News & Politics

Julia Reed Talks Southern Hospitality and Breaking Into Journalism

The writer appears at the Washington Winter Show this week to discuss her new book.

Julia Reed and her new book, But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria. Photographs courtesy of Reed.

Julia Reed is a clever, often caustic writer and observer who rarely has a point of view not firmly anchored in her Southern roots. Whether the topic is food, politics, or fashion she’s so sharp, and so confident of her cultural wisdom, that she might come across as a snarky professor of the Southern arts were it not for her rich humor—which is often directed at herself. Think the late, irreverent Christopher Hitchens but sauced with molasses.

While Reed was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and makes her home most of the time in New Orleans, she has a strong Washington connection. Like her mother and aunt before her, she attended the Madeira School near McLean. She started college at Georgetown University before graduating from American, and launched her journalism career in the Washington bureau of Newsweek magazine. In the past she has taken up residence in New York, where she was an editor and writer at Vogue, but remains Southern to the core. While she is still with Newsweek and her food stories appear in the New York Times Magazine, she is also a contributor to the fashionable (and—her word—“soulful”) Garden & Gun magazine.

Reed will be in Washington Thursday through Saturday to participate in the annual Washington Winter Show, the theme of which this year is Southern Celebrations: Traditions Handed Down. Reed is the featured speaker at a Saturday lecture at the Katzen Arts Center at American University. The lecture and the antiques show are open to the public. The fee for Reed’s 2 PM lecture, $40, includes the show catalogue and daily admission. Not too far removed from the theme of “traditions,” a focus of her talk will be her new book, But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria.

We spoke with Reed on Monday, while she was visiting family on the Florida Gulf Coast and worrying about just how cold it would be when she arrives in Washington. We assured her the worst would be over—temperatures Thursday are forecast to be a balmy 40 degrees.

Read on for more of our conversation.

Tell us about your Washington connection.

When I was at Madeira in my junior and senior years of high school [ Washington Post and Newsweek publisher] Katharine Graham, who had gone to Madeira, offered a steady gig to anyone who wanted to be an intern at Newsweek. It was 1977. I worked in the library, which is what Google and Nexis are now.

You had a notorious headmaster at Madeira.

Our last year it was Jean Harris. I knew then she was crazy. Cut to three years later, I’m slumbering through class, and the [ Newsweek] bureau chief calls me and says “Get out to Madeira right now. Your former headmistress just shot and killed Dr. [Herman] Tarnower, the diet doctor. The guard, who knew me well, let me on the school grounds. That was my first byline in Newsweek, my big break. I’m sorry that Dr. Tarnower had to lose his life for my career.

Do you call New Orleans home?

It’s an adopted home. In fact, when I say “home” I catch myself because I still say Greenville, even though I haven’t lived there since I went off to Madeira.

How far along is the city in its recovery from the flood after Hurricane Katrina?

The parts of New Orleans that aren’t fine are the parts that weren’t fine before the storm. You still have income disparity that’s pretty dramatic. The good news, even for the poorest folks in town, is that one of the silver linings of Katrina—and there were many—was just to “bomb” parts of the city and start over. Now the school systems, which were dysfunctional, have a chance. There are almost twice as many restaurants and bars, and they are moving further afield to neighborhoods that are getting revitalized.

Could New Orleans now endure a flood situation such as happened after Katrina? Is the infrastructure strong enough?

I wouldn’t put my faith in the Corps of Engineers. It was an entirely man-made flood. But there has been a hell of a lot of oversight since then. It was a big wake-up call for the citizens of New Orleans. Still, it’s never great to put your faith entirely in your government.

Washington is south of the Mason-Dixon line, but would you say it’s a Southern or Northern city?

Southern. Having said that, it is such a city unto itself. When I was a kid coming to Washington with my father in the ’60s it was more Southern. The entertaining in Georgetown was more Southern in style. You don’t see that anymore—with the exception of Sally Quinn. There’s a grace that was Southern that the city sorely needs now.

The map aside, what characteristics define being Southern?

It comes from being stomped on a little bit. We have distance from ourselves. 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 numbers of writers.

Also, these new, chic trends you see, like farm-to-table. The South was doing that sort of out of necessity.

Virginia governor-elect Terry McAuliffe has his home base is Northern Virginia, near where you went to school, and he won with a lot of Northern Virginia votes. But won’t he be a more Northern influence?

Yeah. In all my years of watching Terry McAuliffe I never saw any Southern traits. But you have slicker politicians now. It wasn’t until far into my lifetime that [the South] started to get governors who weren’t embarrassing and send senators to Washington who weren’t embarrassing.

Was South Carolina’s Mark Sanford an embarrassment?

Mark Sanford was an embarrassment to Mark Sanford. But I’ll give him this: Unlike other politicians who were misbehaving at the same time—Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer—at least Mark Sanford actually fell in love. He had a momentary lapse of passion, but he wasn’t texting [pictures of] body parts to people he’d never seen before.

The prevailing cultural trend is hipster. Where, if at all, do hipster and hospitable merge?

I just hate the word “hipster.” It’s getting so precious. I’m tired of walking into restaurants where the decor is so decidedly hip. It’s old news. Hospitality is pretty simple. It shouldn’t be contrived. Why Southerners have hospitality down in spades is because you had people come to your house for parties and stay forever. You do it with a certain grace and style. My dreaded word in New York is “table talk”—just when you’re having a good time and talking to your neighbor. It’s a forced march. It’s really awful. Phony as hell.

Could you ever tire of writing about food?

It might be the one thing I wouldn’t get tired of writing about. It relates to everything we do. When I write about food I don’t just write about food.

What’s the appeal of Garden & Gun ?

Thick paper, great photography, great writers like Roy Blount. They cover stuff that, at the end of the day, is about how people live. It’s a window into a soulful place, but it’s entertaining. The only things we’re not going to cover are politics and college football, because those are the two most divisive things in the South.

Do you frequent antiques shows such as the Washington show that’s coming up? Do you collect?

I collect almost anything in front of me. I’m a great consumer. I love antiques shows. I’ve heard about the Washington show forever.

To make sangria with vodka, what’s the secret?

You gotta buy my book and get the recipe, girl.