Locals Honor a Santa Rosa Juneteenth Tradition with Community and Soul Food

Sonoma County’s Juneteenth celebrations go back over 70 years — with food and family at the heart of the tradition.

In the 1950’s, on a 10-acre ranch in southwest Santa Rosa, Marteal “Mother” Perry hosted Sonoma County’s first Juneteenth celebration. The tradition continued for 70 years, carried on by her children and grandchildren, hosting a large picnic for extended family and friends.

A few miles away and a few years later, Harold Rogers was part of a group of college students who held a protest to prevent a proposed street from dividing what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Santa Rosa. The students prevailed, and their protest evolved into an annual gathering that became Sonoma County’s official Martin Luther King-Juneteenth festival, now in its 54th year.

Also known as Freedom Day, Juneteenth commemorates the day in June of 1865 when Union troops arrived in Texas to finally share the news that the enslaved people of Texas had been freed—some two years earlier—by the Emancipation Proclamation. The federal holiday is a day to learn and to center the Black experience—and it’s one that our entire community can gather around.

People gather around a picnic table full of classic Juneteenth fare in Santa Rosa. (Eileen Roche)

“I would like for everyone to celebrate it, for people to come together at parks, and in backyards, or at an event or a parade,” says Nancy Rogers, Harold’s wife and longtime organizer of the official Sonoma County Juneteenth gathering.

Food, says Nancy Rogers, is a common thread in every Juneteenth celebration, and food is always a way to bring people from many cultures together. Nancy and Harold have run a catering business, Rohnert Park’s Red Rose Catering, for decades. “We as Black people, food is our thing. It’s part of who we are,” says Rogers.

Mahkaila McGowan-Gans has been attending Juneteenth celebrations her whole life. The 21-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College nursing student, along with her mother, Nancy Gans, runs Smackin’ Soul Food, a weekly pop-up at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. Dishes like fried chicken, mac and cheese, and cornbread always make an appearance when they cater Juneteenth events.

Mahkaila McGowan-Gans
Student and soul food chef Mahkaila McGowan-Gans with her family’s spicy mac and cheese. (Eileen Roche)

The color red is a symbol of joy and resilience that figures prominently in Juneteenth food traditions. From the mahogany sauce basted on ribs or tri-tip to ruby-fleshed watermelon, or summer’s first juicy tomatoes, there are many options to weave red throughout a Juneteenth meal. Red drinks are popular—including tea made with hibiscus flowers, which are indigenous to western Africa, red soda, and fruit punch. The nostalgia of Big Red, a soft drink similar to cream soda, speaks to Gans, who grew up in Texas where it originated.

For dessert, Nancy Rogers says the Juneteenth celebration at Martin Luther King Jr. Park features plenty of soul food classics made by members of a local church, including sweet potato pie, red velvet cake, and peach cobbler, a dish Nancy often makes for family gatherings when she’s not busy running the Juneteenth Festival. “The crust helps make the pie,” says Rogers, whose buttery crust envelops the peaches she cooks with brown sugar and spice.

From start to finish, the Juneteenth meal is made and enjoyed with the memories of those who came before never far from mind. Rogers begins each of her Juneteenth events with a moment to receive the blessings of ancestors, often bestowing the honor of leading the libations on one of the elder members of her community in attendance that day.

McGowan-Gans says she hopes for a day when every American has a fuller understanding of our newest national holiday. “I want it to be a moment we take to acknowledge how far we have come.”

And while it may be food that brings people to the table, Nancy Rogers points out that we’re called there to celebrate wrongs made right and recognize there is room for forward progress. “Everyone can get together and say this is something we should always know that happened…We can’t ever forget, and we don’t ever want to go back there.”

A potluck holiday menu with all kinds of deliciousness: crispy fried chicken, bright salads, and mac and cheese. (Eileen Roche)
A potluck holiday menu with all kinds of deliciousness: crispy fried chicken, bright salads, and mac and cheese. (Eileen Roche)

Memaw’s Mississippi Fried Chicken

Serves 4-6, easily doubled

This recipe was handed down to Nancy Gans via her grandmother’s cookbook. She recommends going all out with the spices, as it makes a big difference in flavor.

