Author Nicole A. Taylor is a firm believer in finding joy in the everyday and sharing with family and friends around the table — or the fire pit. Here are a few ideas to help end the season on a high note.
Taylor’s latest launched in the spring, its full title reading: “A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations.” The author makes a compelling case that the holiday commemorating the long overdue freeing of enslaved African people in Texas years after the Civil War should be honored in an Everyday Juneteenth kind of way.
“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. These small everyday traditions, these molecules of the ordinary, can have power and meaning, if we allow them to. Rituals of leisure and care are as much a testament to what Juneteenth has made possible as voting rights and desegregated buses are.,” she wrote. The excerpt that feature that sentiment was featured in the New York Times.
“It’s easy to dismiss small victories of everyday, especially with all these dumpster fires we’ve got going now, but it’s important to experience and celebrate joy,” she said in a recent phone interview.
That sounds good, so what’s on the menu?
Let’s start with a spritzer
Taylor’s brilliant book is far from the typical collection of recipes. Yes, the chapters are arranged in the traditional arc, starting with drinks and appies, finishing strong in the dessert department. But woven throughout is compelling storytelling, sound advice and lots of surprises, beginning with a breakdown of one of the coolest summer sippers you need to try.
“Oh, yes, the Sweet Potato Spritzer is one of my favorites,” she said. And, yes, you can make a non-alc version, adding a splash of tonic water to bring in some botanical notes.
She also loves the Watermelon Ginger Beer as a refreshing way to start a feast: “I love the rare seeded watermelon, but they are hard to find and can be a pain if you’re using a blender, as you’ll need to strain the juice afterward. If you own a juicer, proceed with the seeds and all. Watermelon is over 90 percent water and is a nutrient-dense food. This drink can serve as an everyday accompaniment at breakfast, lunch, dinner, or with a snack,” reads the recipe introduction in the book.
The main event
Taylor acknowledges that many beginners feel intimidated about taking on the task of planning for and throwing a dinner party. “My book is meant to be for someone who’s cooking or hosting an everyday gathering for the first time. It’s super approachable with ingredients that are affordable and easily accessible.”
She suggests taking the pressure off by focusing on dishes that can be prepped in advance. And switch things up by inviting folks over for lunch or happy hour instead of dinner.
“I spent two years developing, testing and writing this book and when things started to open up again, I made a point of inviting newfound friends and colleagues over to gather around fire pit and try some of the recipes,” she said. “Everything in the book can be done that way, keeping it easy and casual.”
For instance, her ideal lunch menu would include the Summer Corn Salad, Pork Chops and Icebox Chocolate Cake. Maybe toss in a batch of fries because “fries are always going to be on my last meal request.”
When the weather begins to cool off, Taylor said most everything from the barbecue portion of the book can be adapted for an indoor oven. The caraway butter trout heads to the top of the must-try list.
And finally… something sweet
Raise your hand if you’re in the “Eat Dessert First” camp. Yup, thought so. That’s a crowded field and Taylor’s there for you with a lineup that reads like a sweet summer dream: Corn Ice Cream Sandwiches, Roasted Nectarine Sundae, Peach Crumble Cake and Strawberry Hand Pies. Wow.
But the most intriguing creations are a bit of a shocker. Consider the Snow Cone. “I promise if you buy a Snow Cone maker, everyone’s going to get excited, especially the adults who remember eating them as kids,” she said.
Yeah, well I bet no kid every encountered something as sophisticated as the Hibiscus Sichaun Snow Cone included in the book. Hot stuff.
“For my Juneteenth celebrations, I shave mounds of fluffy ice and make a big batch of thick syrup to mix into different flavors—red (hibiscus), purple (purple sweet potato), and yellow (marigold). The fluffy ice gets drenched with the colorful syrups, then topped with whipped cream and edible flowers or spices. To punch things up, add 1 ounce of vodka to a snow cone and eat with a spoon,” she writes.
In the gadgets section of Watermelon & Redbirds, Taylor recommends the Cuisinart countertop model, but also says she’s a fan of her friend’s Little Snowie Max.
Back to the beginning
While this excellent book definitely inspires cooks to get in the kitchen with its recipes, it’s also an important reminder to the bittersweet history behind the Juneteenth holiday.
As High on the Hog host Stephen Satterfield writes in the forward: “In Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations, we are bound to celebration. We know well the hardship story, and are ready to write a different story. What you’re reading—this book—is just that. I hope you will take the opportunity, as I am, to celebrate Nicole, as an author, a friend, and a north star on heart-centered work.”
And on the book tour
During a recent West Coast book tour, Taylor said she was particularly impressed by a special event at one of Seattle’s hottest restaurants, Communion. “The place is gorgeous and the food was amazing,” she said of chef Kristi Brown’s wildly popular spot in the city’s Central District.
The mushroom po’ boys, watermelon salad and fried okra were memorable, but Taylor said she can’t stop thinking about the carrot and beet fritters. “There were like a next level falafel,” she recalled. Hmm, maybe something for the next cookbook?