Nicole Taylor, a cookbook author based in Brooklyn and originally from Athens, Georgia, doesn’t consider herself a chef in the least. She says home cook is far more fitting as she discovered her love of cooking in the home—surrounded by family, soaking up smells and sounds.
Her mastery of flavors and techniques characteristic of soul food, borne from Southern African American tradition with elements carried over from the African diaspora, has been a hard won journey. It’s also one she only learned to appreciate hundreds of miles away from home.
Reflecting back on when she stopped cooking Southern food in her twenties, “it just shows me not being connected and not fully understanding survival food and Black food,” she said. “So, I ran away from it. I wasn’t interested in cooking it at all in my twenties.”
Moving to Brooklyn in 2008 changed that for Taylor. It was a whole new world without the Southern slowness she had grown accustomed to while living in Atlanta for twelve years, where she moved after high school from Athens. The pace of her life quickened and with it an earnestness to reclaim the food she had grown up with and had once loved.
She credits her upbringing with indirectly instilling in her an ability to adapt to changes rather quickly — including knowing how to survive, build a support system and to persevere — and after moving was laser-focused on setting up her new life in Brooklyn. But once she was still, it dawned on her she was on “foreign land” and far from home. This realization spurned an openness—to reach back to the home she’d left behind.
“New York made me more open to a lot of things. Especially food,” she said. “It opened me up to see my family and upbringing in a whole new way. I also had to reflect back on the values and foundation of who I was—who I am.”
This reflection inevitably led to the cookbook she published last year, The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen. She admits it was a slow road, one far from glamorous or easy. Her cookbook was published by Countryman Press after initially submitting her book proposal to 20 publishing companies.
“It was a three-year process,” she said. “A year of that was me procrastinating on doing the edits my agent asked me to do. It was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hard work.”
The vivid and scrumptious photography in Taylor’s cookbook was all done in her apartment in Bed-Stuy, one with a “tiny refrigerator” and not a lot of counter space. For months, Taylor would wake up at 6:30 a.m. ready to shoot during the daylight hours, styling all the shots herself with no assistance.
Recipe testing can be brutal, meticulous, and full of back and forth. Arranging to have friends come and pick up the leftovers as she toiled through perfecting a recipe was the compromise she was able to make — due to the too small refrigerator. Eventually, to lighten her load, Taylor hired an assistant for extra help, someone who could pick up groceries or wash dishes two days per week.
What made her cookbook so much more worth it was a knowing of what it all represented. Not just for her, but for others, her family and the legacy preceding Black American food and culture. The stories.
“It’s important to have this really big dream so when the book comes out, you see your work reflected,” she said. “The words and stories in there, they’re mine. They’re all mine.”
Within the pages of Up South, Taylor marries the flavors and foods of her childhood with new techniques and ingredients. There’s a red velvet cheesecake, pimento cheese reimagined with crème fraîche, and even a pasta dish featuring a pesto sauce with collards greens in the starring role. Each are approachable for even novice cooks and all are restorative because they’re accompanied not only by instruction but also a story, a context for why the dish means something to her on a deeper level.
For instance: the tale of Taylor’s petite mother and her detest for grits and yet how a pot of her “buttery white gold” could ease even the deepest of soul aches. Or the slight mention about how her college roommate made the classic barbecue side dish that is baked beans, to rival any she’d had before. The memory of them, Taylor muses before the start of the recipe, inspired her own rendition. Taylor uses the stories, from red clay Georgia all the way to the borough she calls now calls home, to widen her view, and to give it a personal touch, making Up South as much a cookbook as a narrative. Stories to move you. Stories you can feel in the same way good food, true comfort food, feeds and nourishes your soul and spirit.
Upon relocating to Brooklyn from the south, she found herself unexpectedly reconnecting to those stories. They called to her. They were there waiting on every street corner, in the lines of the small grocers where Taylor would go to buy collard greens for the holidays and always in her heart, whether or not she willfully ignored the emotional tugs and pulls. She couldn’t ignore for it for long, even if she tried.
“As much as gentrification has ripped Brooklyn apart, there’s community here,” she said. “People have been here 50, 60 years. There’s still a very vibrant Black Southern and Caribbean diaspora community here. Just seeing people on their stoops reminds me of the 1980s in Athens. All of that kinda came back to me.”
For Black Americans, no matter from where they hail, the act of migration, whether voluntary or involuntary, is central to their consciousness and is the tie the binds. It’s the genesis and root of tale, an emotional, ongoing journey, and It’s the main reason Black Southern food, in its traditional sense—the greens laden with either ham hocks or smoked turkey, the macaroni and cheese layered with different cheeses, fried chicken brined in buttermilk and cooked to crisp perfection, cornbread, and a host of other things—carry stories with them. It’s as much about culture, connection, and comfort as this food is a living, breathing historical account of the past, the present, and has its own place in the future, too.
And it’s why Taylor believes she still has much left to contribute—either through her words, her past podcast Hot Grease that was on Heritage Radio Network from 2009 to 2014, or her efforts to make the food industry a more inclusive space for marginalized people, especially Black women like herself. Taylor plans to continue her contribution with a new step in a new direction, doing audio stories with Atlanta-based producer Sean Powers on the Bitter Southerner’s platform. The intent is the same flavor inspiring Hot Grease—creating discourse with candor on race, gender and their intersections with food and the food industry at large.
“We have so many stories to tell,” she said. “And I’m not done yet.”
Photo by Noah Fecks