Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

You may know Julia Reed as the quintessential Southern party host, author of six gorgeous party-inspired tomes, and the talented scribe who reports on Southern style for media outlets like Garden & Gun, Elle Décor, Vogue, and Southern Living. Or perhaps you know her as the culinary master of the high-low mix—think fried chicken and Dom Pérignon—who was named twice to The Salonniere 100, our annual list of America’s 100 best party hosts. Regardless y’all, the trick is to know her and, if you’re really lucky, to snag an invitation to a supper at her chic New Orleans digs. Today, we’re tickled pink to have Julia in the salon, sharing everything from her best entertaining tips and favorite party products to her Turkey Day must-haves and the mouth-watering recipes she says will have your guests begging for leftovers. Read on and savor every delicious morsel of her visit.

Let’s start with your love of the South, which shines through in all your writing. How would you describe Southern party-giving? What makes it unique?

Southern hosts and hostesses subscribe to the theory that more is more—there’s always an abundance of food and drink and flowers. Even if you’re just having a couple of people over for a quick drink, there’s invariably a full bar, along with a plate of homemade cheese straws or a bowl of roasted pecans. There’s a lavishness about Southern parties, but that doesn’t mean they’re over-the-top or “fancy”. It’s more about graciousness and a desire to show your guests genuine hospitality and warmth. We tend to entertain because we want to have some fun ourselves. Or at least I do!

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

What is your top party must-have?

Make sure the food is good. By this I do not mean that you have to make like Julia Child. There’s a whole section in Julia Reed’s South about where to get good take-out fried chicken and the best frozen biscuits. The renowned political columnist and Georgetown host Joseph Alsop used to have his cook cram a couple of Stouffer’s spinach soufflés into his Sheffield soufflé dish. I mean, who doesn’t like Stouffer’s? His ex-wife and one of my entertaining mentors, the late author and hostess extraordinaire Susan Mary Alsop, used to serve perfectly fried, thick pieces of bacon as hors d’oeuvres—so delicious and salty enough to keep the drinks flowing. Dinner was always rare roast beef, watercress salad, and something hot and cheesy like feta in phyllo pastry. Dessert was impeccable—Floating Islands. At her parties, ideas, matters of state, and conversation were the thing. The food wasn’t necessarily the main attraction, but had it been bad, it would have been distracting. No one can solve the problems of the world—or be remotely charming—when eating something overwrought or bland or just plain terrible.

Many of the recipes in your books are inspired by your mother and upbringing in the Mississippi Delta. Is there a signature meal that you prepare for her and other loved ones in your inner circle?

The V.D. Dinner (which stands for Visiting Dignitary and is a chapter in Julia Reed’s South) remains a standby. My mother first served it for some visiting dignitaries when I was a kid, and now it’s my friends’ and family’s favorite meal to celebrate birthdays, good news, or just being together. It features a classic rib-eye roast or tenderloin with accompaniments, a spinach gratin, consommé rice, and a decadent Charlotte Russe for dessert. It’s unapologetically old-fashioned, which somehow enhances its celebratory aspect.

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

A haven for entertaining, Julia’s living room features an eclectic mix of conversation pieces, including a Chinese Chippendale sofa once owned by her mother and grandmother, a pair of Regency settees, and Indian accent tables. Photo: One Kings Lane

Like your décor, your menus often feature a mélange of vibrant and somewhat unexpected items. What are some unique pairings that both delight the palate and surprise guests?

My friend, the brilliant chef Jeremiah Tower, has written about two such pairings that I’ve tried with much success—and happiness! One is the unlikely pairing of a rare standing rib roast with a Chateau d’Yquem, possibly the world’s greatest Sauterne, which is typically served with dessert or fruit or foie gras. The combo is nothing short of mind-blowing, but you need to invite only the most discerning and appreciative of your friends! Also, like Jeremiah, I love a perfect medium-rare hamburger (preferably on a buttered and toasted English Muffin with a slice of Comte cheese), accompanied by the best red Burgundy you can afford. The wine elevates the seemingly mundane to the sublime.

How do you stay party-ready? What do you always keep stocked in your pantry?

I always stock at least a half-dozen jars of watermelon rind pickles. Wrap them in bacon (which I always have in my fridge) and run them in the oven for the world’s most delicious and easy hors d’oeuvres. The recipe is in Julia Reed’s South, and I am telling you, people chase the trays around. There are also always pecan halves in the freezer. Toss them with melted butter and salt, roast them, and toss again with white pepper, and you have the perfect drinks-table snack. And they keep a long time in a tin, once made. Mary B’s or Marshall’s (my faves) biscuits are another staple of my freezer. And eggs are always in my fridge. If you have those two items, along with the aforementioned bacon, plus some good homemade preserves or jam, you have the makings of breakfast, brunch, or a super easy and surprisingly elegant supper. Just add Champagne!

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

Photo: Hector Sanchez for Southern Living

Giving Thanks with Julia Reed

What’s your favorite way to celebrate Thanksgiving?

