Nicole A. Taylor's 'Watermelon & Red Birds' Is an Ode to Black Joy

The exuberance of emancipation gives the book’s recipes and reflections both roots and wings.

Photo: Beatriz da Costa

Imbued with familial auntie warmth and deep reservoirs of wit and wisdom, Nicole A. Taylor's Watermelon and Red Birds (Simon & Schuster) is a victorious exploration of Black celebration. The book — the first cookbook to focus on Juneteenth — unspools for readers how food is an indispensable crown of the holiday. It's a time to "feast on food and freedom," Taylor writes.

With a steady and gracious hand, Taylor presents recipes alongside history and cultural exploration. She shares with her readers the weight of June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 in Galveston, Texas, announcing that the quarter of a million enslaved people in America were free, more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. That moment gave Black celebration a deeper, fuller meaning, and one year later, the first Juneteenth celebrations took place.

Watermelon & Red Birds is in part Taylor's personal record of how she has celebrated Juneteenth over the years, long before it became a federal holiday in 2021. Her Juneteenth parties have varied widely, and she encourages readers to in turn follow their own paths and tastes. She writes of marking the day with plated dinner parties and rooftop fetes in New York City with close friends, a neighborhood dinner paired with a farm tour, and gatherings in the woods of Georgia.

"I've sat under my carport with chipped paint overhead and mosquitoes buzzing around a plethora of foil-covered foods," Taylor says of one gathering that included, "plump supermarket-bought Italian chicken sausages, buttery sweet pound cakes, pork ribs bathed in smoke and spices and summery salads of heirloom tomatoes and roasted eggplant." In sharing these stories, she empowers readers to feast any way they like, anywhere they happen to be. "There is no perfect city to celebrate Juneteenth; you don't have to be from the Lone Star State to experience it," Taylor writes, noting that people in Oakland, California, and Milwaukee created the largest public Juneteenth festivals outside Texas. She continues: "This is a testament to where we are now. It's an attempt to synthesize all the places we've been, all the people we have become, all the culinary ideas we have embraced. It's an attempt to fashion a Juneteenth celebration for the twenty-first century."

Taylor's culinary prowess is evident in full, resplendent color on pages that drip with recipes that are accessible to home cooks while leaning into unexpected flavor combinations. Highlights include a citrusy lemon cordial, a bright and tangy strawberry and sumac cake, a savory miso Bloody Mary, opulent crab and egg salad, vibrant snow cones flavored with a hibiscus and Sichuan peppercorn syrup, and sweet-sticky-tangy apricot lamb chops. Each recipe reveals the deft hand of a veteran recipe creator, while the headnotes ground them in culinary history.

Watermelon and Red Birds by Nicole A. Taylor
Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

In the introduction to the Afro-Egg Cream — which stars as the cover image — readers are introduced to Marguerite Hannah, 61, of Galveston, Texas. She is the granddaughter of Thomas Deboy "T.D." Armstrong, a well-heeled businessman and proprietor of a namesake drugstore that was popular for its malts, ice-creams, and cherry colas. "One of the most memorable moments in our phone conversation was Marguerite waxing poetic about her childhood throwbacks of red cream soda," Taylor writes of her conversation with Hannah. Her Afro-Egg Cream, a modern take on the milky, eggless beverage that's a kissing cousin to French soda, employs hibiscus to impart a bold siren-red hue — the signature color for Juneteenth — to the drink. With each of these details, Taylor offers both a refreshing sip and a bit of history immortalized for the sake of pleasure: "I close my eyes and imagine sitting at the booth near Mr. Armstrong's outside marquee sign, letting the sunlight hit my face as I enjoy my red drink," she writes.

The more than 75 recipes in Watermelon & Red Birds whisper a theme of joy. But capturing and cataloging something as nebulous as Black pride and the celebration it spurs is hard work, beset with contradictions. Taylor admits with surprising candor, "Many times during this process, I gave in to self doubt and I lost the very joy I write about over and over." This reflects the African American experience in this country, where even moments of great jubilance are oftentimes bruised with melancholy. Or as Taylor puts it, "Black joy often emanates from Black sorrow, and so it has been with that small Texas tendril of freedom, which has continued to spread and strengthen." The Juneteenth joy of today exists due to Black resilience in the face of the pain of yesterday, it's an impossible impasse that Taylor recognizes and accepts.

Delectable recipes and immersive imagery are prerequisites for a successful cookbook, but a truly great book must also answer deeper questions. Taylor understands this calculus, and has put forth a book that is a deep, delicious dive into the heart of African American celebration. Every memory, anecdote, recipe, and image is a call and response, answered by proclamation: This is Black joy and how it's served.

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