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Nicole Taylor’s Juneteenth cookbook celebrates Black joy amid sorrow

Nicole A. Taylor, author of "Watermelon and Red Birds," on her property in Athens, Ga. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for The Washington Post)

ATHENS, Ga. — After I exit the highway heading to my hotel, the first business I notice is a lunch spot called 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 harsh 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 intermingling 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 enslaved people in Texas first learned they were freed — two months after the Civil War had ended and 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The first Juneteenth was celebrated in 1866, and until recently has predominantly been the realm of African Americans with Texas roots. While Taylor recalls hearing about the holiday during her time at the historically Black Clark Atlanta University, it wasn’t until a little over a decade ago, when she stumbled upon a celebration at a Brooklyn park, that she began observing the holiday herself and has done so every year since.

Now it’s a federal holiday, and this year she plans to observe Juneteenth in Athens with friends and family by hosting an event to celebrate her cookbook. Given the time and energy spent writing it, in addition to the past two years we’ve all experienced, particularly the recent targeted killing of Black people at a Buffalo grocery store, “I want to relax as much as possible,” she says. Taylor teared up over lunch just thinking about all of the trauma Black people have gone through, the pain bubbling beneath the surface. “I have to turn it off if I want to get some work done.”

Taylor’s longtime literary agent, Sharon Bowers, first suggested that Taylor write a Juneteenth cookbook, saying it would be her magnum opus. Bowers had learned of Taylor’s Juneteenth celebrations from her first book, “The Up South Cookbook,” published 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 this particular niche was really special, and Nicole’s big-hearted, generous way of celebrating it was highly specific to her. And since she’s a food professional with serious writing chops, it seemed obvious to me that she should write this book.”

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

Then the pandemic happened 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 in lockdown and seeing and being a part of the Black terror, the depressive state caused by the murder, the massacre of unarmed Black people ... being a part of that and experiencing that, I knew that I wanted this cookbook to be a guide to joy,” Taylor says. “I knew for certain that this book is needed, and I can do this.”

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

I jokingly call her the queen of Juneteenth, a title she vehemently denies. “I have been blessed to have a microphone to talk about Juneteenth foods. And I want to make that very clear,” she says, citing others, such as Opal Lee, who fought hard to get the day recognized. However, “I would call myself the queen of Black celebrations,” noting all of the cookouts, HBCU homecomings, kickbacks, happy hours and other such events she has hosted and attended throughout her life.

Recipe: Sweet Potato Spritz Cocktail

When it comes to the recipes she has created, “This book is not an attempt to capture the tastes and recipes of that 1866 Juneteenth celebration. This is a testament to where we are now,” she writes. So if you’re 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 is 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 that you don’t typically see,” Taylor says.

Take the sweet potato. Though it’s largely canonized in Black food culture via pie or candied casserole, Taylor wanted to find a more seasonally appropriate way to include it in the book. Then she harked 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 warming spices, but in the book she includes it in a refreshing spritz cocktail, perfect for summertime sipping. “It’s hands down one of my favorites,” she says.

Another dish that she keeps going back to is her pretzel fried chicken, which she includes in the Everyday Juneteenth chapter. “When I have a hankering for fried chicken and I don’t want to do a full-out special-occasion fried chicken, I do what I call my everyday chicken,” she says, which comes with the added bonus that even her toddler will eat it.

Recipe: Pretzel Fried Chicken

Plenty of other recipes eschew quick and easy, requiring you to put in the time, effort and/or financial investment through the purchase of special equipment, such as a snow cone maker. By 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 delve further. In a recipe for “victory” chicken burgers, for instance, she mentions Lou Myers, who played Mr. Gaines in “A Different World,” a canonical show for many Black Americans. (Victory burgers were on the menu at the cafe run by Myers’s character at the fictional Hillman College.) “I don’t want people to forget him.” Cookbooks can play an archival role in documenting society, in all of its forms.

Taylor knows from experience that joy and sorrow exist in tandem.

“I’ve been at a funeral and it’s very sad, and then afterwards at the repast, 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 that for Black Americans and Black people across the globe that that is something innately us. We are always going to celebrate in the midst of sorrow.”

These opposing emotions are also reflected in the book’s title, “Watermelon and Red Birds.” For her, watermelon conjures childhood memories of going to buy the fruit with her aunt, people coming over and her going outside to play. “So when I think of watermelon, I think of happy memories of summer. But it’s not lost on me that for Black people watermelon is often associated with the very gross, disgusting and exaggerated images,” she says. For Taylor, “Watermelon is about ritual, it’s about community and it’s about summertime. So why not have that be a part of the title?” And red birds are meant to represent ancestors returning to bring luck according to certain African American and Native American beliefs.

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While Black people have technically been free from slavery for more than a century, making the room for joyous occasions is just as important now as it was on the first Juneteenth. Learning how 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 rough things have been or how much sorrow continues to be in our life,” she says.

Her book is a blueprint for doing just that.

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

correction

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

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