I think Thanksgiving demands tradition more than any other holiday. So I always make an attempt to try and celebrate it like that very first one: gathered around a table, grateful to be alive, and thankful for the people next to you and the food in front of you. Also, like those early settlers, I prefer to celebrate outside if the weather cooperates. One year in New Orleans, about 20 of us gathered around a long table underneath the most perfect deep blue sky. The menu featured the abundant shellfish and game the New Englanders enjoyed, so we grilled oysters, venison sausages, and wild duck sausages before moving on to the table and the now-traditional turkey (though in keeping with the spirit of things, they were wild ones from one of my favorite sources, D’Artagnan).

How will you celebrate Thanksgiving this year?

This year I’ll be in Nashville, which is really a home away from home for me—my mother grew up in Belle Meade, and I spent summers and most holidays there with my grandparents and lots of extended family.  These days, my close friends Keith and Jon Meacham live there, too. Keith and I have entertained together since we both lived in New York, so this year we’re joining forces.

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

Photo: Hector Sanchez for Southern Living

What will be on and around your Thanksgiving table?

A couple of years ago, I did a photo shoot for Southern Living on the grounds of the Meachams’ gorgeous Georgian house. It was a hunt breakfast, but the season was the same, and Keith and I loved the table setting so much we’re going to replicate it for Thanksgiving. We moved the inlaid wooden sideboard from the dining room outside to a small boxwood garden and set up a Bloody Mary bar with a big silver pitcher of my mother’s Bloody Mary mix (the secret is that it’s at least one-third lime juice). An eight-foot table was set up on the lawn, covered in a cloth made from my friend Suzanne Rheinstein’s gorgeous green-and-brown Gore House fabric and set with Keith’s Spode Woodland china, which is perfect for the occasion. There were maroon dahlias and apricot roses on the table in a pair of Champagne buckets “borrowed” from my mother, and we’ll replicate that floral palette for sure, adding a few pumpkins and gourds this time around.

And what will you be serving?

At Thanksgiving, I often do sautéed oysters (with Meyer lemon and country ham or prosciutto—sooo good!) in a chafing dish accompanied by toast points as an hors d’oeuvres for people to nibble while fixing drinks. The feast itself will include the classics—a turkey, the cornbread dressing that was always served at Keith’s and my childhood Thanksgiving feasts in the Mississippi Delta, and scalloped oysters from Julia Reed’s South. I am a huge fan of sweet potatoes, but even as a kid I hated that ubiquitous and overly sweet marshmallow-topped casserole. Instead, I make a savory sweet potato gratin with herb-infused cream and Gruyère cheese—it’s in But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria—and so yummy. We’ll also have the homemade cranberry sauce from the same book, along with yeast rolls and at least two pies, including a rum pecan and a classic chess.  The eldest Meacham daughter, Mary, is my goddaughter, and she loves to bake. We’ll have some fun together in their very fab kitchen.

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

Photo: Hector Sanchez for Southern Living

What are your best tips for preparing a Thanksgiving feast?

Well, the very top tip seems like an obvious one, but it can’t be reiterated enough: if you can make a dish ahead of time, do it!  Also, a little forced merriment never hurts at holidays. One year, I asked everyone to dress with some nod to either the Pilgrims or their Native American guests. I was stunned by the efforts people made. There were construction paper headdresses and those made from actual feathers. My friend Joan Griswold, a talented artist (and, as it turns out, seamstress) whipped up a full Pilgrim’s get-up, complete with a big white collar and a hat, while her husband, the author and humorist Roy Blount, took the easy but hilarious way out and tied a garish artificial cornucopia from the grocery store onto his beloved New Orleans Saints cap with a big bow. There is nothing like making your own fun. Finally, take care that your menu does not descend into mush—there’s such a thing as too many casseroles, and do you really need a half-dozen starches? (I have never understood the point of serving both sweet potatoes and mashed white potatoes, for example.) Unless you want people passing out at the table, give them something sprightly to offset the overload. My mother always has a salad of Boston lettuce and avocado and grapefruit, which manages to cut the mush factor nicely. I often make a quickly sautéed “slaw” of diced Brussels sprouts in a compound butter that includes a healthy dose of Dijon mustard, lemon, and lively tender herbs like dill, chives, and tarragon. Last year, I tossed fresh persimmon slices with peppery arugula from the farmer’s market in a citrusy honey vinaigrette and sprinkled in pomegranate seeds. It was a huge hit.

What are your go-to items for dressing up a holiday spread?

No matter the year or locale, Thanksgiving is an especially good time to pull out the family treasures. If you don’t set your table with your grandmother’s Baccarat water goblets and your best wine glasses, linens, silver and porcelain on Thanksgiving, when will you ever do it?  Let’s give thanks to our ancestors and all those monogrammed damask napkins they left us!

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

What are this year’s top holiday entertaining trends?

I think a whole lot of people will do what I suggest above and lay a pretty and fairly traditional table with all their best “stuff”. In fraught times like these, there is solace to be found in tradition, in laying the table like your mother and grandmother did. I swear, at this point, if I could find my mother’s old turkey candles from my childhood, I’d put them on the table!

Playing Favorites with Julia Reed

Favorite entertaining books (in addition to Lee Bailey’s Country Weekends, which you credit in the introduction in Julia Reed’s South)?  

