As America continues to grapple daily with aspects of racism and debates over whether Black history equates to American history in schools, there is no better time to make a plan around our new federal holiday – Juneteenth. It officially marks the anniversary of the day enslaved people were finally told they were free. June 19 commemorates the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed emancipation into law.
Juneteenth (otherwise known as Freedom Day), can be celebrated in many ways including participating in parades, reading books written by conscious Black authors, or pulling up to a cookout with a new dish inspired by cuisine specifically tied to the African American experience.
Luckily, BET.com was able to catch up with the author of "Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations," Nicole A. Taylor, to talk about what dishes she’lll be preparing for Juneteenth, the inspiration behind her new cookbook, and how she’ll honor the ancestors.
BET.com: You've curated this book of recipes to celebrate Juneteenth. What does the holiday mean to you?
Nicole A. Taylor: I'm connected to the day General Granger arrived in Galveston, TX, and told more than 200,000 enslaved Texans that they were free because though I was born in the state of Georgia. All over the American south, there were similar celebrations and similar Emancipation Proclamation days. I say days because enslaved folks found out at different times. People or plantation owners withheld the information because they wanted more free labor.
I think of it first as a regional Texas holiday that is now found all over the United States. Plus, there's a collective and an unspoken bond between Black Americans, and our desire to have equality and freedom is the same no matter where we are. We all want to be free, and our parents and great-grandparents had a vision for our lives that was absent of oppression and inequality and working for no money.
BET.com: Considering the current climate and all the trauma we've experienced just within the last few weeks, will the way you celebrate Juneteenth change this year?
Nicole A. Taylor: I start every Juneteenth celebration and pretty much all of my celebrations first with prayer and meditation. I bring out my glassware —because this is not the time to use your red cups— I like to make this moment very special, rooted in dignity and honoring the ancestors in a way where I acknowledge the pain and the sorrow.
I have an altar in my home; I will bring it to light. I usually say people's names and [this year include] the names of those who lost their lives at the Buffalo Tops. When I start my Juneteenth Celebrations, I don't do so with music and food. It begins with remembering that June 19, 1865, was serious business. It is about people being free; when you think about that, it is super important.
BET.com: I have read that you refer to yourself as a master cook instead of a chef? Why is that?
Nicole A. Taylor: I feel like the definition of a chef is someone who runs a professional kitchen. They've put the time into training in schools or training by working in restaurants. The only restaurant job I've had was at Wendy's in high school so I'm not a chef.
A master home cook is someone who has everything in their kitchen to make a meal that is beyond expectations. And by everything, I mean cheesecloth handy at all times, a juicer, micro planes. Plus, you know how to go to the regular grocery store and the farmer's market. You can also cook on gas, induction, and an electric cooktop. Furthermore, you understand temperature, doneness, how to cut, and how to clean [food.]
BET.com: As a master cook, was it a natural transition to write this book to honor this very important day?
Nicole A. Taylor: My home has always been the place where people gathered, but I didn't realize I was creating space for people to relax and unwind until it was pointed out to me by them saying, ‘we've always been at your house when you had the midnight brunch party, and we had the waffles or those Memorial Day barbecues.’ Then people started saying I should write a book.
I started as a food writer first because I'm obsessed with food, and in 2017, I wrote my first national piece on Juneteenth foods. My literary agent said I should write a Juneteenth cookbook, but I didn't think it would be viable because the holiday at the time was so niche. Plus, I already have one cookbook, and I knew what the process was like to get it published. I said no, but I was still having celebrations and writing down my menus. I had years of menus because I have always written down what I've made. Then I realized I could come up with a Juneteenth cookbook that reflects how I've celebrated the day for over a decade.
I plowed through writing the proposal, but when George Floyd was murdered, I knew for certain that this book, this guide, this meditation, on Juneteenth, and Black celebration, was something that all Americans needed and more specifically, something that Black Americans could use to bring some joy into their lives.
BET.com: How did you go about picking the recipes to feature?
Nicole A. Taylor: All 75 recipes are rooted in the Black/ African American table. As someone who's been writing about Black foodways for about 10 years, I have a massive collection of Black cookbooks from Edna Lewis, Jessica B. Harris, and Bryant Terry. I used foods like peanuts, leafy greens, fried chicken, and sweet potatoes—which are essential to Black Americans as you often see them on our table during celebrations. You’ll see collard greens in watermelon wrappers seasoning or a leafy green pesto. There isn't sweet potato pie because even though people may eat it during the summertime, it is a dessert associated with Thanksgiving. Instead, there is a Sweet Potato Spritz made by using the sweet potato by making it into a simple syrup with beautiful spices, Cappelletti (a wine-based Italian bittersweet red aperitivo), vodka, and white sparkling wine like the one from Black Girl Magic. I've taken classic Black/ African American dishes and added my twist to them.
Also, in this book, it was important to me to feature food brands—which I mention in the front of the book— primarily owned by People Of Color.
BET.com: What recipe from the book will you be making this Juneteenth?
Nicole A. Taylor: I think I'll make the Devil's Icebox Cake because I don't have to turn on the oven. It's simple, and it's essentially wafers and a bunch of whip cream, and it looks freakin' gorgeous.
Check out “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations” (Simon & Schuster) by Nicole A Taylor at book retailers now.
Editor's note: This interview has been condensed for clarity.