Nicole Taylor’s New Cookbook Celebrates Juneteenth and the Abundant Joy of Southern Black Cooking

published Jun 13, 2022
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Nicole Taylor reading Watermelon and Red Birds
Credit: Alexa Rivera

Nicole Taylor is an acclaimed food writer and cookbook author whose newest book, Watermelon and Red Birds, hit shelves this week. It is a celebration of Juneteenth, of summertime, and of the abundant joyfulness in Southern Black cooking. Nicole, who grew up in Georgia, has been hosting her own Juneteenth celebrations for more than a decade, and the recipes in the book reflect her personal style of entertaining. These recipes are an ode to Southern Black foodways, but Nicole injects them with a newness and vitality that tells the story of past and present simultaneously.

Watermelon and Red Birds is playful yet deeply thoughtful, and, most importantly, it’s full of recipes that I’m sure many of us will be making on repeat. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Nicole about her Juneteenth celebrations, her process for developing the book, and some of her favorite recipes.

When you were growing up, did your family do Juneteenth celebrations?
No, we did not celebrate Juneteenth. I did not hear about Juneteenth until I was a fully grown adult in my 20s, but I’m now realizing that a lot of the celebrations we had growing up are very similar, and have some of the same food traditions and rituals, as Juneteenth.

What are some of those rituals and traditions?
Oh my gosh. I mean, Juneteenth is so much about gathering outside in the summertime in a park, in a backyard, and that was so much a part of my own childhood. Being outside amongst the trees, amongst the lushness of summer heat.

And watermelon, you know, having a watermelon, waiting for the watermelon, waiting for the fruit man or the fruit truck to come by to get the watermelon. Having fresh corn and all of the fabulous fruits and vegetables of summertime on the family reunion table, the church homecoming table, the birthday party in the park. Those things are totally mirrored in traditional Juneteenth celebration.

Credit: Alexa Rivera

Definitely. Watermelon and Red Birds is an amazing name. How did you arrive at that title?
This book has been in me for a long time. So, when I started working on this book in 2019, one of the things I started doing was thinking what can the title be? And I had all these variations, My Juneteenth, Juneteenth This, Freedom This, and it just wasn’t working.

One day, pre-COVID, I was on the train going from Manhattan to Brooklyn and Watermelon and Red Birds just dropped out of the sky into my head. It was crazy, and the reason why I titled this cookbook that is, first, I think watermelon is a classic summer, American fruit. It speaks to everyone no matter who you are. No matter if you’re celebrating Juneteenth for the first time, or you’ve celebrated it a million gazillion times, you get it.

And red birds is an American Indigenous people folklore, that says if a red bird appears at your window or arises around you, it’s the ancestors saying hello and talking to you. My mom would tell me when I was growing up, when I saw red bird to blow the red bird a kiss. I just thought it was a perfect way to marry the past, marry the ancestors, and also marry the future and pass along that story of remembrance, joy, and hope, and nature, and outdoors.

It seems to me like Juneteenth has received a lot more recognition over the past several years. I’m wondering if that’s something that you’ve noticed also and, if so, why you think that might be?
I started celebrating Juneteenth over 10 years ago. My first time going to a Juneteenth celebration was in Cuyler Gore park, which is a little pocket park in Fort Green. Of course, by that time I knew about Juneteenth, but I read that there was a Juneteenth celebration, so I went and it was dope.

It was very Black and it was also like very Texas in a very weird way. There was a stage, there were people performing, there were vendors selling African print dresses. They had a horse there and the kids were riding the horse. And I was like, wow, this is really dope. And from that moment on, every year I started hosting my own Juneteenth celebration.

I will say though, without a doubt, the uprising, the murder of George Floyd, it really changed Juneteenth. And I’m not gonna say it was Trump. He likes to say “I made Juneteenth popular,” but I definitely think that the change in American life with the pandemic and the uprisings, really it forced people to put that word, Juneteenth, into the American lexicon forever.

I have been hosting Juneteenth parties and creating content around Juneteenth for over 10 years. I had podcasts before podcasts were even popular, and every year I would do something around Juneteenth. Then, of course, I’ve been lucky enough to have a platform as a freelance writer, and I wrote about it for the New York Times. I would say that I probably was one of the first people to write about Juneteenth food consistently for any national publication. But I think the interest 100% skyrocketed during the summer of 2020.

