Chefs Damien Brockway of Distant Relatives and Matthew Brown of Comfort Table Kitchen are collaborating for a special Juneteenth meal.

Damien Brockway left a career in fine dining several years ago to open Distant Relatives, a barbecue truck that traces the chef’s ancestral roots and the foodways of the African diaspora. 

Distant Relatives is, on its face, one of the best barbecue operations in Texas, but tucked behind the wafting waves of smoke is an exploration of African-American cuisine, its methods and ingredients. 

Brockway will mark the Juneteenth holiday by welcoming Matthew Brown, a private chef and caterer who operates Comfort Table Kitchen, for a collaborative meal that expands on the lexicon from which Distant Relatives draws. Kasalina Plater of Stellaheart Dessert Co. will create pecan pie bars for the occasion. 

The all-day meal Wednesday will feature “dishes that have a historical tie-in, but also have our own creative twist layered on top,” Brockway told the American-Statesman. This will be Brockway’s fifth collaboration with fellow Black chefs and his first to mark the Juneteenth holiday.

The menu will showcase crispy chicken, which honors the cuisine of St. Louis, where Brown once lived, along with ribs made with a dry rub inspired by Memphis, another former home of Brown and a city with significant cultural and culinary history for African-Americans.

Brockway was struck to discover similarities between the herbaceous and all-spice-zipped Memphis rub and that which he uses for the chicken at Distant Relatives, and said that when he collaborates on meals like this with other Black chefs, he is always impressed by how they all seem to speak the same culinary language, even if the accents may vary. 

“It makes sense that these things work together,” Brockway said of the ideas and ingredients the chefs bring from their respective backgrounds. “And then you just have this menu in five minutes. It’s not easy, but there’s a fluidity to it. You can visualize it. You know what it’s gonna taste like.”

The a la carte menu will also include beef brisket with mustard butter, fresh corn grits with pickled okra, watermelon and cucumber salad and turnip greens with rib tips.

Brockway says that while Juneteenth is identified as significant for African-Americans, it is a date that should carry import for all Americans, especially in Texas, where the final skirmish of the Civil War was fought in May 1865 (Battle of Palmito Ranch in Brownsville) and where the last slaves were freed when word reached Galveston on June 19, 1865, more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. 

“It’s important to everybody. This was the last bastion of this and it ended at this time,” Brockway said. “This was the last bastion where we actually looked at our Constitution and decided that actually everybody does deserve to be free. Not just these specific people are free under our Constitution, actually all people are free.”

If you go …

What: Distant Relatives’ Juneteenth collaborative meal

When: Wednesday, noon to 8 p.m.

Where: 3901 Promontory Point Drive (Distant Relatives’ location at Meanwhile Brewing)

Cost: Dishes are priced a la carte.

African-American foodways reading list

Chef Damien Brockway of Distant Relatives created his barbecue trailer as a way to research his personal history, as well as the foodways of the African diaspora. The chef, who brings a scholarly approach to his cooking, shared with the American-Statesman three essential books that explore African-American food culture and history.

“The Cooking Gene” by Michael Twitty

“This is somebody who is a public figure in modern times who has done a lot of due diligence in re-tracing academically and consolidating a lot of information in bringing genetics and genealogy into the mix. That’s really important because there’s this stigma that it’s very difficult to trace our histories back to a certain point – which is true to a certain degree – but trying, and then making connections, and getting with our elders, and then hearing stories, and tracing it back, and looking at pictures and note cards all help preserve our history just on a personal level. This is a book where you’re reading about his personal journey. I found a connection and thought, ‘Why haven’t I done this? I’m a chef, I went to college for this. I should have done this. It’s important.’”

“High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” by Jessica B. Harris

“A lot of people think about this in the context of the Netflix show, which is great, which is fabulous. But folks need to know this is a book. And it’s a great book. It has tons of great detail in there. It starts out in the continent of Africa and ends here in the United States and talks about some of the iconic touchstones of the food culture that we’re talking about.”

“Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning” by Rafia Zafar

“The reason why this one is important is because, to my knowledge, it is the only book that is more focused on front of house and hospitality and lodging. It has some food elements. A lot of people have this outlook that it was all indentured servitude, but actually the book talks about America’s earliest black-owned hotels and restaurant groups, that’s what’s really amazing.”