Q&A: Athens author Nicole Taylor discusses her Juneteenth cookbook – Red and Black

Nicole Taylor — a James Beard Award-nominated cookbook author, producer and fourth-generation Athenian — remembers her mother telling her a story about red birds when she was a child. Now Taylor has written the first-ever Juneteenth cookbook titled “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations.” Published by Simon & Schuster, the book contains over 75 recipes as well as essays, historical information, guides to BIPOC-owned businesses and tips for home cooks. 

What is the significance of the book title, “Watermelon and Red Birds”?

For me and so many Americans, watermelon is just a classic summertime fruit. Who doesn’t love a beautiful slice or chunk of watermelon on a hot day? A lot of this book is about capturing Americana, so watermelon is there because of that. And then there are the red birds. How the title came to fully be is that I was riding on New York transit, and it kind of fell out of the sky … the story of red birds. My mom would tell me when I was a kid this really cool story of when red birds appeared outside of our window that there was somebody in our family coming back to say hello and that they were good luck and to blow them a kiss. That story just came back to me, and I thought combining a classic American fruit and that very beautiful story — that the origins go back to Native Americans — would be a perfect way to honor the past, the present and the future of Juneteenth and other Black celebrations.

The book cover is vibrant with shades of red, and the book title nods to the color red as well. What is the significance of this color regarding Juneteenth?

The red of the book is an off-red. It’s very vibrant. It’s not a Valentine’s red. My creative director, George McCalman, who is based in San Francisco, was great in capturing a shade that was both classic and afrofuturistic, so I am grateful for that. Red is so powerful, and it’s always been one of my favorite colors. I love a red lipstick. I feel like it evokes so much power, and for Black people across the globe, red drinks are kind of in our DNA. 

If you go to Senegal or West Africa, the national drink of Senegal is Bissap, which is steeped hibiscus flower with sugar and a little bit of spices. If you go to the Caribbean, there’s a similar drink with hibiscus flower, and that tradition of red drink was brought to the Americas through forced migration during the transatlantic slave trade. And so you read in a lot of plantation cookbooks about enslaved people having red drink, which would be strawberry lemonade in some form at celebrations. 

I grew up never knowing that connection, but there was always a red punch at celebrations, so the red is definitely a nod to the drinking ritual, tradition and the ties of Black people globally. But some would say it’s also symbolic of sacrifice and blood shed during the transatlantic slave period and Black people in America now, so there’s so many meanings around the color red, and I think in this book you can interpret it in so many different ways. 

Watermelon and Red Birds Cover

“Watermelon & Red Birds” is fourth-generation Athenian Nicole Taylor’s Juneteenth cookbook. (Courtesy/Simon and Schuster)

When did you first get the idea to write “Watermelon and Red Birds,” and what really pushed you to start writing it?

I have been celebrating Juneteenth for more than a decade, and I have been writing about Juneteenth foods for probably about the same amount of time. My literary agent told me “you should write a cookbook on Juneteenth,” and I told her, “I think the holiday is too niche. I don’t think so.” But she wouldn’t let it go. Around 2018-2019, I started to come up with the proposal. 2020 came and I was still tinkering around with a cookbook proposal focused on Juneteenth. Then in the summer of 2020 during the uprising, I got my confirmation that Black people and the American people, all Americans, needed this cookbook. After the murder of George Floyd, I knew for certain that Black joy was needed, and to see Black people and Black celebrations centered in a cookbook was a very timely thing.

In “Watermelon and Red Birds,” you chose to connect your recipes to African American history, which provides context for those using your recipes. What do you hope readers and cooks gain from these historical elements that you have included in the cookbook?

I want readers and cooks to walk away with a few things when they open up “Watermelon and Red Birds” and that is understanding what June 19, 1865 is. It’s the day that Major General Granger arrived on the island of Galveston and told more than 200,000 enslaved Texans that they were free, and it was more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. I want people to be able to say that out loud and not just say it signifies the end of slavery in the U.S. because that’s not true. It’s the 13th amendment that abolished slavery in the U.S. I want people to walk away from that and make sure that the holiday is centered as the holiday that started in Texas. 

