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Cooking for Julia

Cheesy olives and a smoky homage to one of the greats

 

By Cynthia Adams

When the spunky Southern writer Julia Reed died in September, it felt personal.

Reed was a character in her own stories, a real hoot and a holler, as my Mama Patty would have said. Her columns, design books and sassy cookbooks (one title was inspired by her mama’s spiking sangria with a kick of vodka) showed a penchant for storytelling and squint-eyed observations. 

Her New Orleans homes — one on First Street and a post-divorce duplex in the Garden District — were crammed with books, family heirlooms, paintings, antiquities but also found-objects like bird nests and turtle shells. She even called the new pad a “Cabinet of Curiosities,” a habit wealthy Victorians famously kept.

Reed’s memoir, The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, was considered her best work. It was a love letter to post-Katrina New Orleans. (Reed’s Newsweek piece described a sign that advised NOLA looters: “Don’t Even Try. I am Sleeping Inside with a Big Dog, an Ugly Woman, Two Shotguns and a Claw Hammer.”)

Reed was classy — and wealthy — enough to upholster a pair of antique rattan chinoiserie sofas in hand-dyed silks. She bought vintage beauties from Magazine Street, where some of the South’s finest antiques wind up on offer. Her design sense was kicky and admired. 

She wrote One Man’s Folly about Furlow Gatewood, the gifted antiquarian who has restored several of the most beautiful homes to be found, gathering them all on his compound in Americus, Ga.

Reed not only knew Gatewood but stayed in one of his gorgeous homes, each of which are stuffed full of jaw-dropping treasures. They probably ate cheese straws, Gatewood’s favorite, and drank hard liquor. She no doubt brought her own deviled eggs and cheesy olives, which were touted in surprising places like The New York Times.

Cheesy olives, it was said, are the first party fare to be scarfed down.

The week she died of cancer at age 59, we were seeing two friends for Covid cocktails. It was time to drop my envy of Reed, her cool houses, great writing gigs and friendship with 95-year-old Gatewood, my celebrity crush.

I pored over her top five recipes, which the Gray Lady republished, determining to pay homage to Reed.

Even though her father was a Republican operative who worked for the Bush family, she was always diplomatic and her humor was bipartisan.

Once asked about a pol’s chances during a tony Washington, D.C. book tour, sipping vodka-infused sangria from a blue highball glass, Reed quoted Louisiana’s Edwin Edwards: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” 

The room dissolved in guffaws, because no matter where you stand on party lines, that was a bon mot.

(Actually, it qualified as a sangria-infused wet quip.)

But I digress. Cheesy olives sounded a lot like pigs in a blanket at first reading. Except, the dough, in addition to flour and egg, contains a block of cheddar and a hunk of butter. (And there is no pig.)

This was to be the virgin run of a stand mixer, bought years ago because of the rare color, a Chinese Chippendale green. It looked good on the counter.

Thus, learning why, a dough hook, which this mixer didn’t have, is a thing. Cheesy dough clumped like a primordial life form to the beaters, with gleaming chunks of butter grinning through.

Wrestling the goopy dough from the beaters, I fashioned it around each Spanish olive. The results resembled The Little Prince illustrations.   

I pried them off my fingers onto a cookie tray. The whole shebang required nearly an hour’s labor, the oven preheating most of those slow-moving minutes.

The oven was hot enough to singe off my eyelashes, brows and fine facial hair.   

Next up: Reed’s exemplary pralines.

I substituted light brown sugar in the recipe. Measuring, mixing and anticipating the first taste of those olives — I beavered on with the candy.

The whining mixer was nearly up to the task of folding evaporated milk into butter, pecans and sugar.

I mixed and mixed some more.

In the minutes stolen for a swift bathroom break, smoke had begun to billow from the oven. As in, call the fire station billows.

Turning off the oven I snapped on the oven light; the cheesy olives were pancake flat, bubbling in a screed of oil. That is, what oil wasn’t now pooled in the bottom of the oven.

It was as if I had just laid eight ounces of cheddar cheese and two ounces of butter on the oven’s bottom and hit “incinerate!”

The roiling smoke grew denser. I hesitated a second before opening the oven to grab the pan (rimless, another big mistake) and sprinted outside, our two dogs leaping and trying to get a good look.

After much swearing and flapping of towels and deployment of a floor fan, the kitchen smoke began to clear.

“I have always said that danger — or at least the possibility of it — is a crucial element of any good party,” observed Reed.

I was succeeding on that score.

The pralines would cook stove top, thank God.

I grimly set to melting sugar and copious amounts of butter in a double boiler. Standing over it with a cooking thermometer to gauge the perfect temperature, I couldn’t help but cuss a little. (I’d heard of good cooks who deliberately falsified recipes so nobody could steal their thunder.)

It was suspicious, how much fat burbled out of those disastrous olives, is all I’m saying. Then I noted: There was no mention of a double boiler.

With lined pans waiting, I finally spooned up the praline goo. Being no fool, I knew better than to make candy on a rainy day; it was dry as a bone outside. But — the pralines never achieved the glistening appearance Reed described.

No matter, I scraped the last, suspiciously granular bits off the side of the saucepan and tasted, burning my index finger and tongue. Yep. They were granular alright.

Setting up rapidly, the pralines looked more like coconut stacks from Cracker Barrel.

They did not look like pralines.

Earlier, we had made boiled peanuts, more Southern fare, and in a pique, I decided to make a cold soup.

The cheesy olives were misshapen lumps and the pralines were weird. But the peanuts were heavenly. I plunked them in a silver bowl and served up the whole shebang on good platters. Somewhere in the great beyond, Reed was having a belly laugh.  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine.

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