Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Robert St. John: Julia

 It’s been a little over a year since Julia Reed was taken from us— much too soon— after a long, sometimes public, always brave battle with cancer. I can’t remember the first time I met Julia. It was either at a party in her French Quarter home on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, or at a party in her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I do know that it was at one of her parties. Hell, Julia’s entire life was a party, and I mean that in the most doting sense. 

 It was a time before she started writing books but was still writing regularly for Vogue and the New York Times Magazine, among others. My memories are vague of the party in her New York apartment. I do remember that there were a lot of famous, interesting, and eclectic people there— always a Reed party staple— but it was still a very “Southern” event and even though we were somewhere on the East Side, in the upper 70s I believe, a few blocks from the park, she had cream cheese and pepper jelly on the coffee table. That struck me. I would imagine that Manhattanites don’t see a block of Philadelphia smothered in pepper jelly very often. It’s a dinner-party prerequisite down here. It was probably a small thing to most in attendance, but it told me everything I needed to know about Julia Reed, and I “got” her instantly.


Julia never went with the norm. Julia created her own norm.


My wife and I have just returned from Atlanta after getting a passport renewed. It was one of those there-and-back-in-two-days type of trips. We listened to Julia narrate her audio book, “South Toward Home,” all the way. Books by southern authors such as Reed and Bragg, who read from their own writings on audiobooks should always be listened to instead of read. Hearing Reed’s voice again set me in a reflective mood, but also one of deep appreciation that I lived at the same time as such a person (we were separated by one year).


I was not in Julia Reed’s innermost circle as a few of my close friends were. I was in one of the outer bands that orbited around her boundless vigor and enthusiasm, receiving a phone call or invitation a few times a year— a party here, a recipe request there, an invitation to speak or sign books on occasion. Though, over the years, I spent some very memorable moments with her, along with several others who were also making the same orbit around that ceaseless ball of energy and acerbic wit that was Julia.


A few years after we met, I hosted a party at my home, and a book singing in one of my restaurants. It was during the Q&A session after the reading of her first book that I first witnessed her lightning-fast intellect and her finely honed sense of humor from a podium and not a sofa. Though the highlight of the day was after the luncheon in my home. The menu I prepared was 100% Deep South Mississippi, which she gave high praise, but while everyone else was in the den discussing and digesting after the meal, she and I snuck in the kitchen and stood over the stove— spoons in hand— and picked through the remaining pans of barely warm pink-eye purple hull peas, fried corn, butterbeans, shrimp and squash, and fried okra while talking about food, the South, and life.


In 2006, she wrote the foreword to my fourth book which was a cookbook about parties and recipes for entertaining. And in addition to some of the nicest words ever written about me she again extolled the merit of cream cheese topped with pepper jelly.


Reed was a symposium booker’s finest asset. A master panelist with a quick intellect, broad acumen, high exposure, and enough bravado to say anything that popped into her head. She could own a moment. Once she and I were eating brunch in the French Quarter before our panel at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. Mid-meal, we got into a friendly spat over which region was damaged more by Hurricane Katrina, I was defending my Mississippi Gulf Coast and she was taking up for her adopted hometown of New Orleans. I don’t remember who won, but at one time over the course of the brunch she noticed a notecard I was browsing over and made the comment, “Oh, you work from notes on a panel. I just wing it.” It was that last little friendly and fun schoolyard jab that one would deliver to a friend to get inside the head of their opponent before taking a potential game-winning putt. It didn’t bother me much because I knew I was going to be second banana on that stage anyway. 


Over that same brunch I spent a good bit of time trying to convince her that she should be on social media, a prompting in which she eventually gave in to, and— as with most any other thing she attempted to do in her life— one in which she excelled.


John Meachem, in his recent eulogy at Reed’s memorial service in Greenville described her as having, “a keener eye and a sharper sensibility.” To get the definitive take on Reed one should re-visit Meachem’s foreword in “South Towards Home.” Spot on perfect. 


I have never been able to bring myself to delete the iPhone contacts of friends who have passed. After the trip to Atlanta, I opened up several years of text threads on my phone chronicling my conversations with Reed. The last year or two of texts were of events she was inviting me to or breakfasts I was inviting her to. Most never happened. She commented several times on my social media posts when I was opening a small-batch donut shop and requested my King Cake Bread Pudding recipe for an article she was working on. I don’t know if that piece ever got published, but I was honored she thought so highly of that dessert.