The other thing that I want people to do is to cook from the cookbook, no matter who you are — Black Americans or non-Black Americans — and to sit down with family and friends and to use it as an opportunity to talk about Black American contributions to the U.S. What better way to do that than around food? Another thing for non-Black Americans who buy this cookbook, what I want them to take away from it is that honoring Juneteenth around cooking food is an option, but another option is supporting Black-owned businesses. In the front of the cookbook, I create a list of some of my favorite Black-owned food products that make sense for the book. I want for Black Americans to use the cookbook as inspiration to create food traditions around Juneteenth. 

We know the main inspiration for this book is Juneteenth and honoring Black celebrations. What other elements inspired the recipes within your book, whether it be your personal memories of Juneteenth celebrations, southern food culture, or personal preferences?

One thing that stands out to me is I love sweet potatoes, and I made sure throughout this book to center the Black American table — foods that are closely associated with Black foodways, such as sweet potato, which is a super important part of the Black American diet. At Thanksgiving and Christmas people love a sweet potato pie, and every winter, when I buy sweet potatoes, I usually make a sweet potato syrup. It’s sweet potatoes, sugar and many other spices that you have in a sweet potato pie, so I took those same elements and made a syrup. As I was moving to develop recipes for this book, I was like, “Wait, I have sweet potato syrup in the fridge. Maybe I’ll make a spritz.” 

So I take a dish and flavors that are associated with Black foods, and I put it in a drink with Aperitivo Cappelletti, which is an amaro, and sparkling white wine, and I add a slice of orange on it. So that’s one of the dishes I turned on its head. I have 75 recipes that are rooted in the African American food experience, but they have my twist on it, and the sweet potato spritz is one of those.

What is your favorite recipe in the book and why?

The one that I’m thinking about the most nowadays is the devil’s food icebox cake because you don’t have to bake it. It is so simple in terms of once you have all the elements lined up you put it in the freezer, and it comes out beautiful. It’s cocoa cream and homemade chocolate wafers. If you want to cheat a bit you can buy chocolate wafers from the store. I’ve even seen someone buy Oreos instead of the chocolate wafers and scrape the white out of it. But it is a classic icebox cake that many southerners love. I have a cake in there as a nod to red velvet cake. Before Americans had commercial red dye, people were making chocolate cakes because there was no red dye, and they were using cocoa. The reaction of the cocoa with the baking agent would make it a tint of red, so it would be a devil’s food cake sometimes. That is one of the recipes that I’m really thinking about. I think it will be on my Juneteenth table.

Juneteenth became a federal holiday when Joe Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on June 17, 2021. However, you were already in the process of writing “Watermelon and Red Birds.” What went through your mind at that time?

I saw the signature of the legislation live, and I cried. I cried because I saw the grandmother of Juneteenth, Ms. Opal Lee standing next to Joe Biden, and her along with so many others like Al “Mr. Juneteenth” Edwards. He is in the last chapter of the book. He was a big legislator in Texas. He authored legislation making Juneteenth a state holiday in 1979. I cried because I understand people like Mr. Al Edwards, who have statues in Galveston, and plenty of other people, for so long understood that this regional holiday was not only a Texas thing, but it was something that was American that all Americans should know about. When I saw that that day, it had nothing to do with my cookbook. It was more about seeing people who look like me, who I know have sacrificed and done so much to make this world better and make America and all of our lives better. Just imagine how they felt in their lifetime to see something become a holiday. It was a really powerful moment.


 

Learn More: Athens Events with Taylor

To celebrate the release of Taylor’s “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations,” Avid Bookshop is hosting an Athens Hometown Party located on the lawn of The Park at Five Points, which is on the corner of Lumpkin Street and Milledge Circle. At the event, Nicole Taylor will be in conversation with Michael B. Jordan. The event will take place on Thursday, June 16, from 6:30-8 p.m. Purchase of the book from Avid serves as admission to the event. Books will be sold that day and can be pre-ordered.

Taylor will also be a featured guest at two plate-sale events in Athens during the week of Juneteenth. The first will take place at Fire Hall No. 2 on Friday, June 17, for dinner, and the second event will take place at The National on Sunday, June 19, for lunch. Tickets range from $35 to $100.

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