Well, I have at least a dozen more Lee Bailey books. And I started entertaining in earnest about the same time the first Chez Panisse cookbook came out, Chez Panisse Menu Cooking, which was revolutionary at the time. I still use its brine recipe for a pork loin (who knew until then that you should always brine pork for a luscious, juicy roast??!!). I still make that now-classic (and pretty perfect) warm goat cheese salad, the lentil salad is one of my outdoor entertaining staples, and I learned a ton about seasonal food combinations and menu planning. I also refer a lot to Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli and the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook by Alice Waters and David Tanis (who now writes a terrific column in the New York Times Food Section). For dessert, I probably refer to Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsay Shere more than anything else. Clearly, I’m loyal! I’m also a huge fan of the talented L.A. chef Suzanne Goin. I adore her restaurants and I’m constantly inspired by her Sunday Suppers at Lucques cookbook. Oh, and all my River Café cookbooks from the eponymous London restaurant are stain-splattered and dog-eared, proof of my near constant reliance on them.

Favorite place to hunt for tabletop treasures?

For antique furniture and decorative objects (everything from mirrors to giant tortoise shells), my go-to dealers are Ann Koerner and Karla Katz. Lucullus, owned by my dear friend Patrick Dunne, is the most amazing shrine to culinary antiques ever created. Over my many years of shopping there I’ve collected heavy French glassware, over-sized monogrammed napkins, countless horn and silver cups, gorgeous copper pots and serving pieces, handsome wine-tasting tables (they fold flat and are great to have on hand for extra seating), and on and on. There’s also a shop called Aux Belles Chose that has old and new linens and a trove of vintage terracotta pots that I love to fill with herbs and line up and down a table. They also stock fun vintage fish sets and fruit forks and knives that are great to give as gifts.

Favorite online entertaining resource?

D’Artagnan for the best fresh duck, duck confit, pâtés, foie gras, chanterelles, and more. Jamison Farm has the best lamb in the country, and I cook a lot of lamb.

 Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

Favorite hostess gift to give?

One of my favorite festive cocktails is the Champagne Cocktail with Grapefruit Bitters in Julia Reed’s South. I often give the makings as a gift in a canvas bottle bag or tote: Brut Champagne, Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters, and La Perruche sugar cubes. In the same vein, I might make a batch of mint simple syrup and give it as a present in a Mason jar along with a bottle of small-batch bourbon—just add fresh mint and crushed ice and you have a perfect mint julep!

Favorite hot sauce?

Tabasco or Crystal, depending on the dish.

Favorite dinnerware?

Herend and Old Paris and Blue Willow, all of which I mix and match.

Favorite glassware?

I usually combine the heavy 19th-century French wine glasses and Champagne flutes I’ve collected from Lucullus with more modern streamlined glassware from Reidel (for wine) and CB2 (for water). The latter comes in great colors.

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

Favorite flatware?

I have a set of Trifid, an English pattern I adore for its elegance and simplicity, as well as a pile of heavy antique Fiddle and Thread found at Lucullus and various stalls on Portobello Road in London. And I borrow my mother’s Fiddle, Thread, and Shell a lot!

Favorite table linens?

I inherited a trove of proper linens from my grandmother, and I use them frequently. I adore the heavy oversized vintage napkins from LuculIus. And I often use upholstery fabrics as cloths—everything from a simple ticking or check to something more elaborate, like Gore House, which comes in the most wonderful shades of green and brown. I last used it on an outdoor table set with my Herend Rothschild Bird china.

Favorite caterer, if you’re not doing your own cooking?

You can never go wrong with my dear friend Donald Link’s Calcasieu in New Orleans. They do some of the best food in the country. But in a pinch, I am not above resorting to Popeye’s!

Julia Reed Shares Her Southern Soiree Secrets

Flowers by Dunn and Sonnier, one of Julia’s favorite florists. Photo: Dunn and Sonnier

Favorite florist?

In New Orleans, both Dunn and Sonnier [a Les Pages honoree] and Mitch’s Flowers do a fabulous job. But boy, do I miss the wholesale flower district in New York. I recently gave a wedding lunch for a close friend who got married in Bedford, and I had such fun doing the flowers from the magical troves on West 28th.

Favorite stationer?

The sisters who run Scriptura in New Orleans have made marvelous invites and menu cards for me using everything from a friend’s book jacket to paintings or photos I bring in. Erika Jack, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, also does seriously beautiful custom place cards, menu cards, and invitations.

Favorite powder room candle?

Diptyque Tubereuse or Feu de Bois (the latter going into the holidays, especially).

Favorite powder room soap: 

Roger & Gallet Fleur d’Osmanthus or Bois d’Orange.

Finally, tell us how you would complete this sentence. You know you’ve been to a Julia Reed party when…

I won’t speak for my own guests, but I know I’ve been to a swell party when I wake up remembering a yummy bite of something, an idea I want to borrow, or a fun or flirty encounter with someone I want to get to know better.

Well, Julia, getting to know you better has certainly been all of those things and more. Thanks for stopping by.  

Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by New Orleans photographer Paul Costello.

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