The next to last text that I ever sent Julia was deep and apologetic on my end. It turned out to be several weeks before she passed away. Dunlap and Trigiani— our most mutual friends— hadn’t heard from her in a while. In retrospect I imagine things were winding down for her, health wise. I never received a response, but there was nothing unusual about that. I worry that she may have thought that I was having one of those clear-your-conscience-at-the-end talks. But honestly, I do this with my friends all the time, and I had no clue that she was only a few weeks away from leaving us for good. 


The life of Reed is filled with several published books, countless television appearances, major magazine interviews and all manner of panels and parties. But, to me, it can all be summed up on a coffee table in a posh neighborhood of a Northeastern party on a plate of cream cheese topped with pepper jelly. She might as well have been entertaining in her hometown of Greenville. Reed never left her roots. Ever. She celebrated those roots, and by the end of her life had moved back to the Delta she loved so dearly. 


William Dunlap, in the dedication of his book of short stories, Lying and Making a Living, wrote, "For Julia Reed, who lived her life with a fierceness that made sparks fly, illuminating all around her.”


To use an old and predictable cliché such as “one of a kind” when describing Julia Reed doesn’t do her life, work, charm, and strength of personality justice. But I have never known anyone whose overall persona was in the same galaxy as Reed’s. She was without equal, and we miss her still. I regret that I will never again be able to stand in a kitchen and pick through pots of peas and fried corn and talk about food, the South, and life.



It Ain’t a Party Until Someone Brings Out a Block of Cream Cheese


My friend, Julia Reed, says, “You would never see a naked block of cream cheese in the South. It will always be coated with one of at least three delicious things: Pickapeppa Sauce, Jezebel Sauce, or pepper jelly.” In honor of Julia, these recipes take the dumping-a-jar-of-pepper-jelly-on-top-of-a-block-of-cream-cheese staple to another level. Serve all three at once for a beautiful, colorful, and mouth-watering presentation.


1 8-ounce block cream cheese


Peach Topping


3 /4 cup peach preserves

1 /8 tsp cayenne pepper

1 /2 tsp crushed red pepper chili flakes

1 /4 tsp paprika

Pinch of salt


Combine ingredients. Top cream cheese with half of the mixture. Reserve other half to pour over cream cheese as the topping is consumed.



Orange Topping


3 /4 cup orange marmalade

1 Tbl horseradish

2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce

1 /4 tsp white pepper

1 Tbl sour cream


Combine ingredients. Top cream cheese with half of the mixture. Reserve other half to pour over cream cheese as the topping is consumed.



Blueberry Topping


3 /4 cup Blueberry Preserves

1 Tbl finely minced shallot

2 tsp balsamic vinegar

2 tsp cornstarch

1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

1 /8 tsp cayenne pepper


Heat preserves and shallots over medium heat until it begins to simmer. Combine vinegar with cornstarch and stir it into simmering preserves. Remove from the heat and stir in peppers. Cool completely. Top cream cheese with half of the mixture. Reserve other half to pour over cream cheese as the topping is consumed.




Anonymous said...

It's not a party unless someone serves cream cheese and toppings or a cheeseball or, at the very least, homemade pimiento cheese on Ritz crackers!

Fix the Pipes and Fill the Potholes said...

She was truly one of Mississippi's finest ambassadors...

Loye Cookingham said...

I loved reading her in Garden & Gun magazine. She absolutely represented the very best of Mississippi-wish I could have met her.

Anonymous said...

Julia Reed was a gem. St. John enjoys talking about where he’s been. Kind of vibes toward being all about himself. Not cool.

Jane said...

I only met her one time but she was a class act. I'm sure that being her friend must have been wonderful.

Anonymous said...

Julia was a class act.

The New York elite didn't know what to think of her, but she mesmerized all of em'.

RIP Ms. Reed !

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Trollfest '09

Trollfest '07 was such a success that Jackson Jambalaya will once again host Trollfest '09. Catch this great event which will leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Othor Cain and his band, The Black Power Structure headline the night while Sonjay Poontang returns for an encore performance. Former Frank Melton bodyguard Marcus Wright makes his premier appearance at Trollfest singing "I'm a Sweet Transvestite" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Kamikaze will sing his new hit, “How I sold out to da Man.” Robbie Bell again performs: “Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Bells” and “Any friend of Ed Peters is a friend of mine”. After the show, Ms. Bell will autograph copies of her mug shot photos. In a salute to “Dancing with the Stars”, Ms. Bell and Hinds County District Attorney Robert Smith will dance the Wango Tango.

Wrestling returns, except this time it will be a Battle Royal with Othor Cain, Ben Allen, Kim Wade, Haley Fisackerly, Alan Lange, and “Big Cat” Donna Ladd all in the ring at the same time. The Battle Royal will be in a steel cage, no time limit, no referee, and the losers must leave town. Marshand Crisler will be the honorary referee (as it gives him a title without actually having to do anything).

