On June 19, 1865, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston to inform more than 250,000 black Texans that they were free. At first the news was held back by many plantation owners, but the following year a celebration of freedom, called Juneteenth, was celebrated across the state. In “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for June 16 and Black Holiday Celebrations», Nicole Taylor presents recipes which, in her words, « want to be light with the pleasures of good cooking and heavy with the weight of history ».
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: Can you explain the meaning of the title of the book?
Nicole Taylor: Juicy, red, seeded watermelon is classic. Everything is American. For me, it takes me back to my childhood in Athens, Georgia, going to the local grocery store, and there were these giant cardboard boxes with big watermelons piled on top, and I was begging to get one out. We would bring a watermelon to the car and I would stay in the backseat listening to the watermelon rolling around in the trunk. I use the word “watermelon” to honor that nostalgia, and I’m sure there are so many Americans, and black Americans, who have a very similar experience. And second, red birds are so special to me. Growing up, my mother said to me, “Look, there is a red bird! Send a kiss to the red bird! Your ancestors are coming back to say hello. Watermelon and red birds represent past, present and future.
Give us a checklist for a June 19 barbecue. What are the essentials?
You definitely need a red drink. Second, where are the burgers? And if you’ve done the BBQ really well, you’ll have ribs, beef ribs, and pork ribs. They will be on the plate for sure. And no June 19 barbecue is complete without potato salad. It’s probably Black Cookout’s most revered side dish.
The potato salad is the scariest to bring.
He is. You have to be really brave and confident and sure about your cooking. Another must – you need dessert. I think the pound cake is a classic. And in this cookbook, I thought I’d throw in a twist and make a radish and ginger pound cake. All the flavor is really in the whipped cream, where I add fresh ginger and grated radish. It’s so beautiful, and such a pleasant and glorious way to end an afternoon or evening with family or friends.
Red drinks are Juneteenth essentials. How did the tradition of red drinks come about and what is your preference?
I like a margarita. The origin of red drinks dates back to West Africa. It goes back to the infusion of dried hibiscus buds and dried hibiscus petals. Thanks to the transatlantic slave trade, miraculously, the red drink has survived for so many generations, along with tradition and ritual.
How can you make a red margarita?
My brown margarita starts with a margarita mix made with fresh strawberries. I take these strawberries, add lime, coconut, and sugar, and create this wonderful margarita mix. I bottle it. I add it to my favorite tequila or my favorite mezcal, and rim my highball glass with an orange coconut salt.
Let’s talk about rhubarb barbecue sauce.
I love rhubarb. Often people place rhubarb in the fruit category. But for me, I always approach rhubarb as a vegetable. And I use it in barbecue sauce, almost like celery. I wanted to make sure my barbecue sauce tastes like something you’ve never had before.
“Watermelon and Red Birds” is the first cookbook devoted entirely to the celebration of Juneteenth, which commemorates the announcement in Galveston, Texas that all slaves were free – about two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Let’s talk about snow cones. They are definitely an important part of a Southern summer. What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
I took a very different approach. I thought about my snow cones looking at the colors. Like, “How do I get a purple snow cone?” A purple sweet potato. And, “What if I made a purple sweet potato syrup?” I’ve made this for years, and especially at Christmas, I always make a sweet potato syrup to go into so many different cocktails and hot drinks.
I also like edible flowers. I brought my love of edible flowers into snow cone mixes by creating a marigold snow cone, which is basically dried or fresh marigolds soaked in water and sugar to create this rich yellow-orange snow cone and vibrant.
And if you’re really feeling it, you can create some whipped cream and put a dollop of whipped cream on your snow cone, or make it boozy if you like.
Festivals and fairs are part of the summer festivities. Talk about the racial nuances that surround the word “righteous.”
I grew up in the southern United States, where going to the Sweet Auburn Festival was a tradition. For many state fairs, especially the Texas State Fair, black Americans were not allowed to attend any night. There were so many brave Texans who fought to desegregate the Texas State Fair. And in this cookbook, I wanted to make sure that I gave people some fabulous recipes, but also put in some nuggets of history, to remind people that among all the fun we’re having now, there were so many people brave people who opened the door and made it a way for everyone to have fun and enjoy the Texas State Fair, or the Iowa State Fair, and many other fairs across the country.
Share with us a favorite festival dish that we can make at home.
Funnel cake. My dough is not super sweet. And what I love about Golden Crispy Funnel Cake is that if you bake it right inside your Dutch oven, you create this beautiful golden, fried lace pattern. It’s a piece of gold lace, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and just a small spoonful of mango, or apple.