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Chef Nicole A. Taylor talks red birds, red drink, and Juneteenth

Chef Nicole A. Taylor pictured next to her new cookbook, <em>Watermelon and Red Birds.</em>
Kaylin James
Chef Nicole A. Taylor pictured next to her new cookbook, Watermelon and Red Birds.

2022 is the second year Juneteenth is being observed as a federal holiday — so it's ripe to become another part of the American summer calendar, like Memorial Day and July 4th and Labor Day. Translation? A day for mattress sales, limited edition merchandise, copious drinking and – if you're lucky – an actual day off work.

But here on Code Switch, we are big fans of acknowledging actual history. So we couldn't let the occasion pass by without a reminder of what Juneteenth is in the first place, and of the traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, long before much of the country ever acknowledged the day.

So I spoke to Nicole A. Taylor. She describes herself as a "master home chef," and she's the author of Watermelon and Red Birds – one of the few Juneteenth-themed releases that doesn't make my skin crawl. In fact, it's actually a very beautiful, very meaningful book that uses food as a lens to talk about the history of Juneteenth and other Black celebrations.

Taylor has been writing about and cooking food for a few decades now. A proud native of Athens, Georgia, she got national attention in 2015 when she published The Up South Cookbook–a collection of recipes and memories for people who wanted a taste of the South no matter where they lived.

In 2017, Taylor published a New York Times article on Juneteenth foods. Not long after, her agent told her she needed to consider a book of Juneteenth recipes–a suggestion Taylor dismissed initially. "I didn't feel like I was the right person to write that cookbook because I'm not born and raised in Texas," she explained. "I'm a Southerner, but I'm not a Texan."

But she is a collector and a conveyor of Black community food lore and foodways. And, as she points out, Black people all over the South have long, interconnected traditions of celebrating emancipation. So she decided to run with it. "Black Americans–all Americans, really–needed a cookbook that centered Black joy, that grounded June 19, 1865, and that was a guide to gathering family and friends at the table." And so, Watermelon and Red Birds became a reality.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. And for more with Nicole A. Taylor, check out Sunday's episode of the Code Switch podcast.

Tell us about the title: What do Watermelon and Red Birds signify?

Watermelon is native to the African continent. For all Americans, it is the fruit that cools you down in the hot summer months – it's luscious, it's juicy and it's very recognizable. So I wanted to make sure that it became a part of the book. And red birds? Just thinking about why I added "Red Birds" to the title makes me smile. That's because when I was growing up, my mother used to tell me this story: Any time you see a red bird coming around you, she'd say, that means there's someone from the family who has passed on coming back to say hello. She said it symbolized good luck, and I should blow them a kiss. And so I knew that Watermelon and Red Birds was the perfect title to honor the past, the present and the future.

In some ways, we've been "Juneteenthed" to death over the past couple of years, sometimes in seriously inappropriate ways. So I'm wondering what you think makes a recipe that you would want to serve on Juneteenth?

Very good question! I'm going to ground my answer in just reminding everyone that June 19th, 1865 is the day that more than 250,000 Black Texans found out that they were free. This is more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. So when I think about that, I think and I research: What were Black people eating in 1866? What was the traditional Black American or African-American table? What did it look like?

There are recipes that are grounded in the African-American food tradition. Could they be classics? Of course they can be classics. They can be things like barbecue, which we know is traditional Juneteenth fare – juicy succulent ribs, brisket, even burgers can be traditional Juneteenth fare. And Red Drink.

But in this cookbook, I have more than 75 recipes and they're not all traditional. They are recipes that are rooted in the African-American table, but they have my own spin that shows how I've celebrated Juneteenth. This is not to say that I don't have the classics on the table, but I just wanted to focus and give folks permission to chart their own course, to create their own traditions.

As you just said, Juneteenth started as something that was known within a specific community. In recent years, even before it became a federal holiday, Juneteenth is all over the place. I'm wondering what you think about this national interest in Juneteenth? I know that there is a school of thought that says, "It's not yours, it's ours. It started here, we made it, and whatever you do is a pale imitation of what we really created." Other people feel like it should be a national holiday – and we should take joy in it. What do you think?

Juneteenth has always been all over the United States of America. We know that during the Great Migration, plenty of Black people left Texas and went to other cities. We know that people all across the American South left their towns and cities, and they took their traditions with them. And so Texans took their traditions with them. They went to places like L.A. They went to places like Oakland, where you see one of the largest, long-running Juneteenth public festivals in the country. Milwaukee is another place that has had a public Juneteenth festival since 1971. You find Juneteenth celebrations that have been going on for decades in Harlem and Brooklyn. There are Texans all over the United States, and if they can't go back to Galveston or Houston or Dallas, they are going to celebrate Juneteenth where they are.

And all over the American South, Black people have celebrated when they found out about freedom. That is something that connects us. So I debunk that one hundred percent, that other Black people shouldn't be celebrating Juneteenth. I think what's most important is that we ground and continually tell the origin story of Juneteenth – that it is a holiday that was born in Texas. And give Galveston and the people of Texas the respect by telling the full origin story every time we speak about this new, nationally recognized holiday.

What are some of the other Black celebrations that you commemorate in this book?

I celebrate Kwanzaa. Another one would be the block party – I lived in Brooklyn for a long time, and I I love a block party! You tend to find block parties in Black and Brown neighborhoods, so that's another Black celebration that's in there. And as a proud HBCU grad, college graduations are a perfect time to bring out all the foods that you see on Juneteenth as well. So that is another celebration that I tip my hat to in Watermelon and Red Birds.

Let's go back to Red Drink for a moment, because for a lot of people, that epitomizes Juneteenth. What should we remember about these drinks?

The thing that I want people to understand is that there is a connection to Black people around the globe, particularly when you look at Red Drink. I was in my late twenties – so that was 20-plus years ago – when I realized that the red drinks that I saw in punch bowls growing up had a connection to West Africa. In Senegal, the national drink is bissap – hibiscus steeped in water with spices and sugar. You find a similar drink with another name in northern Egypt. You find that same drink in the Caribbean, where it's called sorrel.

Nicole A. Taylor's rendition of a "Sweet Potato Spritz"
/ Beatriz da Costa
Beatriz da Costa
Nicole A. Taylor's rendition of a "Sweet Potato Spritz"

We are connected globally. And that is the thing that I want people to remember as they look through this book: Yes, I am centering Black American culture and Black food traditions and tradition around Juneteenth. But globally we are connected.

We are linked by diasporic deliciousness?

One hundred percent!

With that in mind – do you have a favorite recipe, a Juneteenth recipe that you'd be willing to share with us?

One of my favorites, hands down, is in that Red Drink chapter. It's the Sweet Potato Spritz. It is reddish in color, but the Cappelletti, which is an aperitivo, is red. It has a sweet potato syrup that has all the essence of a sweet potato pie. So that's me again, bringing in Black American food putting my own twist on it. I take a roasted or boiled sweet potato and I add warming spices– pretty much the same spices that I or someone will put in a sweet potato pie. That syrup with the Cappelletti, the vodka and the sparkling white wine creates this beautiful, bright summery drink that you can serve on Juneteenth. Really, you can serve it any day that you want to feel joy–you want to feel the jubilation. But that for certain is one of my favorite recipes in the book. I definitely will be having that on Juneteenth! (Recipe below.)

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Nicole A. Taylor's recipe for a "Sweet Potato Spritz"
/ Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Nicole A. Taylor's recipe for a "Sweet Potato Spritz"

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.