1 (3-pound) whole bone-in chicken, cut into 10 pieces

1 tbsp. kosher salt

5-6 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tsp. hot sauce (more to taste)

1 tbsp. Creole seasoning

1 quart buttermilk

1 cup all-purpose flour ¼ cup cornstarch

1 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. paprika

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. white pepper

1 tsp. garlic powder

1 tsp. onion powder

1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper

2 tsp. dried herbs (thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano)

5 cups vegetable oil, for frying

Place chicken pieces in a large bowl. Season liberally with salt, garlic, hot sauce and Creole seasoning. Pour the butter milk over, then transfer the entire mixture to a gallon-sized zipper lock freezer bag. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours and as much as overnight.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch, baking powder, paprika, salt, black and white pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, and dried herbs.

Remove the marinated chicken from the buttermilk brine and pour the buttermilk brine into a bowl.

Dredge each piece of chicken in the seasoned flour mixture, shaking off any excess, then dip in the remaining buttermilk brine. Dredge chicken again in the seasoned flour mixture, shaking off the excess. Let the battered chicken rest for 10-15 minutes while the oil heats.

Heat oil in a deep fryer or a cast-iron skillet to 375 degrees.

Using tongs, carefully lower the chicken into the hot oil, working in batches so the skillet doesn’t get overcrowded. Fry until golden brown, turning every few minutes. The chicken is done when it’s no longer pink inside and the juices run clear when pierced, about 10-12 minutes for wings, 12-16 minutes for legs and thighs, and 20-25 minutes for breasts, depending on their size.

Drain on a paper towel-lined platter, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Repeat with remaining chicken pieces and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.

mac and cheese
Mahkaila McGowan-Gans’ rich and creamy macaroni and cheese. (Eileen Roche)

Smackin’ Macaroni and Cheese

Serves 4-6 

Mahkaila McGowan-Gans’ rich and creamy macaroni and cheese has a secret mix of seasonings she hopes someday to package and sell. We’ve included some alternate seasonings for a kicked-up version similar to hers—feel free to play around with flavors that suit your tastes.

12 oz. dry elbow macaroni

1 tsp. chicken base or bouillon (optional)

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

1 ½ cup half-and-half

1 cup heavy whipping cream

½ tsp. dry mustard powder

½ tsp. sweet paprika

½ tsp. chipotle powder

½ tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. thyme

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. black pepper

Pinch of cayenne

3 cups sharp cheddar cheese, divided

2 cups Colby Jack cheese

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add chicken base or bouillon, if using. Add macaroni and cook until al dente. Drain and run under cold water.

Melt butter over medium heat in a large saucepan. Whisk in flour and let cook 2 minutes while stirring. Add mustard powder, paprika, chipotle powder, garlic powder, thyme, salt, pepper and cayenne, and whisk to combine. Add half-and-half and heavy whipping cream. Cook over medium heat while whisking until thickened, approximately 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in 2 cups of cheddar cheese, plus the Colby Jack and Parmesan. Stir until melted. Add macaroni and fold in gently to combine.

Pour mixture into a greased 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish and sprinkle the top with remaining cup of cheddar cheese.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Let cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Juneteenth food
Fried chicken and southern green beans and potatoes. (Eileen Roche)

Southern Green Beans and Potatoes

Serves 4-6

4 slices thick-cut bacon, chopped

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 pound green beans, trimmed

3 tbsp. unsalted butter

1 ½ cups chicken broth

½ pound red potatoes, quartered

salt and pepper to taste 

Add bacon pieces in a large, heavy-bottom pot and sauté over medium heat until the bacon starts to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and saute until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, and saute an additional minute.

Add the trimmed green beans, chicken broth, and butter to the pot and stir. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and cook for 5 minutes.

Add the cut red potatoes to the pot. Cover and continue cooking for 15 minutes, until the red potatoes are cooked through.

Remove from heat and season with salt and pepper. May be served hot or cold.

Tomato-Watermelon Salad
This refreshing tomato-watermelon salad tastes great with fried chicken — and adds a necessary pop of red to the Juneteenth table. (Eileen Roche)

Tomato-Watermelon Salad with Quick-Pickled Onions

Serves 12 

This refreshing salad tastes great with fried chicken—and adds a necessary pop of red to the Juneteenth table.

