JUNETEENTH has been celebrated in the U.S. for well over 150 years. The June 19 holiday, which celebrates the day enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free, and thus officially marking the end of slavery in this country, has become even more widely known outside of Black communities since summer 2020, when George Floyd’s murder brought the nation’s eyes to the atrocities that Black people face in the U.S. in a way that many could no longer ignore.

NICOLE A. TAYLOR Watermelon and Red Birds
NICOLE A. TAYLOR Watermelon and Red Birds

Since then, Juneteenth has gained popularity among Black Americans as a way to celebrate their ancestors’ freedom and honor their heritage at the same time. But unlike most other holidays in this country, there has never been a cookbook dedicated solely to its foods and customs. With “Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black

Celebrations,” author Nicole A. Taylor has done just that, and it is already an indispensable part of my library.

Spread throughout the book are history lessons of Black creators, inventors and writers who have contributed to the culture Juneteenth celebrates. One chapter is all about red drinks, a custom tied to the West African tradition of imbibing drinks made from kola nuts or hibiscus leaves, which dye liquids striking shades of red.

Taylor writes that “red soda, red Kool-Aid, or red punch” are most common, but she transforms watermelon, strawberries, blueberries and ginger into tonics to fit the occasion. Her Sweet Potato Spritz turns the traditional Italian aperitivo into a bubbly concoction made with red Cappelletti and a warmly fragrant sweet potato syrup teeming with vanilla, star anise and cinnamon.

In another chapter, Taylor writes about the importance of public parks and fairgrounds in Black Americans’ leisure lives while also educating readers on the racism that played out in those spaces over the past centuries that ostracized Black Americans too.

Fair foods such as funnel cakes, turkey legs and corn dogs connect Black Americans to these spaces and are wonderful for celebrating Juneteenth, as the holiday falls near the start of summer, exactly when these foods are best to enjoy. Taylor’s recipe for corn dogs is straightforward and simple enough that anyone can bring the fair into their home.

Reading through “Watermelon & Red Birds” is a joyful experience. From a section listing numerous BIPOCowned food companies to a delightful compilation of Juneteenth food gadgets, Taylor’s book is a trove of invaluable resources for celebrating the holiday. And there is so much inspiration and so many wonderful recipes that anyone can plan menus for several holidays to come.

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