July 13, 2024

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First Juneteenth cookbook features traditional red dishes

“Black joy often emanates from Black sorrow,” food writer Nicole A. Taylor observes in her new cookbook “Watermelon & Red Birds.” Whether it’s a family funeral, community grieving or national mourning throughout civil rights struggles, that affecting intersection of sorrow and joy plays out time and again as pain and suffering begets triumph and jubilation.

Such was the case for the birth of “Watermelon & Red Birds,” the first cookbook devoted to Juneteenth. Taylor said she realized she was the right person to write a Juneteenth cookbook when George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, triggering a summer of protests demanding racial justice. Black joy and celebrations, she said, needed to be a part of the conversation during this dark time, specifically the healing comforts of food. “In the midst of sorrow, Black people and Black hands have been so important to the American table,” she said.

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Taylor’s new cookbook arrives just as America will celebrate Juneteenth this weekend, June 19, a national holiday signed into law last year as the first federal holiday enacted since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983.

The celebratory foods of Juneteenth are on display in “Watermelon & Red Birds” by Nicole A. Taylor.

The celebratory foods of Juneteenth are on display in “Watermelon & Red Birds” by Nicole A. Taylor.

Beatriz da Costa / Beatriz da Costa

Juneteenth is short for June Nineteenth, the day in 1865 when federal troops arrived in Galveston to ensure that enslaved people be freed, two and a half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The following year freemen in Texas organized the first Juneteenth festivities which, like the Great Migration, spread to every corner of the country. Juneteenth foods include red drinks (red soda, punch, hibiscus tea); red foods (watermelon and strawberries); red cake; barbecue and other traditional soul food staples; and summer bounty fruits and vegetables.

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Taylor embraces all those and more in her canvassing of customs and traditions of American foodways that have evolved since the first Juneteenth celebrations. There are modern notions and regional allegiances intertwined in the recipes Taylor developed for the book. The cookbook, she said, is not meant to be a strict interpretation of the foods and flavors of the original Juneteenth celebrations but a bridge between those traditional dishes and a culinary journey to the present: “It’s an attempt to fashion a Juneteenth celebration for the twenty-first century.”


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The more than 75 recipes in the book take in a delicious swath of creative and regional interpretations of festive Juneteenth fare including pickles and hot sauces, red drinks, fair foods, barbecue, salads (potato, green and fruit), icy treats, and many cakes. Galveston and Texas food and drink — smoked meats, “hot guts” sausages, brisket, tamales, nifty red-hued fizzes — are also woven through “Watermelon & Red Birds.”

The celebratory foods of Juneteenth are on display in “Watermelon & Red Birds” by Nicole A. Taylor.

The celebratory foods of Juneteenth are on display in “Watermelon & Red Birds” by Nicole A. Taylor.

Beatriz da Costa / Beatriz da Costa

The title comes from a native-born African fruit and African and Native American beliefs that red birds are ancestors returning to spread luck. Taylor, who splits her time between New York and Georgia, said she needed those red birds while writing during the pandemic struggles when she felt enormous pressures and hardships — and got COVID. “I gave in to self-doubt, and I lost the very joy I write about over and over,” she wrote in the book. “Then a red bird would appear — my ancestors would sing to me and strut around my backyard, reminding me to rest and then try again.”

Her research, naturally, brought her to Texas and to Galveston where Juneteenth was born. “I learned about Houston as a story of Black emancipation,” she said, referring to sites such as Emancipation Park and Freedmen’s Town. Texas foods are certainly a part of her Juneteenth story, but so are the country’s vast regional foodways that have been woven into the celebration for generations. Whatever food strikes a celebratory chord for Juneteenth is valid, Taylor said.

“If gumbo makes you feel good on Juneteenth, do it,” she said.

And that’s among the beauties of the cookbook. It doesn’t pronounce what foods are mandatory for Juneteenth. And it’s not aimed at just one audience.

“I definitely wrote it thinking I wanted to speak to Black people. But I also knew this book was for all Americans,” Taylor said. “It is a love letter to Black culture. But it’s for everyone; it’s American history.

Emancipation Park Juneteenth: June 18 and 19 at 3018 Emancipation, 4 to 10 p.m. Free admission (ticket required); epconservancy.org.

Mayor Turner’s Annual Acres Homes Juneteenth Parade: June 18, 10 a.m. to noon. Parade begins at Acres Homes Multi-Service Center, 6719 W. Montgomery and ends at 1620 Dolly Wright at Gerater Zion Mission Baptist Church.

Galveston Juneteenth Festival & Parade: Festival June 18 noon to 10 p.m. at the McGuire Dent Recreational Center at Menard Park, 2222 28th. The parade on June 18 at 1 p.m. at 26th and Avenue H, ending at 41st and Avenue H. A picnic will immediately follow at Wright Cuney Park, 718 41st.

“I hope throughout the book that I quench a little bit of people’s desires to understand Black culture and people of color and how we’re all weaved together,” she said. “It’s a starting point for people who are celebrating Juneteenth for the first time or wanting to know more about Juneteenth.”


Sweet potato syrup
•2 cups sugar
•2 ½ cups water
•1 sweet potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
•½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise
•1 star anise pod
•½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
•¼ teaspoon kosher salt

The spritz
•8 ounces Aperitivo Cappelletti (red bitter aperitif)
•3 ounces vodka
•2 ounces sweet potato syrup
•16 ounces sparkling white wine
•4 orange slices, for garnish

Instructions: For the sweet potato syrup: Combine the sugar, water, sweet potato, vanilla bean, star anise, cinnamon, cardamom and salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil at of medium-low heat, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved and the sweet potato is tender, about 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow the sweet potato to steep in the syrup for 1 to 2 hours, until cooled to room temperature. Strain the syrup through a fine-mesh sieve. Transfer the strained syrup to a squeeze bottle and refrigerate until ready to use. The syrup can be refrigerated for up to several weeks.

For the spritz cocktail: In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine 4 ounces of the aperitif, 1½ ounces of the vodka, and 2 ounces of the sweet potato syrup. Stir using a long bar spoon until combined. Strain into two large stemless or stemmed wineglasses over ice and top each with 4 ounces of sparkling white wine. Repeat to make two additional cocktails. Garnish with orange slices.

Makes 4 servings

From “Watermelon & Red Birds” by Nicole A. Taylor

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