Hey everybody! Your resident Southerner, living in Rome here, Kristina. This post is a special-to-me Cookbook Club entry. This is the book I wish I had written.
Today’s selection is biased. But I would have the same to say even if I didn’t know Nicole personally and consider her a very close friend. So close, she’s the only person who regularly sasses me and is still my friend. Nicole Taylor, known as foodculturist on social media, is a food journalist, cookbook author, and media producer. Today’s book, Watermelon & Red Birds is her third cookbook, but the first cookbook written about the celebration of Juneteenth (short for “June Nineteenth”), the holiday which honors the end of enslavement in Texas in 1865, and attributed more broadly to marking the end of enslavement in the United States. Nicole’s book hits all the right notes in explaining the significance of the holiday and how the dishes tie in.
Her food is full of flavor, varied and never boring (I love staying at her place and having freedom to eat anything I find in the refrigerator, especially the leftovers)! I don’t want to write too much because I think Nicole’s answers to our questions are really eloquent, informative and explain more than I ever could, and I don’t want to suggest other titles this month because I don’t want Nicole to have to share the limelight with anybody!
For the recipe, we’ve chosen her Southern-ish Potato Salad. I’m sure you’ve seen the videos and heard the question “Who brought the potato salad?”, well, just mention you’re using Nicole Taylor’s recipe and you just might get invited to the barbecue!
If you don’t yet have a copy of the book, you can find it at Avid Bookshop in Nicole’s hometown of Athens, Georgia. They may still have some of the pre-order gifts to go with!
Interview with Nicole Taylor:
Tell us a little bit about how you came up with this first of its kind cookbook? Was it a slow burn– little pieces here and there, or a total lightbulb moment? I’ve been celebrating Juneteenth for more than a decade. I’ve been writing in addition to celebrating it by hosting my family and friends. When I had my podcast, Hot Grease, on Heritage Radio Network I did a yearly Juneteenth episode. And in 2017, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Food Section about Juneteenth food and I remember my agent saying I should do a cookbook on Juneteenth food and crazily I deleted her email because I thought “why would I do a Juneteenth cookbook??” because it was, at that time, a very niche holiday and I didn’t think people would be interested in a book about a holiday that was very regional to many. And then I kept going back to my agent bringing other book ideas like brunch, expecting moms and breakfast but she kept asking about the Juneteenth cookbook. So I said FINE! This was 2018/2019. I started to ideate and figure out whether I had enough recipes to create a book dedicated to the holiday. I started going back to my old notes and my old Juneteenth dinners and I said OK I can do this! So in the summer of 2019 I got a job as executive editor of Thrillist and I thought while I was running a food vertical was the perfect time to really work on the proposal. In the mornings on my train ride I would make notes and tighten up my proposal and I was feeling good about it, and we all know what happened in 2020. COVID came and I got laid off. I just put my head down and finished up the cookbook proposal.
One thing happened that changed the world and definitely changed me and so many other Black Americans– the murder of George Floyd. The murder and the uprisings in response clearly were a huge pause for many Americans and a reflective moment and I knew at that moment that in all of the pain and anger and uprising and the conversations around racial reckoning, that this cookbook was needed. It was needed because we needed joy. So I knew in the summer of 2020 that this cookbook was more than just a collection of stories about Black celebrations and a collection of recipes from my table. It was a healing balm for all Americans. So yeah, it was a slow burn!
For busy people who want to have a great meal on the table in thirty minutes, which recipe from your book would you recommend? I dedicated a whole chapter to everyday, and I called that Everyday Juneteenth, and that is how you can bring the essence of Juneteenth into your daily life. One of my favorite recipes is the Pretzel Fried Chicken. I love that one and the Sour Cream & Chive Cornbread. I feel like they are so easy. I have a three and a half year old son and if I want to make a dinner that seems very fancy but is super quick, I go and I pull out cornmeal, I get my chives, I always keep sour cream around. It takes five minutes to get everything mixed up, put it in the oven, put my timer on, and go do something else. So the cornbread is super easy. I say the Pretzel Fried Chicken, though it does require a few steps. But I would definitely say the cornbread is an easy way to bring some bread to the table and elevate your meal. Pretty much any of the recipes in the Everyday Juneteenth chapter are meant for busy people.
Juneteenth is just around the corner: what three recipes do you recommend as show-stoppers and why? The dessert chapters have the most showstoppers: Snow Cones, Ice Pops & Ice Cream chapter, and the chapter that’s inspired by a Rihanna song, Cake! Cake!-Cake! (And a Couple of Pies). Those two chapters. Showstoppers like the Devil’s Food Icebox Cake or the Radish & Ginger Pound Cake or snow cones. If you want to really have people talking about your summertime celebrations, buy a snow cone maker and make some snow cones. It’s a winner!
