Long story short, I ended up in Greenville, Mississippi at the home of Frankie Keating for an extended stay after Katrina. She and her then recently departed husband, Bern, were a brilliant, elegant, worldly couple, who were still going strong as octogenarians. They built an amazing life and lived as royalty on a shoestring personal budget, traveling the world as photojournalists for a Who’s Who A-List of top notch publications (Life, Time, National Geographic) back in the day when publications had the budgets to send writers and photographers on extended safaris, cruising out of Europe on the QEII, cutting across the continent on the Orient Express, and the like. Walker Percy, William Faulkner, Willie Morris, and Hodding Carter were among their contemporaries.
I had met the Keatings years before at some media event or another and we became fast and lasting friends. They lived on Bayou Road and were known to entertain frequently and with great style. Their next door neighbors were Clarke and Judy Reed, parents of Julia Reed, the prolific writer who died of cancer last Friday at age 59. Throughout her life Julia also wrote for a host of A-list publications – perhaps there is something in the tea-colored Mississippi River water that runs beyond the slave-built levee that separates it from the road – Newsweek, Vogue, the New York Times, Elle Decor and Garden & Gun, among others. She later went on use her irreverent and stylish voice to chronicle Southern life, food, and entertaining in a collection of books that merge the genres of memoir and cookbook (this mash-up is my absolute favorite style of tome as is evidenced by the piles of them throughout my home). As Julia’s parents were prolific entertainers like the Keatings (on whose parties a young Julia used to spy via a board removed from a fence between the two properties) all of these people frequently made their way into Julia’s books. She split her time between New Orleans and Greenville so she wrote about my own hometown as much as her own, making her work all the more enticing to me.
Though I only knew Julia in a very peripheral, social way – I knew her parents a bit better as I was an occasional guest in their home during my Katrinacaton so my heart breaks for them now – I learned a few things from her through her writing and stories the Keatings used to share about her. Let’s use a few of these pearls of wisdom to enhance our lives this weekend.
- Use the good stuff to celebrate life every day. Why are you keeping the good china, sliver, crystal, linens and whatnot for special occasions or holidays? Toss a piece of toast on some Limoges and make any day special. No fine china, you say? That’s ok. Most millennials eschew the old family goods so thrift stores (Bridge House, Goodwill, the Salvation Army) are stocked with great finds on the cheap.
- Scatter vases (empty bottles if that’s all you have around) filled with fresh flowers or cuttings of interesting leaves around your home to bring nature inside. It will make you feel good. You do not need any money for this, just a pair of scissors. My friends call me The Leaf Thief, but that is another story.
- Master the art of the dinner party. Right now you will have to keep it at 10 or less and you should do this outside with a bevy of fans blasting on you. There is not much going on in Julia’s native Greenville (save for Doe’s Eat Place) but it is made brilliant and exciting through dinner parties. One of Julia’s tricks: Mixing the high and the low. In Julia Reed’s South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long (Rizzoli) she wrote of serving steamed okra in a chunky tomato vinaigrette with a high-tone rolled veal loin stuffed with green peppercorns and sage alongside her mother’s recipe for curried rice salad with marinated artichoke hearts. Do your own version of something like that.
- Fried chicken from Popeye’s, Brother’s Food Mart (my personal favorite, along with their meat pies) McHardy’s, or where ever looks just fine on a nice platter and saves you a ton of time.
Just celebrate something, anything this weekend. Most of us are scared, stressed out, broke or going broke, and losing track of time. Just set that aside for a bit reach out for someone (that lonely neighbor, the enemy with whom it is high time to bury the hatchet, an estranged friend, a relative with whom you have grindingly different political ideologies), find something to be grateful for and celebrate that. ‘Cause life is short, you just never know, and, in the Grand Scheme of Things, how important are our petty differences anyway? Now ya’ll play nice.
Julia Reed’s Cheese Dreams Recipe
Makes About 3 dozen
- 2 cups finely grated sharp Cheddar cheese
- cup unsalted butter, softened
- 2 tablespoons heavy cream
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
- Ground red pepper or hot sauce to taste
- 1 (16-oz.) package firm white sandwich bread slices (such as Pepperidge Farm White Sandwich Bread)
- Preheat oven to 375°. Beat cheese and butter at medium speed with an electric mixer until blended. Beat in heavy cream and next 5 ingredients.
- Cut crusts from white bread slices; cut each bread slice into 4 squares. Spread cheese mixture on half of bread squares (about 1 tsp. per square); top each with 1 remaining square. Spread remaining cheese mixture over top and sides of sandwiches. Place sandwiches, 1 inch apart, on a lightly greased baking sheet.
- Bake at 375° for 15 minutes or until golden brown.