NICOLE A. TAYLOR, THE UP SOUTH COOKBOOK
We met chef and cookbook author Nicole A. Taylor while we were organizing a series of dinners. A quick look through her new cookbook, The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen, and we knew we had to work with her/become friends immediately. She joined our team for a dinner in December and cooked a beautiful meal of short ribs, grits, Southern rice pilaf with acorn squash and collard greens goma ae (a Japanese preparation involving sesame seeds). We finished the evening with a perfect lemon pound cake, from a recipe passed down through Nicole's family. She and I grabbed a coffee this week so we could continue our conversation.
SFK: In your interviews you say that you spent your early twenties distancing yourself from Southern cooking, was there an event or a moment — or a dish — that brought you back to your roots?
Nicole A. Taylor: I basically spent all of my twenties not eating pork and not eating beef. I ate fish and chicken. I would go home to Athens and not eat anything and they were just like, “Oh she doesn’t eat this, she doesn’t eat that….” There were two really defining things that brought me back. I moved here in 2008 and I remember starting at Roberta’s, at Heritage Radio Network, doing a show there. I was in the garden my first day and they were roasting a whole pig in the back. This was during the early days of Roberta’s, they had an old car back there, and they were roasting this pig. I had not seen someone roast a pig since I was a preteen in Athens. This was at the height of this whole Brooklyn D.I.Y. food thing, and I’m like, Damn, they’re roasting a pig! I remember my cousin doing that in the backyard. That was a pivotal moment. Another was, I remember listening to a show where I heard someone breaking down turkey bacon. You know, it’s highly processed and if you’re gonna eat turkey bacon, you might as well eat… I mean I was eating healthy for the most part, but once I heard the turkey bacon thing, I was like, Oh I’m back in the pork game. It was a combination of seeing the new wave of New Yorkers doing the kind of cooking I grew up seeing all the time and the other one is just an overall heightened awareness of food and how food is produced. It made me realize that lard is not so bad.
SFK: Like reexamining what you grew up with, in a different light.
Nicole A. Taylor: Yeah. In my twenties, there was a lot of, I wouldn’t say shame, but I remember folks having the grease can next to the stove and then my family putting that away in the ’90s and then it came back. People started saying, “Oh yes I save my drippings for this and that,” and I was like wait, we used to have that! And the same thing with paper towels, we never had paper towels in the house. We used cloth napkins for everything — to sit down and have dinner, use them to clean the counter, you use them for everything. So I just basically went back to all of it, and everybody in Athens was like, “Oh you eat pork now?” My mom used to tell me all the time, keep living — all that stuff you hated, you’re going to turn around and be in love with it. Like rutabagas, I despised them. Now I’m making rutabaga gratin, which is in my book. I went and did a dinner down in Charleston and Chef BJ Dennis did dishes that were inspired by the book. He did rutabagas the old fashioned way, cooked down with a little bit of pork. I hated them that way growing up, but oh they were so freaking good.
SFK: With some distance, you look at the food of your childhood differently.
Nicole A. Taylor: Distance, but also being open.
SFK: Totally. We’ve talked a bit about mentorship and the importance of having mentors. Can you tell me a little about yours and what they’ve taught you?
Nicole A. Taylor: I was so fortunate to have some good mentors really early in life, who weren’t food folks. People who gave me confidence, before I was even twenty years old. They told me you can do anything you want to do, one being Beverly Johnson from Athens. I don’t think she realizes to this day the influence she had on my life. She told me real early on, you have a gift and you don’t follow the path. I never even knew that. She said if you keep on your path, you can accomplish anything you want. She basically gave me permission to do something different than what everyone else was doing and I still remember that. Later, into my twenties I didn’t have as much of that. What I did have and what I’ve always been is open. I’m an obsessive person, I read a lot a lot. I love biographies and reading about peoples’ lives kind of gives you a glimpse of different paths to what’s possible. So when I moved to New York, I was obsessed with Jessica Harris — she's a food historian who's written 13 cookbooks about the African diaspora and African foodways. Everyone who knew me then knew I was serious about food and more importantly, I was a student to the game. I didn’t just pop in and go yes I’m into food now! When I get in something, I’m in it full force. I did a lot of self education. Linda Pelaccio, who has a show on Heritage Radio, she knew I was really into Jessica Harris. So she sends me an email and says Jessica Harris is coming on my show, do you wanna come? I was like hell yes. I went to Roberta’s, it was cold as shit outside, I remember. I go into the studio, and I’m like oh Jessica Harris, I’m such a big fan, I’m so happy to meet you. The first thing she said was, “why haven’t you emailed me, I hear you have a podcast?” We sat and had dinner afterward and began a friendship that has helped me so much. I also talk with her and my husband often about the importance of mentorship and I think we need more mentors. I think we, in the food business, should say every year, how many people have I given a chance? Who are you cultivating and who are you mentoring? I want to do that in 2016 so when people see me do that, they’ll want to do it too.
SFK: What do you daydream about while you’re cooking?
Nicole A. Taylor: The next fucking meal. (laughs) While I’m cooking, for example, I woke up this morning and before I had breakfast — I usually have yogurt or a smoothie or what have you — I made dinner. I’m like making breakfast and making dinner and I’m thinking okay am I going to be able to eat this tomorrow? So yeah, I’m thinking about the next meal and where it’s going. I also like to watch trashy reality shows while I cook so I think about that and have that noise in the background.
SFK: Do you have any non-culinary influences that you bring into the kitchen with you?
Nicole A. Taylor: First of all, I don’t like a lot of people in the kitchen. But I definitely play music while I cook, I love music. Today I was listening to a lot of Southern hip-hop, before I left the house I listened to the new Young Jeezy, Church in the Streets. I’m also a huge jewelry person, like Alexis Bittar is one of my favorite jewelry designers. One cool thing, if you look through my book, in a lot of the photos you see my hands with bracelets on there. People that know me know that I actually cook in the ktichen with bracelets on. It’s the weirdest thing ever. Noah Fecks, who shot my book, was like you have bracelets on in every photo. I got it from my mom. My cousin says, when I go to Athens, we always know when you’re here because we can hear your bracelets just like your mom! Bracelets and jewelry inspire me in the kitchen. I don’t feel like I’m really cooking without them.
SFK: Do you get any other style or food influences from your mom?
Nicole A. Taylor: Definitely. My mom is the hardest working person ever. She can stay out late, get up at 5 or 6 o’clock like shit didn’t happen, work twelve hours, come home, fry chicken, call her people on the phone, look at her Lotto numbers. So what I think I get from her is being a taskmaster. She doesn’t like people to play around, like wash my fucking dishes. She’s very serious because she needs to move on to the next thing. It’s not leisurely. Now that I think about it [how I'm like her in the kitchen], my mom is like move out of my way and if you’re going to help me, do this one thing and do nothing else.
SFK: Having been in the kitchen with you, I can see that!
Nicole A. Taylor: Oh my god! (Laughs)
Nicole A. Taylor, The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen, Countryman Press, October 2015.
Photographs of Nicole by Sarah Forbes Keough.