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Juneteenth cookbook author shares recipes at Ohio State celebration

Nicole A. Taylor says cookbook puts new spin on community traditions

The Ohio State University’s Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the College of Dentistry presented the third annual Juneteenth Celebration on June 15 at Siebert Lawn across from Hale Hall. The event featured a community meal and conversation with James Beard award-nominated food writer Nicole A. Taylor, author of the newly published “Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations.”

Juneteenth is a federal holiday observed on June 19 to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States.

“Whether you know today or Monday the 19th as ‘Freedom Day,’ Jubilee, Emancipation Day, we are so grateful to have all of you here celebrating with us,” Courtney Gandy, diversity and inclusion program coordinator with the Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center, said to the audience gathered under a tent on Siebert Lawn. The event was organized “in a way that Juneteenth is known for, (like) a lot of Black celebrations: having community together and having community together with food.”

In a conversation with Andrea Williams, interim associate vice provost of diversity and inclusion in the Office of Academic Affairs, Taylor discussed the history of African American celebrations and how food is often a centerpiece of community gatherings.

Taylor is a journalist, master home cook and producer who has written for the New York Times, Bon Appétit and Food & Wine. She is the author of the previous cookbooks “The Up South Cookbook” and “The Last O.G. Cookbook.” She is also the executive producer of “If We So Choose,” a documentary about the desegregation of an iconic Southern fast-food restaurant.

Taylor said the recipes in Watermelon & Red Birds” put a new spin on traditional foods.

“I knew that… I wanted to open the door of what I call the ‘2.0’ or ‘3.0’ of Black cookbooks,” she said. “I wanted to take traditional African American foods, or what I call the Black American lawn table, and flip it on its head.”

Taylor’s recipes include pork chops with dukkah, a Middle Eastern spice; “Southern-ish potato salad” with a mix of conventional ingredients like paprika and unconventional ingredients like pickled banana pepper brine; and watermelon kebabs flavored with sea salt.

Taylor said the book’s title, Watermelon & Red Birds,” is inspired by the fact that watermelon is a staple of American summer meals, and by her own family lore.

The title originated from “the story of my mother telling me, ‘Look, look, look, there’s a red bird! Blow the red bird a kiss, it’s good luck. It’s someone from our family coming back to say hello. It’s an ancestor,’” she said. “This cookbook is very different in that it is a narrative cookbook. … There’s a lot of storytelling throughout the book.”

Taylor said she didn’t initially intend to write a cookbook based around the Juneteenth holiday. When her editor proposed the concept a couple of years before the official federal holiday went into effect in 2021, Taylor said she wasn’t sure she could properly execute the idea.

Witnessing the social justice protests that took place nationwide throughout much of 2020, Taylor said she began to see that a cookbook celebrating Black life not only made sense but was necessary.

“When I saw all the sorrow and all the emotions that we experienced that summer, I was like, I want to bring something joyful,” she said. “In the midst of sorrow, in the midst of inequality, Black people still shine, we still party and we still like to eat good.”

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