When you are cooking for your family, what is your favorite flavor combo? When I’m cooking for my family the things that my son, myself, and my husband get most excited about are fruits. So how do I take fruit and put it in something savory? I love bending the rules of fruit, like in the Strawberry Sumac Cake in the book. In that cake there are cornmeal and sumac and strawberry, or I like taking blueberries and putting them in pickling liquid or a brine, or taking grapes and soaking them in a little brandy and putting them over a wedge salad. I love taking fruit and making it a bit savory or adding fruit to salads or to some other thing that we consider a bit savory or something that is not a dessert. I do the same thing with rhubarb, even though rhubarb technically is a vegetable. A lot of people combine rhubarb with strawberries and make something sweet. In my cookbook I actually have a rhubarb barbecue sauce.
How did you choose which recipes made it into the book? One of the first things I did was take a spreadsheet and write down all of my favorite summer fruits and vegetables. Then I went a step further and said what are all of the fruits and vegetables that are on the traditional African American table. And then I added another layer of the desserts that are traditionally on the Juneteenth table. After I had my lists I started thinking about things I had made before, for example dishes with sweet potatoes. It is a vegetable that is always on the African American table and on many American tables, actually. And I thought about the sweet potato pie and how people have it on Thanksgiving and how every fall and winter time I make this sweet potato syrup that tends to go in whiskey drinks when it’s cold outside. I thought whoa, this sweet potato syrup has so many elements of sweet potato pie, I can actually use it on the snowcones, or I can use it in a spritz inspired by the Italian aperitivo tradition. And that is how the sweet potato spritz was born, and so many other recipes in the cookbook.
Are there any that didn’t make it in that you really wish had made the cut? You know what’s so funny, a lot of things made the cut but I will let you in on a little secret. I really wanted to do a chapter that was called Happy Hour. I thought hmmm that doesn’t really fit. But it does fit because I just think about how you show up to the Juneteenth celebration or you show up at another Black celebration like an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) homecoming or family reunion and the food is not ready, what do people have on the table? Deviled eggs, or in my case people make a crab and egg salad. That’s one of the recipes I have in the cookbook. I was going to do a whole happy hour appetizer section but it just didn’t work out. It didn’t feel like it fit. But many of the recipes like the Crab & Egg Salad were incorporated into the salad chapter.
What is the takeaway you want people to have about Juneteenth food who hear about the book but haven’t yet bought it? I think there are two takeaways from the book. The biggest takeaway is that I want all Americans to know that this cookbook is for them. Juneteenth is an American holiday. It is a Black holiday that honors American history. And I want people to remember that and remember the date June 19, 1865. And more simply I want people to cook, gather around the table with their loved ones, family and friends, or even themselves and raise a glass to what our country is founded on and that is freedom and justice for all. With that meal, I think what I want people to do is very actionable: I want people who cook, or for people who may not be interested in cooking but want to read the entire book and get a peek into Black food life and they want something actionable to do– support a Black-owned business, or a food product owned by a Black person or person of color. To help folks do that, I created a nifty little guide of some of my favorite products. It’s not exhaustive but they are products that I use on a regular basis and they are connected to the cookbook in some way.
And then a lightning round!
What’s the one dish you will always say yes to? Ice cream. I will always say yes to ice cream. My Honey Vanilla Ice Cream I will always say yes to.
What’s the one dish you will always say no to? I’m a food person so I at least try everything. I don’t know the one thing that really grosses me out.
BBQ: beef or pork? Pork
Cookies with or without nuts? With nuts
Beer, Wine or Cocktail? Cocktail
Name a person you would love to cook beside to learn more ideas to use in your own home cooking? Oprah
If you could travel to one place in the world to EAT, where would you go? Italy!
Southern-ish Potato Salad
- 3 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 8 ounces bacon (optional)
- 4 tablespoons about (½ stick) unsalted butter (if omitting the bacon)
- 1 medium yellow onion chopped
- 1 fennel bulb cored and chopped
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup sour cream
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves and stems chopped, plus 2 tablespoons leaves for garnish
- 2 teaspoons ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika plus extra for garnish
- 2 lemons zested (2 tablespoons)
- 3 tablespoons Quick-Pickled Banana Pepper brine
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Peel your potatoes and rinse in cold water. Place the potatoes in a large pot and add water to cover (around 10 cups) and ⅓ cup of the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook the potatoes, uncovered, until just tender but with some bite still, 18 to 25 minutes. Be sure not to overcook the potatoes—you don’t want mushy potato salad! Drain the potatoes and transfer to a large bowl. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of the salt and allow to cool for 30 minutes or so.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet, cook the bacon (if using) over medium heat until the fat is rendered and the bacon is crisp and browned, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate, leaving the fat in the pan. (If you’re omitting the bacon, melt the butter in a large skillet here.) Add the onion and fennel to the hot bacon fat in the skillet and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Season with the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
- Add the cooled fennel mixture to the bowl with the potatoes, then add the olive oil, sour cream, chopped parsley, ground mustard, paprika, lemon zest, pickled banana pepper brine, and pepper and stir to combine. Taste! Taste! If necessary, you may need to add a tad more of the seasonings and sour cream. Garnish with the parsley leaves and, if desired, an extra pinch of paprika.
- We’re talking about potato salad here, so: everyone has their way. Some people make it the day of; some people make it the day ahead. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.