At the beginning of 2020, food writer and cookbook author Nicole Taylor returned to her roots. Taylor and her family bought a home in Athens, Georgia, and started splitting their time between her hometown and Brooklyn. While there, she developed a strong friendship with Atlanta restaurant industry veterans Mike and Shyretha Sheats over food and wrote the first-ever Juneteenth cookbook.
On Sunday, June 19, Taylor and Athens/Atlanta-based dinner series the Plate Sale, run by the Sheatses, will bring Watermelon & Red Birds to life with a collaborative Juneteenth luncheon at Athens restaurant the National. The luncheon is a natural extension of how the Taylor and Sheats families’ friendship has grown over the past two years as well as an opportunity to enjoy the type of intimate gatherings Taylor holds at her home.
“Last year I was invited to Nicole’s home and I was able to get a peek into what Juneteenth celebrations are about with her,” Shyretha Sheats says.
Taylor has been celebrating Juneteenth for more than a decade. She’s thrown parties and happy hours, but she’s also incorporated Juneteenth into her life’s work by writing about the holiday and its food traditions on a national scale. In 2017, her literary agent suggested she write a Juneteenth cookbook. “I was reluctant for a long time because I’m born and raised in Georgia, I’m not a native Texan,” she says. “The other thing is I thought the holiday was way too niche and would be a hard sell to publishers.”
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day 250,000 Black Texans learned they were free from enslavement — that’s twice the population of Athens and a quarter of Atlanta’s. It was also more than two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Taylor’s hesitancy to write the cookbook faded in the summer of 2020, when she realized that Black Americans — and all Americans — needed a cookbook that centered Black joy and food.
Sunday’s event is more than a testament to Black joy and resilience. It’s also an opportunity for the Sheatses to highlight the Plate Sale, a dinner series they plan to revive soon, and put their own spin on traditional Juneteenth foods served during the family-style meal.
“Nicole was very adamant about not having to be exactly from the book,” Shyretha Sheats says. For example, they’re serving a pork dish, but they’re not making a replica of Taylor’s pork chops with dukkah. “We’re taking her storytelling and ingredients, the thoughtfulness. That’s the same language that we hold when we’re creating our menus for different events.”
That sentiment is at the heart of Watermelon & Red Birds. Taylor continuously weaves friends, her community, and fellow artists into the book’s narrative. “The ethos of who I am is supporting creators, particularly Black creators who are making food or art,” she says. A passage from award-winning American writer Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, for example, is excerpted in 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 claim someone else’s culture or dish as their own.
Taylor’s relationship with the Sheats family began in the early days of the pandemic. Mike and Shyretha, a chef and bartender respectively, who previously worked at Staplehouse in Atlanta, had been laid off from their restaurant jobs and started hosting lunches in the former Hendershot’s coffee shop space in Athens. Taylor and her husband, Adrian Franks, became regular customers.
“Every time they had a pop-up, we were there,” Taylor says. “I was not only supporting them just because they were creating beautiful food in the middle of the pandemic, but Mike’s food is freaking good. To me, he’s cranking out some of the best food at pop-ups I’d had in a really long time. If Athens was smart, they would totally get behind them.”
The Sheatses also split their time between Athens and elsewhere; in their case, it’s Atlanta. Mike currently assists baker Erika Council at her Irwin Street Market restaurant stall Bomb Biscuits, while Shyretha works at a Grant Park photography studio.
Once the two families met in real life, they quickly discovered 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 kids went to 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 fire pit and not coming in the house, we would do that,” Shyretha Sheats says. “So we were having conversations and forging a bond in the middle of a global pandemic around food and drink.”
Taylor’s natural ability as a host didn’t just give people who desperately craved companionship some intimacy. Outdoor happy hours and casual visits provided Taylor with ample opportunities for friends, including the Sheats family, to try the recipes she was working on for the cookbook.
“Some of it was straightforward, like, ‘Hey, this is in my book. Taste it.’ Other times it was just like, ‘Hey, are y’all hungry? Let me create a spread real quick.’” It wasn’t until the Sheatses received the book that they realized Taylor’s offerings of whoopie pies and pound cake were part of something grander.
This year, Taylor says, a lot of people will be celebrating Juneteenth for the first time. Watermelon & Red Birds is meant to aid those people in understanding the holiday and encourage them to start their own traditions. But there’s more than one way to celebrate, and non-Black allies are more than welcome to participate.
“You can get in the kitchen and cook, or you can easily support a Black-owned business like the Plate Sale,” she says. “You can easily open up my book and find, in my list of BIPOC-owned food products, a product that you can go online and purchase.”
Watermelon & Red Birds x The Plate Sale lunch takes place Sunday, June 19, with seatings at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., at restaurant the National in Athens, Georgia. $85 per person, includes a signed copy of Watermelon & 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 a MFA in narrative nonfiction in 2017. Her work has appeared in Eater, Atlas Obscura, MyRecipes, Polygon, Taste of Home, Tasting Table, and Thrillist.