Nicole Taylor’s Juneteenth Cookbook Celebrates Black Joy Amid Grief

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ATHENS, Ga. – After exiting the freeway towards my hotel, the first business I notice is a food place called Plantation Buffet. The sign slaps me ironically, as I traveled here to meet Nicole A. Taylor, the author of the recent “Watermelon and red birdsthe first major cookbook honoring the June 19 holiday. The restaurant served as a stark reminder of black pain, even as I was there to write about a much-anticipated book centered on black celebrations. But for black Americans, the mixture of joy and sorrow is just a fact of life.

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Juneteenth commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when more than 250,000 slaves in Galveston, Texas first learned they had been freed – two months after the Civil War ended and 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The first Juneteenth was celebrated in 1866, and until recently has primarily been the kingdom of African-Americans of Texan descent. Although Taylor remembers hearing about the vacation while at the historically black Clark Atlanta University, it wasn’t until a little over a decade ago when she came across a celebration in a Brooklyn park that she began observing the party herself and has done so every year since.

It’s now a federal holiday, and this year she plans to observe Juneteenth in Athens with her friends and family by hosting an event to celebrate her cookbook. Considering the time and energy spent writing it, in addition to the past two years we’ve all been through, especially the recent targeted killing of black people in a Buffalo grocery store, “I want to relax as much as possible” , she says. Taylor cried over lunch just thinking about all the trauma black people have gone through, the pain bubbling beneath the surface. “I have to turn it off if I want to do any work.”

Taylor’s longtime literary agent Sharon Bowers first suggested Taylor write a Juneteenth cookbook, saying it would be her magnum opus. Bowers had learned of Taylor’s June 19 celebrations in her first book, “The Southern Cookbookpublished in 2015. “Sometimes in the world of cookbook publishing, publishers use ‘niche’ as a term to denigrate a book’s potential sales,” Bowers said via email. “But I knew that particular slot was really special, and Nicole’s kind and generous way of celebrating it was very specific to her. And since she’s a food professional with serious writing skills, it seemed obvious to me that she should write this book.

Taylor was unconvinced. In fact, she says, that very niche — plus the fact that she’s not from Texas — led her to delete the first email where Bowers brought it up. Bowers continued to broach the idea, and around 2018 or 2019 Taylor finally relented and began drafting a proposal.

Then the pandemic hit and the murder of George Floyd sparked widespread racial protests, bringing a new national concern for black lives. “In the spring of 2020, after being locked up and seeing and being part of the black terror, the depressive state caused by the murder, the slaughter of unarmed black people … to be part of it and to experience it, I knew that I wanted this cookbook to be a guide to joy,” Taylor says. “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 land, unseen, in Athens, where she was born and raised, and moved there from Brooklyn with their young son, Garvey, to overcome the pandemic. The couple call him Brown, named after people who escaped slavery and created their own communities. The home, which they also plan to operate as a retreat, is filled with “touches in every room where you find black culture and black life,” Taylor says. They include a Sonos speaker with Sheila Bridges’ Harlem Toile design and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s skateboards in the den; the artwork of her husband, who also did the illustrations for the Museum of Food and Drink’s Legacy Quilt; and malene barnett wallpaper in the kitchen where she tested all the recipes in the book. “You see the intentionality because the brown house is a creative space for black people, and that’s the space I anchored myself in to create this cookbook,” Taylor says.

I jokingly call her the Queen of Juneteenth, a title she vehemently denies. “I was lucky enough to have a microphone to talk about June 19 food. And I want to make that very clear,” she says, citing others, like Opal Lee, who fought for the day to be recognized. However, “I would call myself the queen of black celebrations,” noting all the barbecues, HBCU homecomings, kickbacks, happy hours, and other similar events she has hosted and attended. attended throughout his life.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Spritz Cocktail

As for the recipes she created, “This book is not an attempt to capture the tastes and recipes of that June 1866 celebration. This is where we are now,” she writes. So if you’re looking for more traditional soul food, this isn’t it. Instead, Taylor’s recipes are a dynamic 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 featured in this cookbook in a way that you don’t typically see,” Taylor says.

Take the sweet potato. Although it’s widely canonized in black food culture via the pie or candied casserole, Taylor wanted to find a more seasonal way to include it in the book. Then she recalled a sweet potato syrup she makes every winter, usually to mix into whiskey cocktails. The syrup flavor mimics those sweet, ripe dishes with vanilla and warming spices, but in the book, it includes it in a refreshing spritz cocktail, perfect for summer sipping. “It’s hands down 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’m craving fried chicken and I don’t want to make a full fried chicken for a special occasion, I make what I call my everyday chicken,” she says, which comes with the bonus extra that even her toddler will eat it.

Recipe: Pretzel Fried Chicken

Many other recipes eschew speed and ease, requiring you to expend time, effort, and/or financial investment through the purchase of special equipment, such as a snow cone machine. In doing so, Taylor inherently makes a 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 “victory” chicken burgers, for example, she mentions Lou Myers, who played Mr. Gaines on “A Different World,” a canonical 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 that.” Cookbooks can play an archival role by documenting society, in all its forms.

Taylor knows from experience that pain and grief exist in tandem.

“I’ve been to a funeral and it’s very sad, then after the meal the brown liquor comes out, ‘Before I Let Go’ comes on and you might even do the electric slide a couple of times,” she says. . “And I know for black Americans and black people around the world, it’s something that’s innate to us. We will always celebrate in the midst of sorrow.

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, of people coming and going outside to play. “So when I think of watermelon, I think of good memories of summer. But I haven’t lost sight of that for black people, watermelon is often associated with very gross, disgusting and exaggerated images,” says For Taylor, “Watermelon is about ritual, community and summer. So why not be part of the title? And the red birds are meant to represent ancestors returning to bring good luck according to some African American beliefs and Native Americans.

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With black people technically free from slavery for more than a century, making room for joyful occasions is just as important today as it was on June 1. 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. “Each day can be filled with the essence of Juneteenth, which is about joy, which is about freedom, which is about celebrating, no matter how difficult things have been or how much grief continues to be in our lives” , she says.

His book is a model for doing just that.

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


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