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This Juneteenth, Cook What Makes You Happy

A new cookbook from Nicole A. Taylor, the “queen of celebration”

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Three women in brightly colored clothing hold three platters of celebratory desserts.
Every celebration needs dessert
Beatriz da Costa
Stephanie Wu is the editor-in-chief of Eater, overseeing 20+ city sites, national food culture coverage, and an Emmy-award winning video program.

A version of this post originally appeared on June 18, 2022, in Stephanie Wu’s newsletter, “From the Editor,” a roundup of the most vital news and stories in the food world. Read the archives and subscribe now.

For as long as I can remember, all of my celebrations have centered on food. Some holidays, like Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year, revolve around large gatherings over a dinner table with a very specific combination of dishes. Smaller holidays, like the recent Dragon Boat Festival, are marked simply by enjoying a traditional Chinese food — in this case, zongzi, a pyramid of steamed sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves. My association of celebrations with food is one of the reasons I was so excited for Nicole A. Taylor’s new book, Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations. Juneteenth honors June 19, 1865, the day Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and told more than 250,000 enslaved Black Texans that they were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. As Taylor writes in the introduction to her book, her Juneteenth celebrations were “a time to block out the extraneous noise of the workaday world and feast on food and freedom.”

In honor of her new cookbook, I chatted with Taylor about Juneteenth celebrations big and small. Whether you have a big blowout planned — Taylor is hosting three days of events in her hometown of Athens, Georgia — or are honoring Juneteenth for the first time, I hope you find some way to gather with friends and family over food, traditional or not, and reflect on this important day.

Eater: How did the idea for a Juneteenth cookbook come about?

Nicole A. Taylor: I’ve been celebrating Juneteenth for more than a decade, and recently, after talking to so many of my friends, I realized that I’m the queen of celebrations. From my dorm in college to my house in Athens, and my apartment in New York, my place has always been the gathering spot for everyone, but particularly for Black people, looking to unwind, take a deep breath, and exhale. I always bring good food, good drink, and good conversation. Watermelon & Red Birds is about my Juneteenth celebrations and how I chose to celebrate for more than a decade. I hope this cookbook kicks off a whole slew of Juneteenth cookbooks.

What were some of the elements that you immediately knew you wanted to include?

I started off with the idea that a majority of the recipes would be rooted in the African American or African table. You’ll find twists on classic African American foods. You see sweet potato, but not in a pie, in a spritz. Leafy greens, but in a pesto. Barbecue sauce, but a rhubarb one. And I was intentional about wanting this book to look and feel like summer, to be vibrant and bold. One of the first images on my Pinterest board for the book was Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times. The colors, the images of Black people resting, enjoying themselves outdoors — I wanted to make sure that was in the cookbook.

A red book cover with two red drinks, one held by a person clad in a denim top and bold jewelry.
The cover of Nicole A. Taylor’s “Watermelon & Red Birds” cookbook
Simon & Schuster

How did regional variations on Juneteenth celebrations play into the cookbook?

Juneteenth’s origins are in Texas. The beauty of Juneteenth is that during the Great Migration, Black people all over the American South left their homes and went to other places around the country. Black Texans went west and to the Midwest. Where people moved is where you see the largest public Juneteenth celebrations. The Great Migration is why I first attended a Juneteenth celebration in Brooklyn. The variations of Juneteenth are credited to the Great Migration for Black people, for better opportunities and not so in-your-face inequalities.

When you move, you adapt to where you’re living. That’s why you see variations. And people have to realize, Black people are not a monolith. What you tend to see is people cooking what makes them happy, people weaving their family traditions into Juneteenth, and people grounding themselves in traditional foods of Juneteenth — barbecue, summertime fruits like watermelon, lemonade, red drinks, and of course, desserts. I set up each chapter [in the cookbook] as an essential. Red drink, I feel, is an essential. Cookout or barbecue food is an essential. Sides, like a potato salad, are an essential. There are two chapters on desserts, because what is a celebration without a dessert? Emancipation Day celebrations are all over the South, but Juneteenth is the one that has stood the test of time and now is a nationally recognized holiday. Americans are given the opportunity to dig deep, to understand what Juneteenth is and how it plays into the freedom of Black people in America.

I’m all about the food, but it’s important that all Americans really start the Juneteenth day — or the day after, if they want to use the national holiday — by grounding themselves in the history of it before we start digging into the growth.

With Juneteenth as a national holiday, how do you hope those new to the holiday honor it this year?

One of the things that people celebrating for the first time can do is recognize and honor and figure out how they fit into the equation. June 19, 1865 — say what it is. It’s not the day that ended slavery, its when Texans found out they were free. For non-Black Americans interested in honoring Juneteenth in a tangible way, I would say, use my guide in the front of the book where I list Black, Indigenous, and people of color-owned food products. If you’re not cooking from the book, buy those products and put your money behind a Black-owned business on that day. Lastly, I encourage people to use that opportunity to eat and gather with family and friends, and talk about the contribution of Black people to the United States and [to] America’s history of freedom — what that looks like and what people are hoping for it to continue to look like. It’s a good opportunity to have a dialogue around the table.