Cookbook review: The taste of liberation

‘Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations’ by Nicole A. Taylor (Simon & Schuster, $29.99)

Last June, President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act — 156 years after Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery signed two years earlier by Abraham Lincoln. On June 19, 1866, a year after the general’s order, Black Texans gathered to commemorate their liberation with music, dance and barbecues — a tradition that has endured through generations.

In 2016, an 89-year-old retired educator named Opal Lee walked from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington to lobby for designating this milestone event a federal holiday. With Black Lives Matter protests roiling the country, and the public becoming more aware of Juneteenth’s significance, her vision finally came to be.

Now, just in time for its second official anniversary, Nicole A. Taylor brings us “Watermelon and Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations” (Simon & Schuster, $29.99), drawing from a decade of personal experiences observing the holiday.

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A James Beard Award-winning food writer and documentarian who makes her home in both New York City and Athens, Georgia, Taylor became adept at hosting all-day brunches and dinner parties long before she made food writing her livelihood.

While paying homage to the holiday’s heavy history, she sees her third cookbook as “an attempt to fashion a Juneteenth celebration for the 21st century,” complete with gadget suggestions such as a potato spiral for making “the perfect potato Slinky,” a piston funnel for making contemporary funnel cakes, and a snow cone machine for shaving ice that gets drenched in Hibiscus Sichuan Syrup.

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Those recipes — along with other enticing curiosities such as Rhubarb BBQ Sauce, Pork Chops with Dukkah, Watermelon Ginger Beer, and Strawberry Sumac Cake — illustrate Taylor’s joyful departure from traditional boundaries of “so-called soul food.” Like the red birds in the title, they are part of her broader statement: “We are free to fly.”

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at

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