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ATHENS, Ga. — After I exit the highway heading to my hotel, the first business I notice is a lunch spot called Plantation Buffet. The sign slaps me in the face with irony, as I've traveled here to meet with Nicole A. Taylor, the author of the recently released "Watermelon and Red Birds," the first major cookbook honoring the Juneteenth holiday. The restaurant served as a harsh reminder of Black pain, even as I was there to write about a highly anticipated book centered on Black celebrations. But for Black Americans, the intermingling of joy and sorrow is just a fact of life.

Juneteenth commemorates the anniversary of June 19, 1865, when more than 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, first learned they were freed — two months after the Civil War had ended and 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The first Juneteenth was celebrated in 1866, and until recently has predominantly been the realm of African Americans with Texas roots. While Taylor recalls hearing about the holiday during her time at the historically Black Clark Atlanta University, it wasn't until a little over a decade ago, when she stumbled upon a celebration at a Brooklyn park, that she began observing the holiday herself and has done so every year since.

Now it's a federal holiday, and this year she plans to observe Juneteenth in Athens with friends and family by hosting an event to celebrate her cookbook. Given the time and energy spent writing it, in addition to the past two years we've all experienced, particularly the recent targeted killing of Black people at a Buffalo grocery store, "I want to relax as much as possible," she says. Taylor teared up over lunch just thinking about all of the trauma Black people have gone through, the pain bubbling beneath the surface. "I have to turn it off if I want to get some work done."

Taylor's longtime literary agent, Sharon Bowers, first suggested that Taylor write a Juneteenth cookbook, saying it would be her magnum opus. Bowers had learned of Taylor's Juneteenth celebrations from her first book, "The Up South Cookbook," published in 2015. "Sometimes in the world of cookbook publishing, publishers use 'niche' as a term to denigrate a book's potential sales," Bowers said via email. "But I knew that this particular niche was really special, and Nicole's big-hearted, generous way of celebrating it was highly specific to her. And since she's a food professional with serious writing chops, it seemed obvious to me that she should write this book."

Taylor wasn't convinced. In fact, she says, that very niche-ness — plus the fact that she's not from Texas — caused her to delete the first email where Bowers brought it up. Bowers kept broaching the idea, and around 2018 or 2019, Taylor finally gave in and started drafting a proposal.

Then the pandemic happened and the murder of George Floyd sparked widespread racial protests, bringing a new national interest in Black life. "In the spring of 2020, after being in lockdown and seeing and being a part of the Black terror, the depressive state caused by the murder, the massacre of unarmed Black people ... being a part of that and experiencing that, I knew that I wanted this cookbook to be a guide to joy," Taylor says. "I knew for certain that this book is needed, and I can do this."

In June 2020, Taylor and her partner, Adrian Franks, purchased five acres of land, sight unseen, in Athens, where she was born and raised, and moved there from Brooklyn with their young son, Garvey, to ride out the pandemic. The couple call it the Maroon, named after the people who escaped slavery and created their own communities. The house, which they also plan to operate as a retreat, is filled with "touches in each room where you find Black culture and Black life," Taylor says. They include a Sonos speaker featuring Sheila Bridges's Harlem Toile pattern and skateboards from Jean-Michel Basquiat in the den; artwork from her husband, who also did the illustrations for the Museum of Food and Drink's Legacy Quilt; and wallpaper from Malene Barnett in the kitchen where she tested all of the recipes for the book. "You see intentionality because the Maroon house is a creative space for Black people, and it is the space that I grounded myself in to create this cookbook," Taylor says.

I jokingly call her the queen of Juneteenth, a title she vehemently denies. "I have been blessed to have a microphone to talk about Juneteenth foods. And I want to make that very clear," she says, citing others, such as Opal Lee, who fought hard to get the day recognized. However, "I would call myself the queen of Black celebrations," noting all of the cookouts, HBCU homecomings, kickbacks, happy hours and other such events she has hosted and attended throughout her life.

When it comes to the recipes she has created, "This book is not an attempt to capture the tastes and recipes of that 1866 Juneteenth celebration. This is a testament to where we are now," she writes. So if you're looking for more traditional soul food, this is not it. Instead, Taylor's recipes are a vibrant look at where Black food is today and where it is going.

Calling herself an "intuitive cook," Taylor says her creative process started with ingredients. "I wanted to make sure that fruits and vegetables from the African American table were in this cookbook in a way that you don't typically see," Taylor says.

