ATHENS, Go. – After I get off the highway on my way to my hotel, the first business I notice is a lunch spot called Plantation Buffet. The sign ironically slaps me in the face, as I traveled here to meet Nicole A. Taylor, the author of the recently released Watermelon and red birds, the first major cookbook to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday. The restaurant served as a hard reminder of black pain, even when I was there writing about a long-awaited book on black celebrations. But for black Americans, the mixture of joy and sorrow is simply a fact of life.
Juneteenth commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when more than 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, first learned that they had been set free—two months after the Civil War ended and 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The first Juneteenth was celebrated in 1866 and until recently was mainly the realm of African Americans with Texan roots. While Taylor recalls hearing about the holiday during her time at historic Black Clark Atlanta University, it wasn’t until just over a decade ago, when she encountered a party in a Brooklyn park, that she began to remember the holiday herself. observe and has done every year since.
Now it’s a federal holiday and this year she plans to join friends and family to celebrate Juneteenth in Athens by hosting an event to celebrate her cookbook. Given the time and energy we’ve spent writing it, in addition to the past two years we’ve all been through, especially the recent targeted murder of black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, “I want to relax as much as possible,” she says. . Taylor burst into tears over lunch at the thought of all the trauma black people went through, the pain bubbling beneath the surface. “I have to turn it off if I want to get some work done.”
Then the pandemic hit and the murder of George Floyd sparked widespread racial protests, sparking a new national interest in black life. “In the spring of 2020, after being in lockdown and seeing and being part of the black terror, the depressive state caused by the murder, the massacre of unarmed black people… being part of that and that I knew I wanted this cookbook to be a guide to joy,” says Taylor. “I was sure this book was necessary, and I can do this.”
I jokingly call her the Queen of Juneteenth, a title she vehemently denies. “I’ve been blessed with a microphone to talk about Juneteenth food. And I want to make that very clear,” she says, citing others, such as Opal Lee, who fought hard to get the day recognized. “I’d call myself the queen of the black parties, though,” noting all the cookouts, HBCU homecomings, kickbacks, happy hours, and other such events she’s hosted and attended all her life.
When it comes to the recipes she created, “This book is not an attempt to capture the flavors and recipes of that 1866 Juneteenth feast. This is proof of where we are now,” she writes. So if you’re looking for more traditional soul food, this isn’t it. Instead, Taylor’s recipes are a lively take on where black food is today and where it’s going.
Calling herself an “intuitive cook,” Taylor says her creative process started with ingredients. “I wanted to make sure fruits and vegetables from the African American table were featured in this cookbook in a way you don’t normally see,” Taylor says.
Take the sweet potato. While it’s largely been canonized in the black food scene via pie or candied casserole, Taylor wanted to find a more seasonal way to include it in the book. Then she returned to a sweet potato syrup she makes every winter, usually to mix into whiskey cocktails. The syrup’s flavor mimics those sweet dishes, ripe with vanilla and warming spices, but in the book she works it into a refreshing spritz cocktail, perfect for sipping in the summer. “It’s without a doubt one of my favorites,” she says.
Another dish she keeps returning to is her roast chicken with pretzel, which she includes in the Everyday Juneteenth chapter. “When I feel like fried chicken and I don’t want to make a whole special occasion fried chicken, I do what I call my everyday chicken,” she says, with the added bonus that even her toddler will eat it.
While black people have technically been free from slavery for over a century, making room for joyous occasions is just as important now as it was on the first of June. Learning to cope, relax and even celebrate despite fear and tragedy is integral to self-care as a black person in this country. “Every day can be filled with the essence of Juneteenth, which is about joy, that is about freedom, that is about celebrating, no matter how hard things have been or how much sadness there is still in our lives,” she says.
Her book is a blueprint for doing just that.
“I want this cookbook to be more than just a coffee table book. Open it up, use it as a guide to a great party or happy hour with your family and friends,” Taylor says. “In these times when so much is happening around us, we should lean a little more in Black joy because it can be resistance, but more importantly, it can be a healing balm for ourselves and for each other.”
