Julia Reed’s South Part 2
An interview with the author about her book, the New Orleans food scene and learning to make cocktails as a child in Mississippi
On the heels of a James Beard Foundation humor category nomination and as she sets forth on a tour in support of her new cooking and entertaining book, “Julia Reed’s South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun,” (which I reviewed last week), it might seem strange to hear New Orleans-based journalist and author Julia Reed say, “I’m an accidental food writer turned intentional food writer.”
Moments before that divulgence at the bustling Still Perkin’ Coffee Shop in the Garden District, Reed took a quick call to offer a few instructions for her upcoming pop-up shop, Catfish and Henry, for the May 18 to 22 New Orleans Southern Style Now Festival. The temporary shop adds retailer to her growing list of credits. Those credits include authoring five books, serving as a contributing editor and columnist at Garden & Gun and Elle Décor, as well as being a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal and columnist for Southern Living and countless other heavy-hitting publications, such as the fashion Bible, Vogue.
A former political reporter originally from Greenville, Mississippi who got her start in journalism at Newsweek’s Washington bureau seems an unlikely candidate for the career of humor, fashion, design and food writer, but Reed’s foray into and eventual dominance of the subject matter unfolded organically and began via an unexpected twist of fate.
“When I was still working for Newsweek, covering politics, I had a party in my first apartment,” says Reed. “I served Southern food and the very next morning, I got a call from an editor at the New York Times that I didn’t even know was there. I wasn’t a professional cook, just a very disciplined home cook.”
In “South,” Reed writes about having received her early cooking and entertaining education — like so many Southerners — in the kitchen of her mother, as well as those of nearby neighbors. Then as an adult, delving into seminal works, such as “The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook and Time Life’s, “The Good Cook,” series. She credits design and entertaining expert Lee Bailey and his first volume, “Lee Baily’s Country Weekends,” however for freeing her to celebrate her Southern roots.
“It was my Bible,” says Reed. “I was a kid journalist living in D.C. I was trying to impress my colleagues. Everything was nouvelle cuisine.” Reed says Bailey’s book showed her she could serve Southern fare, such as grits soufflé or butter beans and cobbler along with or instead of the, as she calls it “overwrought" cuisine trending at the time. “When you’ve got New Yorkers chasing after trays of pimento cheese sandwiches, you’ve done something right.”
When asked if the Bailey book and embracing and sharing the food she grew up with had any other notable impact, she says wryly, “I started listening to my mother.”
While she has continued to write about politics and other matters, food, and specifically Southern food, has been at the heart of much of Reed’s work for years, making appearances in her essays Garden & Gun “The High & The Low,” column and in her books, such as 2013’s, “But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!: Adventures in Eating, Drinking and Making Merry.” In Reed’s 2009 love letter to her adopted hometown, “The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story,” tales about entertaining and recipes are also folded into the pages.
The 2014 release, “One Man’s Folly: The Exceptional Houses of Furlow Gatewood,” was a likely departure from food fodder, given Reed’s work with Southern Living and Elle Décor. Which is why anyone following her career would view “South,” as another natural step, bringing together in one volume the subjects she’d explored for years.
“It was a culmination of all the things I love that I haven’t gotten paid for,” jokes Reed. “There’s a lot set in the Mississippi Delta. It’s still home for me. That’s where I learned how to entertain myself. You learn ways to invent fun.”
That concept is evident in the book, whereas food is the unifying center of “South,” fun is an ongoing theme. Take the chapter, “A Mississippi Sandbar Picnic,” which outlines the evolution of an impromptu gathering featuring “a bucket of chicken, a cooler full of beer, and a couple of guitar players along for the ride,” into its current form, which now includes a keyboard hooked up to a generator, real plates, bamboo-handled forks and spoons, tables, lounge chairs, Oriental rugs and quilts and a makeshift ladies’ room. In all aspects — location, essentials and a few luxurious extras — the party is a masterful execution of Reed’s signature blend of high and low.
“There’s a shot [in the book] of a sticker on a truck,” says Reed. “It has ‘Department of Having a Good Time,’ a duck and a deer on it. It looks like an official city sticker. People see it and start slowing down.”
Readers are lead all over the South through a series of parties — from formal dinners at Reed’s Garden District home and a cold Creole supper at the historic house of New Orleans antiques dealer and realtor Peter Patout, to a “Tomatopalooza,” awash in reds and pinks in Tennessee (“We had what every Southerner wants in the summer,” she says referring to tomatoes) and several gatherings ranging from an elegant Spring luncheon al fresco to a casual hunt breakfast in Mississippi. Like Reed’s articles, essays and other work, the book is dense, with a journalist’s concise delivery of tips, advice, historical facts and information.
“It’s more entertaining to me as a writer to add in things that are interesting,” says Reed. “I wanted to show a little more about what the places mean. I wanted to show a sense of place. It’s not just about me. It’s more about a generosity of spirit and having fun. We basically went on an extended road trip.”
Reed says she and photographer Paul Costello spent the total of a year off and on traveling in a rented Yukon, creating or re-creating the parties and shooting them for the book, then enjoying the fruits of their labors with friends and family. Each chapter includes the suggested menu, notes about the table settings, cooking tips and asides and, in some cases, playlists. Pairings for wine and cocktails (with their recipes) are also included in each chapter. Cocktails are another point of passion for Reed.
“I used to get paid 10 cents to make a cocktail for my dad,” says Reed. Then she leans forward for emphasis and with a grin says, “I was a rich kid.”
As she sits in the wicker chair across the table at the coffee shop, with her eye glasses in one hand, fielding questions from this reporter; responding to texts regarding a “house load of people” getting ready to converge on her nearby home for a weekend gathering; taking calls about the upcoming pop-up shop; and greeting her former assistant, who stopped in to grab a to-go order, the impressive surplus of energy Reed draws from to channel her talent and creativity into so many projects is evident.
Soon, the conversation, as it often does in this town, turns to the immensely talented chefs in New Orleans and yet another bit of writing she’s working on.
“I have a piece coming out for the Wall Street Journal and it’s an update on the food here,” Reed says. “Now is the best time. There’s a new restaurant opening every day. When I first came here, there was good food, but it was all vertical, Creole … now we have Kenton’s, Compare Lapin, Josephine. It’s a great time to be eating and talking and writing about food in New Orleans.”
When we circle back to the book, Reed speaks enthusiastically about the invaluable source list in the back. It’s a listing of the many artists, designers and retailers responsible for the goods and foods Reed writes about and uses in her day-to-day life.
“I wanted to include people I love that are doing creative stuff,” says Reed. “A lot of the table cloths in there are made by a friend of mine. The great pottery is from Mississippi. I wanted to showcase my friend Chef Regina Charboneau in Natchez, who is now making rum.
“I’m an editor and one of my favorite things is to pick the perfect writer for the perfect article. I get passionate about great chefs or the guy who can carve a great muddler. This project has grown out of that.”