Nicole Taylor’s Juneteenth Cookbook Celebrates Black Joy Amidst Sadness

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ATHENS, Georgia — After turning off the road toward my hotel, the first business I notice is a lunch spot called the Plantation Buffet. The sign slaps me in the face with irony, as I’ve traveled here to meet with Nicole A. Taylor, the author of the recently released “Watermelon and Red Birds,” the first major cookbook honoring the Juneteenth holiday. The restaurant served as a stark reminder of black pain, even as I was there to write about a highly anticipated book centered on black celebrations. But for black Americans, the mixture of joy and sadness is just a fact of life.

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Juneteenth commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when more than 250,000 people enslaved in Texas learned they were freed – two months after the end of the Civil War and 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The first Juneteenth was celebrated in 1866, and until recently it has been predominantly the realm of African Americans with roots in Texas. While Taylor remembers hearing about the holiday during her time at the historically Black Clark Atlanta University, it wasn’t until just over a decade ago, when she stumbled upon a party in a Brooklyn park, that she started observing the holiday and has been doing so every year since.

It’s now a federal holiday, and this year she plans to celebrate Juneteenth in Athens with friends and family by hosting an event to celebrate her cookbook. Given the time and energy it took to write it, plus the last couple of years we’ve all experienced, particularly the recent targeted murder of black people in a Buffalo grocery store, “I want to relax as much as possible,” she says. Taylor cried through lunch just thinking about all the trauma black people went through, the pain bubbling under the surface. “I have to hang up if I want to do some work.”

Taylor’s longtime literary agent Sharon Bowers first suggested that Taylor write a Juneteenth cookbook, saying it would be her masterpiece. Bowers learned about Taylor’s birthday celebrations in her first book, “The Up South Cookbook,” published in 2015. via email. “But I knew that this particular niche was really special, and Nicole’s generous and generous way of celebrating it was highly specific to her. And since she is a food professional with serious writing skills, it seemed obvious to me that she should write this book.”

Taylor wasn’t convinced. In fact, she says, that very niche — plus the fact that she’s not from Texas — caused her to delete the first email Bowers brought it in. Bowers kept broaching the idea, and around 2018 or 2019, Taylor finally caved in and started crafting a proposal.

Then the pandemic struck and the murder of George Floyd sparked widespread racial protests, bringing a new national interest in black life. “In the spring of 2020, after being confined and seeing and being a part of the black terror, the depressive state caused by the murder, the massacre of unarmed black people… I wanted this cookbook to be a guide to joy,” says Taylor. “I knew for sure that this book was needed, and I can do it.”

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In June 2020, Taylor and her partner, Adrian Franks, bought five acres of unseen land in Athens, where she was born and raised, and moved there from Brooklyn with her son Garvey to weather the pandemic. The couple call him Maroon, in honor of the people who escaped slavery and created their own communities. The house, which they also plan to operate as a retreat, is filled with “every room touches where you find black culture and black life,” says Taylor. They include a Sonos speaker with a Harlem Toile pattern by Sheila Bridges and skateboards by Jean-Michel Basquiat in the living room; art by her husband, who also did the illustrations for the Food and Drink Museum’s Legacy Quilt; and wallpaper by Malene Barnett in the kitchen where she tested all the recipes in the book. “You see intentionality because the Maroon house is a creative space for people of color, and it’s the space I relied on to create this cookbook,” says Taylor.

I jokingly call her the Queen of Juneteenth, a title she vehemently denies. “I was blessed to have a microphone to talk about Juneteenth foods. And I want to make that very clear,” she says, citing others, like Opal Lee, who fought hard for the day to be recognized. However, “I would call myself the queen of black celebrations,” watching all the barbecues, HBCU homecomings, tuition, happy hours, and other events she has hosted and attended throughout her life.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Spritz Cocktail

When it comes to the recipes she created, “This book is not an attempt to capture the flavors and recipes of that June 1866 celebration. This is a testament to where we are now,” she writes. So if you are looking for more traditional soul food this is not it. Instead, Taylor’s recipes are a vibrant look at where black food is today and where it’s going.

Calling herself an “intuitive cook,” Taylor says her creative process started with ingredients. “I wanted to make sure that fruits and vegetables from the African American table were in this cookbook in a way you don’t normally see,” says Taylor.

Take the sweet potato. While it is widely canonized in black food culture through candied pie or casserole, Taylor wanted to find a more seasonally appropriate way to include it in the book. So she went back to a sweet potato syrup she makes every winter, usually to mix into whiskey cocktails. The syrup’s flavor mimics those sweet dishes, ripe with vanilla and warm spices, but in the book she includes it in a refreshing spritz cocktail, perfect for drinking in the summer. “It’s by far one of my favorites,” she says.

Another dish she keeps coming back to is her pretzel fried chicken, which she includes in the Everyday Juneteenth chapter. “When I crave fried chicken and don’t want to make a full fried chicken for special occasions, I make what I call my everyday chicken,” she says, which comes with the added bonus that even her child will eat it. .

Recipe: Fried chicken with pretzel

Many other recipes eschew the quick and easy, requiring you to put the time, effort, and/or financial investment into purchasing special equipment, such as a snow cone maker. In doing so, Taylor makes an inherent statement about the value of black food – and perhaps by extension, black life.

Taylor sprinkles the names of people, books, songs, and more throughout the book, breadcrumbs to inspire readers to dig deeper. In a recipe for “win” chicken burgers, for example, she mentions Lou Myers, who played Mr. Gaines on “A Different World,” a canon show for many black Americans. (Victory burgers were on the menu at the cafe run by Myers’ character at the fictional Hillman College.) “I don’t want people to forget it.” Cookbooks can play an archival role in society’s documentation, in all its forms.

Taylor knows from experience that joy and sadness exist together.

“I’ve been to a funeral and it’s very sad, and after the repast, the brown liquor comes out, ‘Before I Let Go’ plays and you can even do the electric slide a few times,” she says. . “And I know that for black Americans and black people all over the world, that’s something innate to us. We will always celebrate in the midst of sadness.”

These opposing emotions are also reflected in the title of the book, “Watermelon and Red Birds”. For her, the watermelon evokes childhood memories of going to buy the fruit with her aunt, people arriving and her going out to play. “So when I think of watermelon, I think of happy summer memories. But it has not escaped me that for black people watermelon is often associated with very gross, disgusting and exaggerated images,” she says. For Taylor, “Watermelon is about ritual, it’s about community and it’s about summer. So why not have that as part of the title?” And the red birds represent ancestors who return to bring luck according to certain African American and Native American beliefs.

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While blacks have been technically free from slavery for over a century, making room for joyous occasions is as important now as it was on the first of June. Learning to cope, relax, and even celebrate despite fear and tragedy is an integral part of self-care as a black person in this country. “Every day can be filled with the essence of Juneteenth, which is about joy, which is about freedom, which is about celebrating, no matter how hard things have been or how much sadness remains in our lives,” she says.

Your book is a model for doing just that.

“I want this cookbook to serve more than just a coffee table book. Open it up, use it as a guide to having a great party or a great happy hour with your family and friends,” says Taylor. “In these times when so much is happening around us, we should lean a little more on black joy because it can be resistance, but more importantly, it can be a healing balm for ourselves and for each other.”


An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that there were 250,000 people enslaved in Galveston, Texas in 1865. That number is for the entire state.

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