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 born one year apart).
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 for Julia 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 when doing 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.
This week’s recipe: It Ain’t a Party Until Someone Brings Out A Block of Cream Cheese