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Seasons by the Sea: Sweet Memories of Julia Reed

Wed, 09/02/2020 - 12:31
A meal inspired by Julia Reed's relaxed approach to entertaining could include a pairing of Southern classics such as fried chicken and whiskey.
Laura Donnelly

A lot of avid cooks have their "Julia," and that would be Julia Child. I have another one, and her name was Julia Reed.

Julia Reed, author, wit, journalist, Southerner, cook, and keen observer of everything from politics to music, died on Aug. 28 at the age of 59. She was born in Greenville, Miss., attended the Madeira School for girls outside of Washington, D.C., then Georgetown and American Universities, worked and wrote for U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Vogue, Elle Decor, and most recently had a long-running column called "The High and the Low" in Garden and Gun magazine.

To get an idea of her humor, love for the South and its food, and her far-ranging abilities, here are the titles of just a few of her books: "Queen of the Turtle Derby," "Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties," "Julia Reed's South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long," and one of my favorites, "But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria!"

I had the great good fortune to share a few meals with Julia when she came to East Hampton to visit mutual friends, in particular one host, Frances Schultz, another beautiful, witty Southern food and design writer. The menu on one such occasion was deviled eggs, pimento cheese, Callie's cheese biscuits with country ham, fried chicken, tomato aspic with a dollop of mayonnaise, and lemon pudding cake for dessert. Coincidentally, I had just referenced Ms. Reed in a column about what I call "WASP soul food," things like Ritz crackers, creamed spinach made with cream cheese, mayonnaise anything, white bread, and dry roasted peanuts. I told her I constantly quote her suggestion to hostesses who don't know what to make or serve for dessert: Pepperidge Farm Bordeaux cookies and lemon sorbet. It's genius! She, in turn, was delighted by my term WASP soul food and said she planned to steal it. I don't know what was more thrilling that day, getting such a compliment from an admired food writer or finding myself in a huddle later on with Julia and the artist John Alexander as they gossiped and we all woofed down more Callie's cheese biscuits.

I heard over a year ago that she was ill and was expected to "go any day now." She did not.

She continued to work on her new home, a tiny jewel box of a house she called Delta Folly. It is close to her parents' house in Greenville. She also started a housewares company with her good friend Keith Meacham, the wife of the author and commentator Jon Meacham, called Reed Smythe and Co. The company features mostly Southern artists and artisans. As if this weren't enough, she also very recently opened a bookstore in Greenville called Brown Water Books, simply because there wasn't a bookstore in town and there should be.

She attributed her love of cooking and entertaining to growing up on the Delta, where "you were always prepared to get in the car and drive to a party, sometimes an hour or two away. People here have to make their own fun." When asked what characteristics define a Southerner she said, "it comes from being stomped on a little bit -- there is a gift of language, a great sense of humor and irony, that comes from having lost and having to learn your lesson. The storytelling tradition is certainly there. Look at the number of writers!"

She was often compared to Dorothy Parker and one writer for Washingtonian magazine said about her: "think the late Christopher Hitchens sauced with molasses."

Her advice for nervous hosts or hostesses when giving a party? "If it's not fun, don't do it." When she would entertain while living in New York City, she would make a big pot of seafood gumbo and supplement it with Popeye's fried chicken. When she came out East and offered up a similar "high-low" menu, she was scolded by what she describes as "this uptight social Hamptons lady" who said she couldn't possibly serve such food. Her response? "Honey, people were thrilled to be sucking on that chicken!"

She seemed like the kind of lady for whom old-fashion lingo like "a great broad" or "fabulous dame" would apply. She had friends with names and nicknames like Burrell, Lottie, Bossy, Teeny Bubba, Pearl, and Ernestine. Jon Meacham referred to his wife and Julia together as the "Crab Caucus."

She would host a yearly Tomatopalooza, a six-course feast of tomato dishes. At each place setting would be a very generous glass of Blanton's bourbon. She put the Mississippi Delta Hot Tamale Festival on the map, which would then be followed by a sandbar party with live music, always live music.

