In early 2020, food writer and cookbook author Nicole Taylor returned to her roots. Taylor and her family bought a house in Athens, Georgia, and began splitting their time between her hometown and Brooklyn. There she developed a strong friendship with Atlanta restaurant industry veterans Mike and Shyretha Sheats about food and wrote the first-ever cookbook Juneteenth.
On Sunday, June 19, Taylor and Athens/Atlanta-based dinner series The Plate Sale, run by the Sheatses, will bring Watermelon and red birds to life with a collaborative Juneteenth lunch at the Athens restaurant, the National. The lunch is a natural extension of how the Taylor and Sheats family friendship has developed over the past two years, as well as an opportunity to enjoy the kind of intimate get-togethers Taylor hosts at her home.
“Last year, I was invited to Nicole’s house and got to get a taste of what June 19th celebrations were like with her,” says Shyretha Sheats.
Taylor has been celebrating Juneteenth for over a decade. She threw parties and happy hours, but she also made Juneteenth part of her life’s work by writing about the holidays and its nationwide culinary traditions. In 2017, his literary agent offered him to write a Juneteenth cookbook. “I hesitated for a long time because I was born and raised in Georgia, I’m not from Texas,” she says. “The other thing is that I thought vacations were way too specialized and would be a hard sell to publishers.”
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day 250,000 black Texans learned they were free from slavery – that’s twice the population of Athens and a quarter of that of Atlanta. It was also more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Taylor’s hesitation to write the cookbook faded in the summer of 2020, when she realized that black Americans — and all Americans — needed a food-centric cookbook. joy and black food.
Sunday’s event is more than a testament to the joy and resilience of black people. It’s also a chance for the Sheats to highlight the Plate Sale, a dinner series they plan to relaunch soon, and put their own spin on the traditional June 19 dishes served at the family meal.
“Nicole was very adamant about not having to be exactly from the book,” says Shyretha Sheats. For example, they serve a pork dish, but they don’t do a replica of Taylor’s pork chops with dukkah. “We take its storytelling and its ingredients, reflection. This is the same language we use when creating our menus for different events. »
This feeling is at the heart of Watermelon and red birds. Taylor continually weaves friends, her community, and fellow artists into the book’s narrative. “The philosophy of who I am is to support creators, especially black creators who make food or art,” she says. A passage from award-winning American writer Ralph Ellison Invisible Man, for example, is taken from Taylor’s Sweet Potato Spritz recipe. If a particular recipe was simply inspired by someone else, Taylor names that person. It’s a welcome change after often seeing chefs and recipe developers claiming someone else’s culture or dish as their own.
Taylor’s relationship with the Sheats family began at the start of the pandemic. Mike and Shyretha, chef and bartender respectively, who previously worked at Staplehouse in Atlanta, had been laid off from their restaurant jobs and had started hosting lunches at the former Hendershot cafe in Athens. Taylor and her husband, Adrian Franks, became regular customers.
“Every time they had a pop-up, we were there,” Taylor says. “I wasn’t just supporting them because they were creating great food in the middle of the pandemic, but Mike’s food is really good. For me, he makes some of the best food in pop-ups I’ve had in a very long time. If Athens were smart, they would totally support them.
The Sheats also divided their time between Athens and elsewhere; in their case, it’s Atlanta. Mike currently assists baker Erika Council at her Irwin Street Market restaurant stand, Bomb Biscuits, while Shyretha works at a photography studio in Grant Park.
Once the two families met in real life, they quickly discovered some commonalities. Taylor and Mike Sheats were born and raised in Athens. They went to the same high school and share mutual friends. Shyretha Sheats was born and raised in nearby Oglethorpe County. Their children attended the same daycare. A friendship was forged immediately and only intensified.
“I remember the times during the pandemic when people were still gathering around the hearth and not coming into the house, we would,” says Shyretha Sheats. “So we had conversations and forged a bond in the midst of a global pandemic around food and drink.”
Taylor’s natural ability as a host didn’t just give people who desperately needed company some privacy. Outdoor happy hours and occasional visits provided Taylor with plenty of opportunities for her friends, including the Sheats family, to try the recipes she was working on for the cookbook.
“Some of them were simple, like, ‘Hey, it’s in my book. Taste it.’ Other times it was just like, ‘Hey, are you hungry? Let me create a real quick spread.” It wasn’t until the Sheats received the book that they realized Taylor’s offers whoopie pies and pound cakes were part of something bigger.
This year, Taylor says, many people will be celebrating Juneteenth for the first time. Watermelon and red birds is intended to help these people understand the holiday and to encourage them to create their own traditions. But there’s more than one way to celebrate, and non-black allies are more than welcome to participate.
“You can walk into the kitchen and cook, or you can easily support a black-owned business like Plate Sale,” she says. “You can easily open my book and find in my list of BIPOC-owned food products a product that you can go online and buy.”
Watermelon and Red Birds x The Plate Sale lunch is on Sunday, June 19, with seating at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., at the National restaurant in Athens, Georgia. $85 per person, includes a signed copy of Watermelon and red birds and a selection of a la carte drinks.
Sarra Sedghi is a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama. She graduated from the University of Georgia with an MA in Narrative Fiction in 2017. Her work has appeared in Eater, Dark Atlas, MyRecipes, Polygon, Taste of home, Tasting tableand Thrillist.