‘Watermelon and Red Birds’ Offers a Guide to Juneteenth—and Black Celebration Culture | Civil Eats

‘Watermelon and Red Birds’ Offers a Guide to Juneteenth—and Black Celebration Culture

Nicole A. Taylor and the cover of her book on Juneteenth.

James Beard Award-nominated writer and producer Nicole A. Taylor felt called to write a Juneteenth cookbook long before the occasion was first recognized as a national holiday last year. For Taylor, Juneteenth has been a time to both reflect and celebrate for more than a decade.

Then, in summer 2020, the dynamic of the holiday changed, and Taylor knew the time was right. Following the murder of George Floyd in May of that year, people across the U.S. started acknowledging long-ignored African American histories and realities, and awareness of Juneteenth—of freedom delayed—spread outside of the Black community.

Formerly enslaved people celebrated the first Juneteenth on June 19, 1866 in Galveston, Texas. On this day, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, supposedly ending slavery, federal troops arrived in Galveston to ensure that all enslaved people were indeed free. Ever since that first celebration, Juneteenth has migrated, grown, and transformed in the same ways that Black Americans have been forced to in order to survive and thrive in the U.S. For some, the festivities include strawberry soda and backyard barbecues. For others, it has long been an opportunity to gather at block parties and celebrate Black-owned businesses.

In her new Juneteenth cookbook, Watermelon and Red Birds, published today, Taylor makes note of the way Juneteenth traditions differ in cities like Oakland and Atlanta. “As Americans started to migrate and started to move out of the American South, Texas in particular, we know they went up to Chicago, they went out West, they went to L.A., they went to Milwaukee, Seattle, and Oakland. That’s when you started seeing these public Juneteenth events across the country,” said Taylor.

Taylor appreciates the common thread uniting Black Americans as they celebrate the same holiday 2,500 miles apart: the importance of prioritizing community and joy in the face of a system that often creates a sense of hopelessness. “Rituals of leisure and care are as much a testament to what Juneteenth has made possible as voting rights and desegregated buses are,” Taylor writes.

The book, however, is not simply a record of Juneteenth traditions and food. Taylor makes a point very early on to distinguish her cookbook as a guide for the modern Juneteenth, one that fuses the nostalgic and the contemporary. “This book is not an attempt to capture the tastes and recipes of that 1866 Juneteenth celebration,” Taylor states in the book’s introduction. “This is a testament to where we are now. It’s an attempt to fashion a Juneteenth celebration for the 21st Century.”

The title of the book honors a native African fruit that has become an American summer classic and pays homage to a Black and Indigenous proverb associating red birds with ancestral guidance. Divided into multiple parts, the book includes an introduction, a list of gadgets and pantry essentials paired with a collection of BIPOC-owned brands, and recipes for everything from spice blends to cocktails and festival fare to sweets. A last section called “Everyday Juneteenth,” features less-involved dishes and drinks that honor Black American culinary history.

From the section headers to the recipe notes, Taylor’s cookbook features as much cultural education as food-preparation instructions. The section introducing festival-themed recipes, for example, provides background on why outdoor spaces and fairs traditionally became places of solace for African Americans celebrating in a segregated U.S. The recipe for beef ribs details the exclusion of Black pitmasters from barbecue cookbook publishing, despite their fundamental role in defining American barbecue.

For African Americans, Taylor’s writing and recipes read as both a nostalgic hug and a switch-up. For non-Black readers, the cookbook reads as an introduction to Black food and celebration culture. Civil Eats spoke with Taylor about what inspired her book and the trepidation surrounding the supposed “gentrification” of the new, official Juneteenth as awareness of the holiday continues to spread outside of the Black community.

Were there other cookbooks that served as an inspiration to you as you wrote Watermelon and Redbirds?

One-hundred percent—so many cookbooks. I first wanted to dig into barbecue books. Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, has a barbecue book that came out in the ’80s. I don’t know if many people know that.

I took a look at other barbecue books including ones from Adrian Miller and Rodney Scott. Any of the canon of Black cookbooks that people know and love definitely inspired this—from Jessica Harris to Edna Lewis, Bryant Terry to Shannon Mustipher. These are all friends and colleagues and people who left a mark on Black cookbooks.

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The book strikes an impressive balance between honoring tradition while also challenging it. What motivated your choice to create this fusion of nostalgia and contemporary for Juneteenth celebrations? And what was it like to navigate that over the course of your research?

The word celebration doesn’t mean “every day,” so I wanted to make sure that readers have this canon of celebration food that the African American community will always have at the table. But I also understand that we live in all different parts of the country. I wanted to take the word celebration and figure out, “What does that mean, to people? What does it mean to me? And what are Black celebrations? What would typically be on the table at some Black celebrations?”

We got Juneteenth, we know that you have to have the red drink, we know that you have to have barbecue, we know that you’re going to have some kind of salad there and have a dessert spread. But what other celebrations—like block parties, or family reunions, or someone’s graduating from an HBCU—what kind of foods would typically be there? We are not a monolith. And I think I wanted to say that in the book. I wanted the recipes to say everyone does not have fried chicken at every single celebration. Yes, that is a part of our tradition, but there’s always this person who’s gonna do their potato salad just a little different, and people still love it.

