How a red beverage became a staple at African American celebrations
Adrian Miller calls it “liquid soul.”
Miller, author of the James Beard award-winning “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time,” was referring to red drink and its cultural relevance to African Americans.
“Like a jarritos at a taqueria or lucozade at a chippy, red drink is the marker of a legit soul-food restaurant — the crucial element that separates the real from the fake,” Miller wrote in a 2015 article for First We Feast.
When millions of African Americans each year celebrate Juneteenth, an observation originating in Galveston and commemorating the emancipation of African American slaves, they wash down barbecue and other festive fare with red drink, most commonly Big Red in Texas, though red drink preferences vary by region.
The “practice of eating red foods — red cake, barbecue, punch and fruit — may owe its existence to the enslaved Yoruba and Kongo brought to Texas in the 19th century,” from present-day Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, Benin and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” writes culinary historian and food writer Michael Twitty in his blog Afroculinaria. Twitty goes on to write: “Enslavement narratives from Texas recall an African ancestor being lured using red flannel cloth, and many of the charms and power objects used to manipulate invisible forces required a red handkerchief.”
Red, in many West African cultures, is a symbol of strength, spirituality, and life and death, according to historians.
The origins of red drink can be traced to West Africa, where red drink often marks special occasions, said Miller, known as the Soul Food Scholar.
In West Africa, two beverages were served in moments marking important events, Miller and other historians say.
The first was an hibiscus-based brew called bissap and the other a brew made from red kola nuts. Both came to the New World with the slave trade.
In Jamaica, the hibiscus flowers bloomed near Christmas time and were used with rum to create a holiday punch called sorrel or bissap. The simple brew of the red hibiscus flowers, water and a sweetener even made its way into Latino culture as “aqua de Jamaica” served by most street taco vendors, according to historians. Both the hibiscus and kola nut eventually found their way to the Americas where the hibiscus tea became a popular hospitality drink on plantations, usually spiked with corn liquor. The kola nut was considered medicinal and used to create elixirs for various ailments.
Thanks to tropical climates comparable to West Africa’s, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the American South became a new home for “guinea sorrel,” according to Serious Eats.
Kola nuts are red and white and like hibiscus, said Miller in his 2015 article “In Praise of Red Drink: The Origin Story Behind Soul Food’s Most Iconic Beverage” for First We Feast.
“You may be thinking that every cola drink you’ve ever had was brown, not red,” Miller wrote. “True, but look at the ingredients on any cola drink that we have in the U.S. and you’ll notice a caramel coloring. Kola nuts are red or white, and like hibiscus, West Africans use them as a sign of hospitality.”
In addition to its medicinal and culinary applications, hibiscus and other transplants, like okra and kola nuts, likely served a greater purpose, Twitty, the culinary historian, told Serious Eats writer Janel Martinez in a February 2021 article.
“Having the same plant in the tropical Americas was a semblance of hope,” Twitty said. “You reinforced your identity, you reinforced the things that made you happy, you reinforced memories of things that would otherwise be lost.”
After emancipation and the beginning of freedom celebrations like Juneteenth across the country in African American communities, the drinks became an iconic part of the Black experience. Red drink is served at important occasions and also is a part of everyday life.
Over the years the drink has changed, but it’s always called red drink, never defined by a flavor like strawberry or cherry. Red drink is both the color and the flavor.
In the 1870s and 1880s, red-colored lemonade was popular, replaced in the 1890s with the advent of carbonation, making red sodas popular. Powdered drinks became popular in the 1920s with Poly Pop and Kool-aid, Miller wrote.
“The malleability of red drink inspires strong regional allegiances,” Miller said.
In Texas, Big Red dominates, he said.
Try this punch at your next holiday gathering.
Jamaican Sorrel Punch
8 cups water
6 ounces sorrel (dried hibiscus flowers)
5 ounces sliced fresh ginger
4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
3 scrapes from a whole nutmeg, optional
1 cup Jamaican white rum, optional
1-1½ cups simple syrup
Juice of 1 orange (about ½ cup)
1 teaspoon lime juice
Orange slices, for garnish
Bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Remove from the heat and add the sorrel, ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg, if using. Cover and let steep for 1 hour.
Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer set over a bowl. Discard the dried sorrel and spices.
Add the rum, if using, simple syrup, orange juice and lime juice to the strained mixture and stir to combine. Transfer to a pitcher or punch bowl filled with ice. Garnish with orange slices before serving in ice-filled cups.
Sorrel: The sorrel will become stronger, and consequently tarter, the longer it steeps in the hot water.
Storage: The punch can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
– Recipe from Kitchn.com