2022 is the second year June 16 is observed as a federal holiday — so it’s ripe to become another part of the U.S. summer calendar, like Memorial Day and July 4 and Labor Day. Translation? A day to sell mattresses, limited edition products, drink copiously and, if you’re lucky, a real day off.
But here on Code Switch, we’re big fans of recognition. real the story. So we couldn’t let the occasion pass without remembering what Juneteenth is in the first place and the traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, long before much of the country recognized the day.
So I spoke to Nicole A. Taylor. She describes herself as a “home cooking mistress” and is the author of Watermelon and red birds – one of the few June 19 themed releases that doesn’t give me goosebumps. 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 and cooking food for a few decades now. A proud native of Athens, Georgia, she gained national attention in 2015 when she posted The Southern Cookbook–a collection of recipes and memories for people who wanted a taste of the South, no matter where they lived.
In 2017, Taylor released a New York Times Juneteenth food article. Soon after, her agent told her she needed to consider a Juneteenth cookbook – a suggestion Taylor initially rejected. “I didn’t feel like the right person to write this cookbook because I wasn’t born and raised in Texas,” she explained. “I’m a Southerner, but I’m not a Texan.”
But she is a collector and carrier of black community food traditions and foodways. And, as she points out, black people across 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 on black joy, dated June 19, 1865, and was a guide to bringing family and friends together at the dinner table.” And so, Watermelon and red birds has become 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 to do? Watermelon and red birds mean?
Watermelon originates from the African continent. For all Americans, it’s 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 becomes part of the book. And the red birds? Just thinking about why I added “Red Birds” to the title makes me smile. It’s because when I was little, my mother told me this story: every time you see a red bird coming around you, she said, it means that there is someone in the family who is deceased and who comes back to say hello to you. She said it symbolized good luck and I should send them a kiss. And so I knew that Watermelon and red birds was the perfect title to honor the past, present and future.
In some ways, we’ve been “Juneteenth” to death over the past two years, sometimes in very inappropriate ways. So I wonder what you think about making a recipe that you would like to serve on Juneteenth?
Very good question ! I’m going to base my answer on reminding everyone that June 19, 1865 is the day over 250,000 black Texans discovered they were free. It’s more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. So when I think about it, I reflect and do research: what did black people eat in 1866? What was the traditional black American or African American table? What did it look like?
There are recipes rooted in the African-American food tradition. Could they be classics? Of course, they can be classics. It can be things like barbecue, which we know is a traditional June 19 dish – juicy succulent ribs, brisket and even burgers can be traditional June 19 dishes. And the red drink.
But in this cookbook I have over 75 recipes and not all of them are traditional. These are recipes rooted in the African American table, but they have my own twist that shows how I celebrated Juneteenth. That’s not to say I don’t have the classics on the table, but I just wanted to focus and give people permission to chart their own path, create their own traditions.
As you just said, Juneteenth started out as something that was known within a specific community. In recent years, even before it becomes a federal holiday, Juneteenth is everywhere. I wonder what you think of this national interest in Juneteenth? I know there is a school of thought that says, “It’s not up to you, it’s up to us. It started here, we made it, and whatever you do, it’s a pale imitation of what we actually created. Other people want it should be a national holiday – and we should be happy about that. What do you think?
Juneteenth has always been all over the United States of America. We know that during the Great Migration many black people left Texas and went to other cities. We know that people across the southern United States left their cities and towns and took their traditions with them. And so the Texans took their traditions with them. They’ve been to places like LA. They’ve been to places like Oakland, where you see one of the biggest public June 19 festivals in the country. Milwaukee is another place that has held a public June 19 festival since 1971. You’ll find June 19 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’re going to celebrate June 19 where they are.
And all over the American South, black people celebrated when they discovered freedom. It is something that connects us. So I demystify one hundred percent that other black people should not celebrate Juneteenth. I think what’s most important is that we continually root and tell the origin story of Juneteenth – that it’s a holiday that was born in Texas. And respect Galveston and the people of Texas by telling the full origin story every time we talk about this new nationally recognized holiday.
What are some of the other black celebrations you commemorate in this book?
I celebrate Kwanzaa. Another would be the block party – I lived in Brooklyn for a long time and I love block parties! You tend to find block parties in black and brown neighborhoods, so this is another black celebration happening there. And as a proud HBCU graduate, college graduations are also a great time to bring out all the foods you see on June 19th. So this is another celebration I tip my hat to Watermelon and red birds.
Let’s go back to Red Drink for a moment, because for many people, it epitomizes Juneteenth. What should we remember from these drinks?
What I want people to understand is that there is a connection to black people all over the world, especially when you look at Red Drink. I was in my late twenties – so that was over 20 years ago – when I realized that the red drinks I saw in punch bowls growing up had a connection to South Africa. ‘West. In Senegal, the national drink is bissap – hibiscus macerated in water with spices and sugar. You find a similar drink with another name in northern Egypt. You find this same drink in the Caribbean, where it is called sorrel.
We are globally connected. And that’s the thing I want people to remember as they go through this book: Yes, I center black American culture and black cooking traditions and traditions around Juneteenth. But worldwide we are connected.
We are bound by diasporic delight?
One hundred percent!
With that in mind, do you have a favorite recipe, a Juneteenth recipe that you would be willing to share with us?
One of my favorites, hands down, is in this chapter of Red Drink. It’s the Sweet Potato Spritz. It is reddish in color, but the Cappelletti, which is an aperitif, is red. It has a sweet potato syrup that has all the essence of a sweet potato pie. It’s me again, bringing black American food with my own spin on it. I take a roasted or boiled sweet potato and add some warming spices – pretty much the same spices I or someone will put in a sweet potato pie. This syrup with the Cappelletti, vodka and sparkling white wine creates this beautiful bright summer drink that you can serve on Juneteenth. Really, you can serve it any day you want to feel joy – you want to feel jubilation. But it’s definitely one of my favorite recipes in the book. I will definitely have it on Juneteenth! (Recipe below.)