Meet KIM Waaaaaade at the Entergy Tent. For five pesos, Kim will sell you a chance to win a deed to a crack house on Ridgeway Street stuffed in the Howard Industries pinata. Don't worry if the pinata is beaten to shreds, as Mr. Wade has Jose, Emmanuel, and Carlos, all illegal immigrants, available as replacements for the it. Upon leaving the Entergy tent, fig leaves will be available in case Entergy literally takes everything you have as part of its Trollfest ticket price adjustment charge.

Donna Ladd of The Jackson Free Press will give several classes on learning how to write. Smearing, writing without factchecking, and reporting only one side of a story will be covered. A donation to pay their taxes will be accepted and she will be signing copies of their former federal tax liens. Ms. Ladd will give a dramatic reading of her two award-winning essays (They received The Jackson Free Press "Best Of" awards.) "Why everything is always about me" and "Why I cover murders better than anyone else in Jackson".

In the spirit of helping those who are less fortunate, Trollfest '09 adopts a cause for which a portion of the proceeds and donations will be donated: Keeping Frank Melton in his home. The “Keep Frank Melton From Being Homeless” booth will sell chances for five dollars to pin the tail on the jackass. John Reeves has graciously volunteered to be the jackass for this honorable excursion into saving Frank's ass. What's an ass between two friends after all? If Mr. Reeves is unable to um, perform, Speaker Billy McCoy has also volunteered as when the word “jackass” was mentioned he immediately ran as fast as he could to sign up.

In order to help clean up the legal profession, Adam Kilgore of the Mississippi Bar will be giving away free, round-trip plane tickets to the North Pole where they keep their bar complaint forms (which are NOT available online). If you don't want to go to the North Pole, you can enjoy Brant Brantley's (of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance) free guided tours of the quicksand field over by High Street where all complaints against judges disappear. If for some reason you are unable to control yourself, never fear; Judge Houston Patton will operate his jail where no lawyers are needed or allowed as you just sit there for minutes... hours.... months...years until he decides he is tired of you sitting in his jail. Do not think Judge Patton is a bad judge however as he plans to serve free Mad Dog 20/20 to all inmates.

Trollfest '09 is a pet-friendly event as well. Feel free to bring your dog with you and do not worry if your pet gets hungry, as employees of the Jackson Zoo will be on hand to provide some of their animals as food when it gets to be feeding time for your little loved one.

Relax at the Fox News Tent. Since there are only three blonde reporters in Jackson (being blonde is a requirement for working at Fox News), Megan and Kathryn from WAPT and Wendy from WLBT will be on loan to Fox. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both and a torn-up Obama yard sign will entitle you to free drinks served by Megan, Wendy, and Kathryn. Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required. Just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '09 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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Trollfest '07

Jackson Jambalaya is the home of Trollfest '07. Catch this great event which promises to leave NE Jackson & Fondren in flames. Sonjay Poontang and his band headline the night with a special steel cage, no time limit "loser must leave town" bout between Alan Lange and "Big Cat"Donna Ladd following afterwards. Kamikaze will perform his new song F*** Bush, he's still a _____. Did I mention there was no referee? Dr. Heddy Matthias and Lori Gregory will face off in the undercard dueling with dangling participles and other um, devices. Robbie Bell will perform Her two latest songs: My Best Friends are in the Media and Mama's, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be George Bell. Sid Salter of The Clarion-Ledger will host "Pin the Tail on the Trial Lawyer", sponsored by State Farm.

There will be a hugging booth where in exchange for your young son, Frank Melton will give you a loooong hug. Trollfest will have a dunking booth where Muhammed the terrorist will curse you to Allah as you try to hit a target that will drop him into a vat of pig grease. However, in the true spirit of Separate But Equal, Don Imus and someone from NE Jackson will also sit in the dunking booth for an equal amount of time. Tom Head will give a reading for two hours on why he can't figure out who the hell he is. Cliff Cargill will give lessons with his .80 caliber desert eagle, using Frank Melton photos as targets. Tackleberry will be on hand for an autograph session. KIM Waaaaaade will be passing out free titles and deeds to crackhouses formerly owned by The Wood Street Players.

If you get tired come relax at the Fox News Tent. To gain admittance to the VIP section, bring either your Republican Party ID card or a Rebel Flag. Bringing both will entitle you to free drinks.Get your tickets now. Since this is an event for trolls, no ID is required, just bring the hate. Bring the family, Trollfest '07 is for EVERYONE!!!

This is definitely a Beaver production.

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