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Nicole A. Taylor On Watermelon & Red Birds — The First Juneteenth Cookbook

Image by Nicole A. Taylor / mbg creative
June 19, 2022
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Although it was only in 2021 that Juneteenth was officially declared a federal holiday, author Nicole A. Taylor has been celebrating for years. More than a decade, in fact. And for good reason. Juneteenth, or June 19, 1865, was the day that enslaved people in Texas learned the news that Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, making them the final state to be freed of slavery. 

To celebrate this now nationally recognized holiday, we spoke with Taylor to discuss her third cookbook, Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations—the first collection of recipes of its kind, dedicated to and inspired by Juneteenth. As she gears up for her own celebratory weekend, she notes that this time of year is beautiful because "so many people—Black and white, all Americans—are really excited about Juneteenth being this newly nationally recognized holiday."

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How did Juneteenth inspire this cookbook?

As a food writer and three-time cookbook author, Taylor revealed that she never expected to write this particular cookbook. "I'm a Southerner, but I'm not from Texas," she explained. After years of Juneteenth celebrations in Brooklyn, New York, and her home of Athens, Georgia, Taylor's agent continued to nudge her toward cookbook coverage, but it wasn't until 2020 that the idea really blossomed.

"The whole time, in the back of my mind, I was not feeling confident that I could pull it off," she said. "But sadly and proudly, after the 2020 summer uprisings with all of the sorrow and the pain that we as Americans and particularly Black Americans were experiencing, I knew to cope with it centering Black joy and Black celebrations. And Juneteenth would be a perfect guide."

What is the most meaningful recipe in this cookbook?

With this wide-ranging cookbook of over 75 recipes and eight chapters that span meals from barbecue foods to desserts and even a dedicated section on red drinks, Taylor deferred from choosing one recipe and instead shared that her favorite chapter was "Potato, Green & Fruit Salad."

"It really shows the bounty of summer," she explains. "You get to see tomatoes in my tomato and eggplant salad. And I love tomatoes at the height of summer. It also reminds me of growing up in the South, where corn was abundant in the summer." 

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How did you come up with the title "Watermelon & Red Birds"?

Naming a cookbook is no small task, let alone one with such significance and weight, but the idea came to Taylor while riding the New York City subway. "I remember my mother telling me the story of when you see a red bird and it lands close to you, that's someone in your family that's passed away. It's an ancestor coming back to say hello, so blowing them a kiss is good luck."

As for the first part of the title, Taylor explained that watermelon is one fruit loved by so many Americans, making it the perfect choice to celebrate the traditions of Juneteenth. "I feel it's just a beautiful way of honoring the past, present, and future of Juneteenth."

What does Juneteenth mean to you?

The history of Juneteenth is largely rooted in Texas, but Taylor explains that emancipation days were widespread across the South. "We know that emancipation days happened across the American South because enslaved people did not find out immediately that the president had signed the Emancipation Proclamation," she said. "For me, Juneteenth connects Black Americans to freedom, to Jubilee, to a new hope. To a generation that wasn't suffering."

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Merrell Readman
Merrell Readman
mbg Associate Food & Health Editor

Merrell Readman is the Associate Food & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. Readman is a Fordham University graduate with a degree in journalism and a minor in film and television. She has covered beauty, health, and well-being throughout her editorial career, and formerly worked at SheFinds. Her byline has also appeared in Women’s Health. In her current role, she writes and edits for the health, movement, and food sections of mindbodygreen. Readman currently lives in New York City.