A Juneteenth for the Twenty-First Century

By: Hannah Lee Leidy

Nicole Taylor, a food writer, cookbook author, and recipe developer debuts Watermelon & Red Birds just in time for Juneteenth 2022, complete with seventy-five recipes and stories that honor Black traditions and preserve summer festivities for future generations.

Growing up in Georgia, Taylor relished the summer gatherings that brought all the neighbors, cousins, aunts, and uncles together. There were ice cream and pound cakes, potato salad and meaty ribs, red-toned drinks and icy snow cones. It all unfolded over all-day cookouts full of soulful interactions. 

It wasn’t until adulthood, though, that Taylor discovered Juneteenth, which marks the date (June 19, 1865) that enslaved Blacks in Galveston, Texas, learned of their freedom. Fascinated, she attended her first Juneteenth celebration in Brooklyn. A little over a decade later, the day became a nationally recognized holiday—coinciding with increasing news coverage of racially targeted violence. As Taylor writes in the book’s introduction, “Black joy emanates from Black sorrow…” 

Watermelon & Red Birds weaves stories of American history and personal anecdotes of Black celebrations with recipes that are “a testament to where we are now.” Taylor writes, “It’s an attempt to synthesize all the places we’ve been, and the people we have come from, all the people we will become, and all the culinary ideas we have embraced.”

Nicole Taylor on Cooking, Community, and Corndogs

At what moment did you decide a Juneteenth cookbook was needed?

I’ve been producing content about Juneteenth for about ten years. I [first] heard the word in college. The first time I participated in Juneteenth was in Brooklyn and was like, “Oh, this has to be an annual event for me.” A defining moment was a piece for the New York Times for Juneteenth food traditions. My agent thought I needed to do a whole Juneteenth cookbook, and I immediately deleted her email. I thought it was too niche. I finally decided to consider if I had enough content to write it and working on the proposal. Then there was George Floyd’s murder, and we as a country—especially Black people—were experiencing a racial reckoning. We had no idea Juneteenth would become a newly nationally recognized holiday. In hindsight, I wish had more time to work on it.

How did you discover the artisan food brands you recommend in the cookbook? Are there any on your radar we should know about?

I’ve been buying Black and POC brands since before it was a hashtag. I moved to Brooklyn when supporting small artisanal brands was a lifestyle. When putting together this list, I didn’t do any research—I just opened my pantry. This is not my exhaustive list. These are people who fit into this book. I made it for anyone who may want to cheat a bit with the recipes, such as if you don’t want to make your own hot sauce or spices, then try these!

Several recipe instructions encourage visual cues. Can you elaborate on that?

I’m glad you noticed that—I’m an intuitive cook. I call myself a master home cook, but I think one of the key parts of that definition is that you’re intuitive. Everyone’s stove or oven is different. My temperature is not their temperature. For example, I talk about visual cues with some of the frying. My editor was nervous because she doesn’t fry. I can put temperatures all day long, but there are so many factors that could change a dish.

You talk about the significance of potato salad at celebrations and who gets to be “the potato salad queen.” Who boasts this title at your gatherings?

My mom is the potato salad queen in our house. I wonder now if she could make it (she has carpal tunnel now). She and the potato salad queens know how to cut the potatoes really well and have a light hand in terms of not over-mixing it. My mom really prides herself in how she plates it—she’d never serve it in a plastic container. I have a platter that she loves using.

What encouraged you to carve out space in the cookbook for “Everyday Juneteenth?” Why is it significant?

I knew this was coming out for holiday time—holidays where I’m outside, I invite people over, I make a big dessert. It’s about this leisurely feeling of being open to the day and paying attention to what’s around us. In other times of the year, I want us to think: What food can I cook that most reminds me of the celebrations that brought me so much joy, like Juneteenth? What can I cook that brings me comfort? How can I bring in fried chicken, cherries jubilee, or anything with fire? 

What’s one drink or recipe from the book that holds a special place in your heart?

There are so many recipes that remind me of my kid, like the raspberry yogurt pops. Anything that he can eat really hypes me up. Ultimately, this book is about documenting a moment in time. I hope [my son] will be able to look back on this book and be able to incorporate these things into his own celebrations twenty years in time. 

Recipes for Juneteenth 2022

Zucchini Corndogs

Turnip Cornballs

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