Take the sweet potato. Though it's largely canonized in Black food culture via pie or candied casserole, Taylor wanted to find a more seasonally appropriate way to include it in the book. Then she harked back 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 includes it in a refreshing spritz cocktail, perfect for summertime sipping. "It's hands down one of my favorites," she says.

Another dish that she keeps going back to is her pretzel fried chicken, which she includes in the Everyday Juneteenth chapter. "When I have a hankering for fried chicken and I don't want to do a full-out special-occasion fried chicken, I do what I call my everyday chicken," she says, which comes with the added bonus that even her toddler will eat it.

Plenty of other recipes eschew quick and easy, requiring you to put in the time, effort and/or financial investment through the purchase of special equipment, such as a snow cone maker. By doing so, Taylor inherently makes a statement about the value of Black food — and perhaps by extension, Black life.

Taylor sprinkles the names of people, books, songs and more throughout the book, breadcrumbs to inspire readers to delve further. In a recipe for "victory" chicken burgers, for instance, she mentions Lou Myers, who played Mr. Gaines in "A Different World," a canonical show for many Black Americans. (Victory burgers were on the menu at the cafe run by Myers's character at the fictional Hillman College.) "I don't want people to forget him." Cookbooks can play an archival role in documenting society, in all of its forms.

Taylor knows from experience that pain and sorrow exist in tandem.

"I've been at a funeral and it's very sad, and then afterwards at the repast, the brown liquor comes out, 'Before I Let Go' comes on and you might even do the electric slide a couple of times," she says. "And I know that for Black Americans and Black people across the globe that that is something innately us. We are always going to celebrate in the midst of sorrow."

These opposing emotions are also reflected in the book's title, "Watermelon and Red Birds." For her, watermelon conjures childhood memories of going to buy the fruit with her aunt, people coming over and her going outside to play. "So when I think of watermelon, I think of happy memories of summer. But it's not lost on me that for Black people watermelon is often associated with the very gross, disgusting and exaggerated images," she says. For Taylor, "Watermelon is about ritual, it's about community and it's about summertime. So why not have that be a part of the title?" And red birds are meant to represent ancestors returning to bring luck according to certain African American and Native American beliefs.

While Black people have technically been free from slavery for more than a century, making the room for joyous occasions is just as important now as it was on the first Juneteenth. Learning how to cope, relax and even celebrate despite fear and tragedy is an integral part of self-care as a Black person in this country. "Every day can be filled with the essence of Juneteenth, which is about joy, which is about freedom, which is about celebrating no matter how rough things have been or how much sorrow continues to be in our life," she says.

Her book is a blueprint for doing just that.

"I want this cookbook to serve as more than just a coffee-table book. Open it up, use it as a guide to have a great party or great happy hour with your family and friends," Taylor says. "In these times where so much is going on around us, we should lean a little bit more into Black joy because it can be resistance, but more importantly, it can be a healing balm for ourselves and for each other."

Nicole Taylor calls Pretzel Fried Chicken her “everyday fried chicken.” It’s one of the recipes in her new book celebrating Juneteenth, “Watermelon and Red Birds.”
Nicole Taylor calls Pretzel Fried Chicken her “everyday fried chicken.” It’s one of the recipes in her new book celebrating Juneteenth, “Watermelon and Red Birds.”

Scott Suchman, for The Washington Post

Pretzel Fried Chicken

30 minutes

Serves 6 to 8.

"Even on the days that are not demarcated as holidays or holy days or special days, we should do special things for ourselves and the ones we hold dear," Nicole A. Taylor writes in "Watermelon and Red Birds," her cookbook dedicated to the Juneteenth holiday. This Milanese-inspired recipe, from a chapter titled "Everyday Juneteenth," happened by accident when Taylor needed more breading but had run out of breadcrumbs, and is now what she deems "an accessible, faster version of Sunday-dinner fried chicken."

The pretzels are ground in a food processor until roughly the same size as panko breadcrumbs, and the two combined make a crisp, crunchy coating for chicken cutlets seasoned with fish sauce. But what really makes this recipe a standout are the spices — celery seeds, cumin seeds and onion powder — mixed into the coating, offering up bursts of flavor when you bite into the chicken.

This recipe is one of the ones that Taylor keeps going back to — partly because even her toddler will eat it — and is sure to be a dish that you will want to revisit frequently, too.

