Words by Luke Riley. Photos by Noah Fecks.
“For the last ten years, I knew that I wanted to write a book, and I knew that I wanted it to be about food,” Nicole Taylor declares over the phone from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Her new book, The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen, recasts New York City recipes in an Athenian light.
Taylor, a fourth-generation Athenian, attributes much of her love of food, community and cooking to her family. She grew up watching her mother and aunts in the kitchen, observing and acquiring their skills over the years. Local food was a way of life, too. “Everybody had a garden; if I had to go over to my cousin’s house on the next street, I ran through like 3 peoples’ gardens.”
As a teenager, Taylor said her friends wanted to go to fast food restaurants but she was always trying to figure out how she could go eat at The Last Resort or try other new restaurants downtown. Nicole finished at Clarke Central High School and went on to Clarke Atlanta University, graduated with a degree in community health education in 2000.
Seven years ago, her husband, an art and design director, got a job in New York City. Taylor currently consults for nonprofits and community-based organizations, focusing on food and the environment. She said that moving to New York strengthened her relationship with her Southern roots:
“I always ran away from ‘I’m country;’ I wanted to be cosmopolitan. It’s really not until I moved to New York City, that I realized how that foundation really shaped me as a person, and also shaped the way I was eating. It also made me look at what was happening in Brooklyn at the time, particularly in terms of people going back to growing their own food, or people going back to using cloth napkins and coming up with these entire businesses where they’re selling kitchen towels and all that stuff. And I’m like, ‘Wait. I grew up seeing all of these. This is not new to me. This is like — what I thought was country, what I thought was not being progressive.'” Taylor naturally gravitated to this “tribe,” noticing at one point that everyone in the room was Southern.
This fusion of ideas, food, and culture is evident in her cookbook, where recipes such as ‘Raw Kale, Dandelion, and Orange Salad’ appear alongside ‘Rutabega and Potato Gratin’ and ‘Chicken Liver Sliders.’ Up South blends the newer farm-to-table and locavore ethos with traditional Southern cooking — in Taylor’s mind, that’s how she’s always done it. “I’m very much still a Southerner,” Taylor said. “Athens is where my roots are.”
Athens has changed a lot since Taylor was a child. Katherine’s Kitchen was a favorite biscuit stop for her; in its place today is a Steak and Shake. Lyons Junior High – where her great-aunt Bessie Goolsby worked as a cook – moved to Broad Street, became Burney-Harris-Lyons Middle School and then moved to Tallassee Road in 1994. A & A Bakery was two doors down from The Globe: “The first thing you smelled was doughnuts,” Taylor said. “They had the best cakes and pies, but what I remember best was their glazed doughnuts.”
Taylor’s Athens mainstays include Taco Stand, the Old Pal, DePalma’s, The Grit, Bread Basket, and Go Bar. “I used to go in [Peking on Atlanta Highway] so much in high school they knew me by name,” she joked. She misses her old haunts and wishes that Athens had more Vietnamese food. Her favorite spot is still The Last Resort, where she always enjoys a slice of Cecelia’s caramel cake.
Taylor said it’s very hard to open a business or start writing a book about food and that sacrifices are always involved. “I think there are a ton of super successful people in Athens that you don’t see that could have successful businesses,” she said. “I’m surprised that there are not more people who have not stepped up to the plate, rose up to the occasion to start a restaurant. There’s so many talented cooks in Athens and Atlanta.”
Local government can do a lot to create and maintain a vibrant food community, Taylor said. All you have to do is “find your tribe.”
The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen, published by Countryman Press, is available at Avid Bookshop. Taylor also recommends ordering it via indiebound.org, and it is also available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Nicole Taylor will appear at Avid Bookshop on Thursday, Oct. 22nd from 6:30 to 7:30pm, and the Athens Farmers Market at Bishop Park on Saturday, Oct. 24th.