Credit: Alexa Rivera

And this is the first Juneteenth cookbook that we know of, right?
This is the first cookbook by a major publisher dedicated to the Juneteenth holiday. That’s crazy, but yeah. I think the most popular Juneteenth book that came out last year was On Juneteenth by Annette Gordon-Reed, who is a scholar. She wrote this beautiful memoir about growing up in Texas, and her jumping-off point is Juneteenth. She speaks to Juneteenth and being raised in East Texas and the history that’s kind of fed to you in grade school and how that shaped her. That’s an essential read.

There are others, very scholarly university press books, that focus on Juneteenth, but this is the first cookbook, and I hope the first of many. There are so many stories to tell about Juneteenth. You could do a whole book on Juneteenth drinks or a whole cookbook on just straight-up barbecue going deep, deep into Texas barbecue.

My goal was to just tell my personal story around Juneteenth and get people inspired by the holiday, and also to show that Black cookbooks have evolved. This is my third cookbook and from writing Up South, which came out in 2015, to now, I don’t have to retell my family story, my origin story. I can just be. I can just talk about the food. I don’t have to have a bunch of pictures like “look at my baby picture!” No, I just can just show the food straight-on.

I feel like this is the one question that cookbook authors usually are like, “Oh no, don’t ask me that,” but what are two or three of your favorite recipes in the book?

I mean, I will tell you what I’ve been making a lot of now is the Sweet Potato Spritz. I tend to keep a lot of syrups in my fridge. Like it’s about to be strawberry season here, so I’ll go strawberry picking if all the strawberry crops made it, cause the weather’s been crazy. So, you know, I will make the Maroon Margarita mix. Or if there’s a bunch of sweet potatoes at the market or something I’ll make the sweet potato syrup and keep it for cocktails or snow cones.

But I would say hands-down, anything with a simple syrup recipe, like the Cucumber Granita, is my favorite one, because it’s, in my opinion, one of the easiest things to make. So those are all my favorite recipes, but I’ll zero in with the Sweet Potato Spritz.

What’s another favorite? I would say the Corn Ice Cream Sandwiches. The cookies are so amazing solo. You don’t even have to have the ice cream. I would say it’s one of my favorites, because it’s like unexpected, and even if you don’t wanna make the ice cream, if you line things up properly, Jeni’s makes a corn ice cream. I think I mentioned that in the book. And Fanny Gerson, who owns La Newyorkina, she makes corn ice cream sometimes. You can buy vanilla and just slap it in there, but those cookies were slamming, so that’s number two.

Oh, the chicken burger. Yes. I love the chicken burger. It is definitely one of my favorite recipes right now. My friends who don’t eat beef, or they don’t eat pork, and they come to the barbecue, and they have a chicken burger, they love it.

People keep talking about, “Oh, I love your chicken burger.” And it’s really the chicken salt, which is in the very beginning of my book. It’s a special seasoning and I’m telling you that chicken salt is the bomb. Okay? I put it on drumsticks for the Easter egg hunt and people were like, “Oh my God those chicken drums were seasoned so well.” I put it inside of the chicken burger mixture, and it has cheddar on top, and it’s just so flavorful and not dry.

Yes, I was going to say that sometimes you think of a chicken burger and you think of like a dry chicken breast patty.
No, I think the key to a chicken burger is thinking of it like meatloaf. Like how would I make a juicy piece of meatloaf? No one wants dry meatloaf. So yeah, I took that approach of a meatloaf vibe, and anytime I see a chicken burger on a menu somewhere, I always taste it. I always order it. Because I wanna compare like, do I really have a good chicken burger? And yes, I do.

Speaking of recipes, what was your process for planning and putting together the recipes you were going to include in the book?
At first, I was like, do I have enough recipes to write a Juneteenth cookbook? And then I remember I was in my Brooklyn apartment using my glass sliding doors as a whiteboard and coming up with all these recipes. I was like, wait, okay. This could be a cookbook.

I started off like that just looking in my Google docs, my photos, my iPhone list of recipes that I’ve made, or like bits of recipes or ingredients I wrote down. The first go around, I was like I wanna do this around who I am and how I entertain at Juneteenth and other celebrations. Originally, I was gonna have a whole chapter called “Happy Hour.” Then I was like, eh, that doesn’t make sense.

