Celebrate Juneteenth and honor ancestors with red drinks

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“My batter is that great balance of savory and sweetness,” says Nicole Taylor, describing the main component to her fair-worthy funnel cake. Photo by Beatriz da Costa.

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 had been withheld by many plantation owners, but by the following year, a celebration of freedom, called Juneteenth, was celebrated across the state. In “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations,” Nicole Taylor presents recipes that are, in her words, "intended to be light with the pleasures of good food and heavy with the weight of history."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: Can you explain the significance of the book's title?

Nicole Taylor: Juicy, red, seeded watermelon is classic. It's all American. For me, it takes me right back to my childhood in Athens, Georgia, going to the local grocery store, and there would be these giant cardboard boxes with big watermelons stacked to the top, and I would beg to get one out. We would take a watermelon out to the car and I would be in the backseat just listening to the watermelon roll back and forth in the trunk. I use the word “watermelon” to honor that nostalgia, and I'm sure there's so many Americans, and Black Americans, that have a very similar experience. And secondly, red birds are so special to me. Growing up, my mom used to tell me, “Look, there's a red bird! Blow the red bird a kiss! It's your ancestors coming back to say hello.” Watermelon and red birds represent the past, the present, and the future.

Make a checklist for us for a Juneteenth cookout. What are the essentials?

Definitely you need a red drink. Second, where are the burgers? And if you’ve really done the cookout right, you're going to have some ribs, beef ribs, and pork ribs. They'll be on the plate for sure. And no Juneteenth cookout is complete without the potato salad. It is probably the most revered side dish at the Black cookout.

Nicole Taylor says she uses watermelon to honor the nostalgia of the juicy, red, seeded fruit that she loved as a child, remembering picking one out of a cardboard box at the market and hearing it roll around in the car trunk on the way home. Photo by Kaylin James.

Potato salad is the scariest one to bring.

It is. You have to be really brave and confident and sure of your cooking. Another must-have – you need dessert. I think pound cake is a classic. And in this cookbook, I thought I would bring a twist, and make a radish ginger pound cake. All the flavor is really in the whipped cream, where I add fresh ginger and grated radish. It is so beautiful, and such a pleasant, glorious way to end an afternoon or evening with family and friends.

Red drinks are Juneteenth essential. How did the tradition of red drinks begin and what's your go-to?

I love a margarita. The origin of red drinks goes all the way back to West Africa. It goes back to the steeping of dried hibiscus buds and dried hibiscus petals. Through the translatlantic slave trade, miraculously, the red drink survived for so many generations, and so did the tradition and the ritual.

How can you make a margarita red? 

My maroon margarita starts with a margarita mix made with fresh strawberries. I take those strawberries, and I add lime, coconut, and sugar, and I create this marvelous margarita mix. I bottle it up. I add it to my favorite tequila or my favorite mezcal, and I rim my rocks glass with an orange coconut salt.

Let's talk about the rhubarb barbecue sauce.

I love rhubarb. A lot of times, people put rhubarb into the fruit category. But for me, I always approach rhubarb as a vegetable. And I use it in the barbecue sauce, almost like a celery. I wanted to make sure that my barbeque sauce tastes like something that 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 enslaved people were free — approximately two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Let's talk about snow cones. They're definitely a prominent component of a Southern summer. What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?

I took a very different approach. I thought about my snow cones by looking at colors. Like, “How can I get a purple snow cone?” A purple sweet potato. And, “How about I make a purple sweet potato syrup?” I've already made it for years, and particularly at Christmastime, I always make a sweet potato syrup to go in so many different cocktails and warm drinks. 

I also love edible flowers. I brought my love of edible flowers into snow cone mixtures by creating a marigold snow cone, which is essentially dried or fresh marigolds drenched with water and sugar to create this rich, vibrant yellow-orange snow cone. 

And if you're really feeling it, you can create a little 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 summertime festivities. Talk about the racial undertones that surround the word “fair.”

I grew up in the American South, where going to the Sweet Auburn Festival was a tradition. For many state fairs, particularly the Texas State Fair, Black Americans weren't allowed to just go on any given 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 folks fabulous recipes, but also to put in some nuggets of history, to remind people that amongst all the fun that we currently have, there been so many brave people that opened the door and made it a way for everyone to have fun and to enjoy the Texas State Fair, or the Iowa State Fair, and many other fairs around the country.

Share with us a festival food favorite that we can make at home.

Funnel cake. My batter is not super sweet. And what I love about the golden, crispy funnel cake is that if you're doing it right inside of your Dutch oven, you create this beautiful fried, golden, lace pattern. It's a gold piece of lace, sprinkled with powdered sugar, and just a little dollop of mango, or apple.