural history, this cultural memory and take that a step further,” says Freeman. “She’s able to create something new and really expand the traditional knowledge of what a stereotypical Southern dish can be.”