So, it essentially got broken up into “Red Drinks” and then some of the things that I would serve at a happy hour are sprinkled throughout the book, like the crab and egg dip and the oysters.

I knew I wanted a straight Americana food chapter, so “Festivals & Flair” is it. The funnel cake. Oh my gosh, the snow cones, the hot dogs. And I wanted for some of the recipes to be just straight-ahead. Like there’s a straight-ahead corn dog recipe, and I remember thinking, “Oh, should I make some kind of cool tomato dipping sauce?” I was like, nah, people want ketchup up. Let me just tell them ketchup.

But I was like what would I do if it was summertime and I went to the farmers market, or I went to a roadside stand and I bought a bunch of turnips and zucchini and they were in the fridge, and I knew I was having people over? And I don’t just want corn dogs? I was like, shoot, I will put them in the same batter and fry them. So that’s why you have the Zucchini Corn Dogs and the Japanese turnips that are Corn Balls.

That’s 100% my personality, 100% what I would do if I was entertaining. So, that is how the book came to be. I guess I can finally say I’m a creative, that’s hard for me to say. I mean there’s a creative process, right. And the creative process is really me just kind of exploring and writing down stuff and tinkering a little bit. And then when you get down to the business of it, you have to make smart decisions.

I study other cookbooks, not just Black cookbooks. I like to look at trends in cookbooks and I like to break them. I don’t like to follow them. But if there’s room for me to break it and do something different, that’s what I’ve tried to do in this book in terms of recipes, or the way it’s ordered, or photos, or not having photos of me at the table, which kind of was a mistake. But then I’m like maybe it’s saying something?

Credit: Alexa Rivera

And were some of the recipes in the book dishes that you grew up eating?
I would say that none of the recipes are dishes that I grew up eating. I think they are variations. Michael Twitty said it best in his praise. He said that I exemplify “soul food as construct rather than canon — a place where dynamic ideas about food keep us grounded in the tradition while unfettering us from the expected and overplayed.” That’s on purpose. I wanted to untether myself from the overplayed and expected.

So, of course I grew up eating cornbread. I grew up in a household where there was always cornbread on the Sunday table, but in this cookbook, in the “Everyday Juneteenth” chapter, you find sour cream and chive cornbread.

Or no, I don’t have candied yams on the table, but I have a sweet potato syrup that you can put in your cocktail. So, you see the African American table, or the Black table, in almost every dish, but it’s not the way that you expect. No, I don’t have a macaroni and cheese recipe. And some of this stuff, the reason why I don’t have it, and let me be very clear, is that, I’m sorry, when it’s like a hundred degrees outside, people don’t want collard greens. That’s a lot of food.

Credit: Alexa Taylor

I’ve seen people talk about what’s on the Juneteenth table and, listen, people have all kind of stuff. I’ve interviewed all kind of folks, like what was on your Juneteenth table? If you are from Texas or Texas adjacent, you might have gumbo.

But typically, you think about what people are gonna eat in the summertime. You don’t want heavy food. So yeah, some people have mac and cheese, but I opted not to do mac and cheese. I have a mac and cheese recipe in my first cookbook. But I got a potato salad. It’s not your auntie’s potato salad recipe. It’s called Southern-ish Potato Salad, and I have a whole essay where I basically talk about how potato salad is probably the most revered dish at the black cookout or barbecue.

Yes. Easily. I’m not a potato salad girl, but yes. So, this book is a celebration of Juneteenth, but would you say that these are recipes that people could enjoy year-round?
100%. I mean the “Everyday Juneteenth” chapter is a chapter really dedicated to that. How do you bring the essence of Juneteenth in every day, or one day a week, or a random Tuesday on January the 18th when it’s cold as hell outside and you just have a bag of frozen strawberries in the freezer? I speak to that all throughout the book, but definitely in that chapter.

Also, in “Potato, Green, & Fruit Salads.” That’s one of my favorite chapters. There’s salad dressings in there that can be switched out to just regular greens. There are salads that you can make year-round. And desserts, you know, people don’t make desserts every day, but people have a birthday every year, if you celebrate birthdays. There’s Easter time or Memorial Day. There are other celebrations or other times throughout the year that you can make any of the desserts. The same goes with the drinks and the barbecue, and even the “Festivals & Flair” chapter, those are things that you can make every day or on special occasions if you want to, as well.