½ small red onion, julienned

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 tsp. sugar

½ cup vinegar (we used a mix of apple cider and red wine vinegar)

2 pints red cherry tomatoes, halved

1 small seedless watermelon, cut into 1-inch cubes

Fresh basil, torn, for garnish 

First, make the pickled onions (this step can be done a day ahead, or 1-2 hours before serving). Julienne the onion and place into a widemouth, heatproof jar with a lid. Combine the salt, sugar, and vinegar in a small saucepan, add 1/4 cup water, and heat over medium, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt. As soon as the mixture starts to boil, remove from heat.

Pour the liquid over the onions in the jar, pressing down with a spoon to immerse the onions in the brine. Allow the mixture to cool, then cover and place in the refrigerator for at least one hour, and up to one day.

To serve, combine the cherry tomatoes and watermelon in a large bowl. Add the pickled onions. Pour the brine from the jar onto the salad and toss to combine. Garnish with torn basil leaves and serve immediately.

Nancy Rogers Juneteenth
Nancy Rogers serves her peach cobbler — made with a buttery crust that envelops the peaches she cooks with brown sugar and spice — at the 53rd annual Martin Luther King Jr.-Juneteenth Festival in Santa Rosa in June of 2023. (Eileen Roche)

Nancy Rogers’ Famous Peach Cobbler

Serves 12 

Nancy’s advice for the filling? Sample and make sure it tastes good to you. Add a bit more lemon juice if you like it tart, or more cinnamon. Nancy’s husband Harold loves the sweetness.

For the dough

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. salt

16 tbsp. chilled butter, plus 1 tbsp. melted butter for brushing crust

6-7 tbsp. ice water

1-2 tbsp. cinnamon sugar, for dusting (see note)

For the filling

1 #10 can peaches in heavy syrup (106 ounces), or three 29-ounce cans

2 tbsp. butter

1 cup sugar

½ cup brown sugar

½ tsp. salt

1 ½ tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 tbsp. cornstarch

3 tbsp. water lemon juice (optional) 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Cut 2 sticks (16 tablespoons) of butter into small cubes, and using your fingers or a pastry blender, rub or cut the butter into the flour until it’s the size of small peas.

Sprinkle ice water, a tablespoon or so at a time, over the mixture, and toss the mixture with a fork. Using your hands, gently bring the mixture together in a ball.

It should hold together without being dry or crumbly.

If dry, add more water, a tablespoon at a time, until it holds together. Divide the dough into 2 equal balls and refrigerate.

In a large saucepan, combine peaches, butter, sugars, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla over medium heat.

In a small bowl, add cornstarch and water to make a slurry. Stir into the peach mixture and continue cooking until mixture thickens and cooks down some, about 20 minutes.

Remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more spice if desired or a squeeze of lemon juice.

Remove 1 ball of dough from the refrigerator and place on a lightly floured work surface. Shape into a 1-inch-thick rectangle. Using a rolling pin, roll out into a rectangle to cover just the bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Place dough in baking dish, prick with a fork a few times and bake for 5 minutes, just until the crust starts to crisp a bit.

Remove the second ball of dough from the refrigerator, form into a 1-inch-thick rectangle and roll out to 9 inches by 13 inches.

Using a slotted spoon, layer the peaches evenly over the pre-baked crust, leaving behind some of the thickened liquid, otherwise the cobbler will be too soupy (see note two). Top peaches with the top crust, and prick with a fork a few times to allow steam to escape while cooking.

Brush dough with 1 tablespoon of melted butter and sprinkle generously with cinnamon sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 to 50 minutes, until deep golden-brown and bubbly. If the crust starts to get too brown, cover with aluminum foil to finish baking.

Note: To make cinnamon sugar, combine ¼ cup of white sugar with 1 tablespoon of cinnamon.

Note two: After spooning the peaches into the cobbler, you should have about 2 cups of syrup left behind. If you like, refrigerate the syrup in an airtight container for up to a week to stir into yogurt or oatmeal, or spoon over ice cream.