Recognizing that we are not a monolith and there are a lot of Black food traditions to pull from, how did you prioritize which recipes made the cut?

I spoke to a lot of people about Juneteenth. For example, I spoke with Marguerite Hannah. Her grandfather was T.D. Armstrong, who was one of the richest African Americans during his time and owned one of the most popular Black community gathering spots in Galveston. I asked her to tell me about her Juneteenth and what she would have. And she told me, “You have whatever you want to have for Juneteenth.” She’s like, “Yeah, we have the barbecue, we have the brisket.” But then she also started talking about lemon pie. She started talking about gumbo. She was like, “Sometimes people want that gumbo.” And honestly, she gave me permission to explore other things—the non-essential things—of June 19.

When it came down to the recipes, I basically came up with a chart of summertime fruits and vegetables. I asked myself, “What are things that if you’re in the American South, or you’ve migrated from the American South, that you knew were going to be around in the summertime?” And then I wanted to make sure that the recipes that I put in the book were very colorful and vibrant and spoke to what summer looks and feels like. I started looking at recipes first like a color theory. And then I went deeper to start thinking about the traditional foods you see on the African American dining table.

Take sweet potatoes—okay, what can I do with sweet potatoes that hadn’t been done before? I can make a sweet potato spritz. I can make a fabulous cocktail.

Or collard greens. The reality of it is very few people have collard greens in the summertime at a barbecue or outdoor things because they are kind of heavy, but I’m like how can I bring in leafy greens to Watermelon and Red Birds? So I created this beautiful pesto with plums.

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In the introduction you write, “This book is intended to be light with the pleasures of food and heavy with the weight of history.” We’ve talked about how you made a point to depart from history. But throughout the book, you connect these recipes and their ingredients back to the historical realities for Black Americans. Why was it important to you to connect those dots?

I couldn’t just present a recipe and pretend that, “Hey, look at the food. We’re so happy!” I think the brilliant thing about Black folks is, in a time of deep, immense pain, we can still spring up and be happy. You know, think about the Black funeral, we’re at the repast, there’s food, and people are smiling. It’s like a family reunion. Or think about the summer of 2020 when we were dealing with the killing of George Floyd. You would still see all these beautiful, pop-up dance parties in Brooklyn. Or think about what this summer is going to look like—finally, after two years of being locked in, we can safely gather with family and friends. Through all this sadness, there’s still this joy.

Throughout the book, I wanted to give people nuggets of history. Talk a little bit about the Texas State Fair being desegregated and what that meant. Yes, you have all these fabulous corn dogs and Frito pie, but for Black people, we only got that one day. So, I wanted to make sure that all Americans understand that liberation, freedom, and jubilee—even after 1865, even now—is still being won. Even though we’re still fighting, we still can celebrate, and we still can be happy and still gather around the table. That was my goal, to show that there’s this dichotomy. There’s two worlds that Black Americans are always living in, and that is a joy and a deep longing for equality and complete freedom.

Speaking of summer 2020, Juneteenth for a long time has been a holiday that was for Black Americans. And of course, it is still for us in many ways. But, that summer changed the scale of recognition and awareness that everyone has of Juneteenth. Was that on your mind at all when you were writing this book?

Yes. There was a moment when President Biden stood in a circle flanked with Vice President Kamala Harris, and Miss Opal Lee, who is considered the grandmother of Juneteenth, who fought along with so many other people for the holiday to be nationally recognized. That was a turning point for me, because I knew for certain that Juneteenth—the word itself—is now in the lexicon of all Americans.

I’m okay with people recognizing the holiday. But I am very acutely aware that for many Black Americans, they still want reparations. I still want reparations. For many Black Americans, we want the Voters’ Rights Act looked at; we want Black farmers to be paid. There are a lot of things we were concerned about. But I do think Juneteenth is a day for us to raise those concerns, and also to celebrate and take a deep breath. And it’s a reminder to other people that it’s not a day just to be having a sale, but it also is a day for allies and non-Black people to possibly support a Black-owned business. I’m not opposed to that at all.

I understand how many Black Americans feel about the holiday. I’ve heard the phrase “Juneteenth is being gentrified,” and if that is a phrase that you want to use, feel free to use it. But for me, I’m still going to see it as a day of rest and a day of reflection. And my hope is that many Americans see it as a day to honor and salute Black Americans’ contributions to the United States.

There’s so many days out of the year when we’re constantly having to analyze everything. We are bombarded with so many things that make us sad and sorrowful, and I just want June 19 to be our day. I think that if Black people lean into it, it will continue to be ours. If we  truly get on the same page about what Juneteenth is for us collectively, we will not have to worry about it being gentrified.

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What do you hope non-Black people will take away from this cookbook?

I want them to cook from it. And I also want them to use this cookbook as an opportunity to honor Black culture and Black history, and to understand where we fit in the American story of freedom.

Lindsey Margaret Allen is the founder of Elemmay Productions, LLC and the Creative Producer and Host of POINT OF ORIGIN. Lindsey’s work is grounded in expanding awareness about supply chains as a means to help people make informed decisions about what they eat - in support of their own health as well as the health and well-being of our global communities and the environment. Read more >

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