She loved New Orleans, where she lived on and off, and all of the South. She adored her 15-year-old beagle, Henry, and her family and friends. She surrounded herself with books. But most of all, as she said herself, "the food is the thing. The food is important." Of writing about food she said, "It might be the one thing I wouldn't get tired of writing about. When I write about food, I don't just write about food."

I will treasure my few memories of time spent with her. I will treasure my autographed copy of "But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria!" with her inscription suggesting I "keep making merry!" I will try very, very hard, but it won't be easy. 

Julia Reed's Friend Keith's Pimento Cheese Spread
When I learned that Julia Reed had died, I set about making some of her iconic dishes: pimento cheese and Nancy Peterkin's Summer Squash Casserole.
This recipe makes a lot, enough for 12 people. Feel free to cut in half.

1 block Cracker Barrel extra sharp white cheddar, grated
1 block Cracker Barrel extra sharp yellow cheese, grated
1 cup freshly grated aged Parmesan
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
2 small jars chopped pimentos, drained
1 dash of juice from a jar of "cheap" stuffed green olives
1 dash of fresh lemon juice
1 dash of Tabasco
1 dash of black pepper
1 cup Hellmann's mayonnaise

Combine all ingredients in a bowl with a fork or wooden spoon. Refrigerate for at least three hours.
Taste. If it needs more bite, add more olive juice, Tabasco, or pepper.

Nancy Peterkin's Summer Squash Casserole
This recipe is from "Julia Reed's South: Spirited Entertaining and High Style Fun All Year Long." Southerners have a knack for taking some healthy vegetables and turning them into complete and utter naughty deliciousness, ergo, less healthy. This comes from her friend Nancy Peterkin, a legendary cook and hostess in Houston.
Serves 8 to 10.

8 Tbsp. butter, plus more for greasing the baking dish
2 lbs. yellow squash, scrubbed, trimmed, and cut into half-inch slices
2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored, and chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped (Julia says feel free to add one or two more!)
1 large onion, chopped
4 slices plain white bread, such as Pepperidge Farm, toasted
24 Ritz crackers, ground to fine crumbs in food processor
1/2 lb. sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
4 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Preheat oven to 350. Butter a two-and-a-half-quart baking dish and set aside.

Place squash slices in bowl of food processor and pulse a couple of times until squash is fairly finely chopped. You may have to do this in batches.

Melt six tablespoons butter in large deep skillet over medium heat. Add squash and sauté for three to four minutes. Stir in garlic, bell pepper, jalapeno, and onion. When vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes more, remove skillet from heat.

Meanwhile crumble the toasted bread in food processor, but not too finely. Melt the remaining two tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan and toss with the crumbs.

In large bowl, place the squash mixture, cracker crumbs, and Cheddar cheese and mix well. Stir in the beaten eggs, cream, sugar, salt, and cayenne. Blend well and pour into the prepared baking dish. Top with the buttered breadcrumbs and bake for 40 minutes or until the crumbs are golden brown.

Pepe's Flame of Love
Here is recipe from the chapter "Men and Martinis" from "But Mama Always Put Vodka in the Sangria!" I believe Julia Reed got this recipe from Chasen's restaurant.

1/2 tsp. fine sherry, chilled
3 2-inch orange peels
2 1/4 ounces chilled vodka, preferably Stolichnaya

Chill a martini or cocktail glass thoroughly. Add the sherry to the glass and swirl to coat completely, pouring out any excess.
Take one of the orange peels, light a match, and squeeze the orange peel sharply, so that the oil is propelled through the flame and onto the inside of the glass. Repeat so that the oil evenly coats the glass, and discard the peels.

Shake or stir the vodka with ice to chill, and strain into the coated glass. Squeeze the remaining peel over the drink and around the rim of the glass and drop it into the drink for garnish.

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