Storage: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.

NOTES: For the best flavor, use olive oil, but you can substitute canola or vegetable oil.

If you cannot find chicken cutlets or have full-size boneless, skinless chicken breasts handy, you can thinly slice the breasts into cutlets. Use a sharp chef's knife to carefully and evenly slice through the equator of each breast half so the meat opens like butterfly wings. Separate the halves into two cutlets and trim away any visible fat.

INGREDIENTS

• 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken cutlets

• 2 tbsp. fish sauce

• 1 c. all-purpose flour

• 2 tsp. fine salt, divided, plus more to taste

• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

• 2 large eggs

• 2 tbsp. water

• 1 c. panko breadcrumbs

• 4 oz. pretzel sticks, finely ground in a food processor (1 cup)

• 1/2 tsp. celery seed

• 1/2 tsp. cumin seed

• 1/2 tsp. onion powder

• 2 c. olive oil (see Notes)

Directions

In a medium bowl, toss the chicken cutlets with the fish sauce and set aside.

Set out three shallow bowls or baking dishes. In one, whisk the flour, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the pepper. In the next, whisk together the eggs and water to combine. In the third, stir together the panko, ground pretzels, the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, the celery seed, cumin seed and onion powder.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil. When a bit of the breadcrumb-pretzel mixture is dropped into the pan and instantly sizzles, the oil is ready. Place a wire rack on a large, rimmed baking sheet and set it next to the stove.

Meanwhile, dredge each chicken cutlet in the flour mixture, shaking off any excess; then dip in the egg wash, letting 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 shallow-fry until the breading is golden brown and the cutlets reach 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to the wire rack and season with additional salt, as desired. Repeat with the remaining chicken. Serve hot.

Nutrition information | Variables caused by the frying make an analysis unreliable.

Adapted from "Watermelon and Red Birds" by Nicole Taylor (Simon & Schuster, 2022).

Sweet Potato Spritz Cocktail.
Sweet Potato Spritz Cocktail.

Scott Suchman, for The Washington Post

Sweet Potato Spritz Cocktail

Active time: 20 minutes | Total time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Serves 4.

Though sweet potatoes are generally relegated to the cooler months — typically candied or baked into pies in Black foodways — Nicole A. Taylor sought to use the vegetable in a more seasonally appropriate way in her latest cookbook, "Watermelon and Red Birds," the first major cookbook dedicated to Juneteenth. So she made a syrup infused with the vegetable, vanilla and warming spices to flavor a spritz cocktail, ideal for summertime sipping.

The recipe for this rusty-orange cocktail — "It's hands down one of my favorites," Taylor says — is included with a bevy of other beverages in a chapter dedicated to red drinks, the official beverage of the holiday. Instead of more common Aperol or Campari, Taylor calls for Aperitivo Cappelletti as the amaro of choice because she is allergic to the dye used in the former two alternatives. To garnish each glass, she likes to use orange slices that she dehydrates, but you can also buy them online or use fresh fruit.

Make Ahead: The sweet potato syrup needs to 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.

INGREDIENTS

For the sweet potato syrup:

• 2 1/2 c. water

• 2 c. granulated sugar

• 1 large sweet potato (about 12 oz.), peeled and cut into 1/2-in. pieces

• 1 star anise pod

• 1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

• 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

• 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

• 1/8 tsp. fine salt

For the spritz:

• Ice

• 8 oz. Aperitivo Cappelletti, divided

• 3 oz. vodka, divided

• 2 oz. sweet potato syrup, divided

• 16 oz. sparkling wine, divided

• 4 dehydrated orange slices, for garnish

Directions

Make the sweet potato syrup: In a medium saucepan, combine the water, sugar, sweet potato, star anise, vanilla bean, cardamom, cinnamon and salt. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is dissolved and the sweet potato is tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and let the sweet potato steep in the syrup until cooled completely, 1 to 2 hours. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer 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 mixing glass or shaker filled with ice, combine 4 ounces of Aperitivo Cappelletti, 1 1/2 ounces of vodka and 1 ounce of sweet potato syrup. Stir with a long bar spoon or shake hard until combined. 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 dried orange slice and serve.

Nutrition Information | Because of the infusion to make the syrup, ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

Adapted from "Watermelon and Red Birds" by Nicole Taylor (Simon & Schuster, 2022).