6 to 8 servings
Storage: Store leftovers in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
NOTES: For best flavor, use olive oil, but you can also use canola or vegetable oil.
If you can’t find chicken breasts or if you have full size boneless chicken breasts on hand, you can thinly slice the breasts. Use a sharp chef’s knife to cut gently and evenly through the equator of each breast half so that the meat opens up like butterfly wings. Separate the halves into two cutlets, removing any visible fat.
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons fine salt, divided, plus more to taste
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons of water
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
4 ounces pretzel sticks, finely ground in a food processor (1 cup)
½ teaspoon celery seed
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon onion powder
2 cups olive oil (see NOTES)
In a medium bowl, combine the chicken cutlets with the fish sauce and set aside.
Prepare three shallow bowls or baking dishes. Whisk the flour, ½ teaspoon salt and pepper all at once. In the next, whisk together the eggs and water to combine. In the third, stir together the panko, crushed pretzels, remaining 1½ teaspoons salt, celery seed, cumin seed, and onion powder.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When some of the breadcrumb-pretzel mixture falls into the pan and sizzles right away, the oil is ready. Place a wire rack on a large, rimmed baking sheet and set it next to the stove.
Meanwhile, dip each chicken breast in the flour mixture and shake off the excess; then dip in the egg wash, let the excess drip off; and finally dredge in the breadcrumb-pretzel mixture to coat.
Working in batches, add the chicken cutlets to the hot oil and cook until the breadcrumbs are golden brown and the cutlets reach 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to the rack and season with additional salt, as desired. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Serve hot.
Adapted from “Watermelon and Red Birds” by Nicole Taylor (Simon & Schuster, 2022).
While sweet potatoes are generally relegated to the cooler months — usually candied or baked into pies at Black foodways — Nicole A. Taylor tried to use the vegetable in a more seasonal way in her cookbook. So she made a syrup infused with the vegetable, vanilla, and warming spices to flavor a spritz cocktail, ideal for sipping in the summer.
The recipe for this rusty orange cocktail, along with a whole host of other drinks, is included in a chapter devoted to red drinks, the official drink of the holiday. Rather than the more common Aperol or Campari, Taylor calls Aperitivo Cappelletti as the favorite amaro because she’s allergic to the dye used in the first two alternatives. To garnish each glass, she likes to use slices of orange that she dries out, but you can also buy them online or use fresh fruit.
Make Ahead: The sweet potato syrup should be prepared at least 1 hour before serving.
Storage: The sweet potato syrup can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several weeks.
Where to buy: Aperitivo Cappelletti can be found in well-stocked liquor stores and online.
FOR THE SWEET POTATO SYRUP
2½ cups of water
2 cups granulated sugar
1 large sweet potato (about 12 ounces), peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 star anise pod
½ vanilla pod, split lengthwise
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon fine salt
FOR THE SPRITZ
8 ounces Aperitivo Cappelletti, divided
3 ounces vodka, divided
2 ounces sweet potato syrup, divided
16 ounces of sparkling wine, divided
4 dried orange slices, for garnish
Make the sweet potato syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, sweet potato, star anise, vanilla pods, cardamom, cinnamon and salt. Place on medium heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until sugar has dissolved and sweet potato is tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let sweet potato steep in syrup until completely cool, 1 to 2 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and save the sweet potato for another recipe. (It’s great on toast.) You should have about 3 cups.
Make the spritz: In a cocktail glass or shaker filled with ice, combine 4 ounces Aperitivo Cappelletti, 1½ ounces vodka, and 1 ounce sweet potato syrup. Stir with a long bar spoon or shake vigorously until blended. Strain into two large wine glasses over ice and top each with 4 ounces of sparkling wine. Repeat to make two additional cocktails.
Garnish each cocktail with a slice of dried orange and serve.
Adapted from “Watermelon and Red Birds” by Nicole Taylor (Simon & Schuster, 2022).