By Julia Reed
St. Martin’s Press, 2013
Maybe it’s the memory of a bus ride west on Highway 82 through the Mississippi Delta one fall evening several years ago that makes Julia Reed’s book so endearing for me. As we headed toward the Mississippi River town of Greenville for a tamale and steak dinner at Doe’s Eat Place on a food-filled field trip with members of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Julia Reed told stories.
Since then, I’ve read all her books: Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties; Queen of the Turtle Derby; The House on First Street. As is the case with those three, her latest, But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria: Adventures in Eating, Drinking, and Making Merry, gives you the sense that you’re along for the ride, whether the location is Madrid or Mississippi. Julia Reed’s skill as a storyteller almost makes you forget you’re reading. She’s with you, it seems, observing a world filtered through Southern sensibilities.
Historian James Cobb, in an oft-quoted line, called Julia Reed’s Mississippi Delta region “the most Southern place on earth.” Two of the defining qualities of the South are its food and its humor. Julia Reed labels herself “food-obsessed” without apology. Julia Reed once cancelled her own wedding but went right ahead with the already-paid-for honeymoon in France. And she lived to laugh about it.
Reed’s sense of the absurd and appreciation for incongruity rival her passion for eggplant and casseroles topped off with Ritz crackers. She relates a story about fellow Greenville writer Walker Percy discussing “The Incredible Hulk” with Eudora Welty. An exorbitant bill for a meal at a French restaurant reminds Reed of something her father said about an expensive ski trip the family once made to Aspen: “Next year, we don’t even have to go—I can get the same effect standing in a cold shower burning up thousand-dollar bills.”
The book’s title, Reed says, reflects the “expansive” way she and her friends were brought up. For a party in the French Quarter of New Orleans, a friend takes over the making of the sangria. When Reed returns after a 20-minute check on the food in the kitchen, she finds “most of the guests in varying degrees of disarray.”
Each chapter of Reed’s new book ends with recipes. The simplest, she says, is one for watermelon rind pickles wrapped in bacon and baked. “People go crazy for it,” she adds.
Southern food, Reed writes, is the “Great Leveler.” There is no better example than hot tamales, ubiquitous in her Mississippi Delta homeland.
“Hot tamales are beloved by rich and poor, black and white, and they are easily accessible at roadside stands, cafes, and restaurants,” she writes. Served for takeout in coffee cans, they are a specialty of Doe’s, the Italian-owned former grocery store known for its steaks that start out at two pounds. It was at Doe’s, Reed says, where she ate her first solid food.
Despite her frequent trips to distant parts of the world, writing for Vogue and Newsweek, Reed never loses touch with the Delta. “There is no shame in the occasional canned or packaged ingredient,” she writes. One of the book’s most memorable scenes features Reed pulling out of her parents’ driveway in Greenville in the summertime, with her mother, Judy Reed, running toward the car toting another armload of corn right out of the garden.
Among Reed’s favorite cookbooks is one written by singer Pearl Bailey. Reed marvels that Bailey devotes two entire pages to making the perfect cup of coffee.
Blended skillfully with Reed’s humorous description of Southern culture and attitudes is fascinating food and drink history. For a quick course on bourbon, she points to an opinion by Judge Boyce F. Martin Jr., from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Martin had ruled in favor of Kentucky’s Maker’s Mark Distillery in a case involving a tequila company’s creation of a seal very similar to the well-known red wax used by Maker’s since the 1950s.
Without shame, Reed reports that she once worked at a McDonald’s and that Big Mac sauce has the same effect on her that madeleines had on French writer Marcel Proust. The sauce triggers memory—in Reed’s case, of Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne and Reed’s Mustang convertible. “I still occasionally crave a McDonald’s burger,” Reed admits.
In fact, memory, in addition to humor and flavor, is the third element that makes this book so rich. Reed recalls attending a wedding in Cashiers, North Carolina, where cell phone service was intermittent. At first she was annoyed, but by the end of the visit, she was “almost sick when I heard the familiar beeps signifying reentry into what passes for civilization.”
She remembers the text from an old postcard: “It’s a tricky business, catching summer, carving out time that adds up to a string of lazy days.”
She quotes novelist Henry James, who wrote that “summer afternoon” were the two most beautiful words in the English language. Reed’s book captures the essence of those “lazy days” and the necessity of slowing down to talk and visit, with full plates and brimming glasses in hand.
Fred Sauceman is senior writer at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.