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Julia Reed, journalist and author who chronicled Southern foodways, dies at 59

Julia Reed in 2018, at the New Orleans restaurant Pêche. (Paul Costello)

Julia Reed, a Mississippi native who wrote about presidential politics and fashion for Vogue before emerging as an irreverent and stylish chronicler of Southern life and food, died Aug. 28 at a hospital in Newport, R.I. She was 59.

The cause was cancer, said her friend and business partner Keith Smythe Meacham. Ms. Reed had been diagnosed with the disease about three years ago and was vacationing in Rhode Island when she died.

Ms. Reed was both a humorous, elegant writer and a consummate entertainer and hostess, known for praising bourbon pecan pie and pimento cheese in print, then inviting friends and colleagues over for a dove-hunt breakfast, sandbar picnic or fried-chicken feast at her homes in New Orleans or Greenville, Miss.

“She had a sense of humor that was both sharp and sweet, stinging and forgiving at the same time,” Ms. Reed’s former Newsweek colleague Howard Fineman said after her death. “She could drink a Hurricane, and was one.”

The only daughter of a Republican kingmaker in the Mississippi Delta, Ms. Reed was initially known for her writing about political figures such as Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards, “a craps player noted for his love of beautiful women and his use of gambling aliases such as ‘T. Wong.’ ”

Her 1999 Newsweek portrait of the marriage between Laura and George W. Bush reported that “one night, as they pulled into their driveway, he asked her how his speech had been. ‘It wasn’t very good,’ she replied. He drove into the garage wall. They’ve both grown a lot since then.”

Ms. Reed later wrote about food and culture for publications including the New York Times, Elle Decor and Garden & Gun, where she became a contributing editor and columnist in 2008. The magazine had appealed to her, she told Washingtonian magazine, partly because it covered all aspects of Southern life aside from “the two most divisive things” in the region: politics and college football.

“Whether her subject was Scotch whiskey, the opossum, or the mad politics, mournful music, and out-of-the-way cafes and bars of the South, Julia unerringly found the universal in the particular,” author Jon Meacham, the husband of Keith, wrote in a Garden & Gun tribute. “In a way, she was a foreign correspondent in her own land, filing dispatches about the sacred and the profane — and revealing, often subtly, the porous border between the two.”

Ms. Reed wrote an oral history of the movie and play “Steel Magnolias,” written by her friend Robert Harling, and reported on her road trips across the Delta with another friend, actress Jessica Lange. But much of her work came to focus on food, including the simple pleasures of homemade mayonnaise, summer squash casserole or sausage balls made with the country-style sausage promoted by singer George Jones.

Her eight books included titles like “But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria” (2013) and “Julia Reed’s South” (2016), which mixed recipes with personal essays and recollections, including her mother’s advice to “just serve something that tastes good.”

“It is not a cookbook for ingredient purists — recipes call for packaged items like Pepperidge Farm Very Thin white bread and Uncle Ben’s Original Converted Rice,” Margaux Laskey wrote in a Times review. Ms. Reed, she added, “extols the virtues of serving Popeye’s fried chicken at dinner parties with Champagne. But in the age of D.I.Y. everything, hers is a refreshing if not entirely artisanal approach.”

Ms. Reed said she had never thought to write about food before holding a party for Vogue colleagues in Manhattan, where the menu included ham biscuits and tenderloin on yeast rolls. “The New Yorkers apparently had never seen such fare and they went nuts,” she told Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger newspaper. “The next morning an editor from the New York Times magazine who had been at the party called and asked me if I wanted a job.”

As Ms. Reed told the story, her career had been charmed almost from the beginning. She got her first major byline in 1980 while interning at Newsweek as a sophomore at Georgetown University, where she awoke in her dorm room one morning to a phone call. The magazine’s Washington bureau chief wanted her to leave immediately for her alma mater, the Madeira girls’ preparatory school in Northern Virginia.

“When I asked him why on earth, he barked, ‘You idiot, your headmistress just shot the diet doctor,’ ” Ms. Reed recalled in a Garden & Gun column.

Jean Harris, the Madeira headmistress, had killed her former lover Herman Tarnower, a cardiologist who had created the Scarsdale weight-loss diet. Ms. Reed drove to the school’s McLean campus and dashed off the story.

[Jean S. Harris, who gained fame for killing her celebrity lover, dies at 89]

“I was nineteen,” she later wrote, “and only the tiniest bit sorry that the good doctor had given his life in service to my future as a journalist.”

The oldest of three children, Julia Evans Reed was born in Greenville on Sept. 11, 1960. Her father, Clarke Reed, ran an agriculture company, chaired the state Republican Party and was described in a 1976 New York Times profile as “one of the Republicans’ most important operatives in the South.”

Conservative figures such as William F. Buckley Jr. and Spiro T. Agnew frequented the home, where Ms. Reed’s mother, the former Judy Brooks, hosted late-night cocktail parties and taught her daughter the art of entertaining. She had studied at Madeira and later encouraged Julia to attend the school.

Ms. Reed enrolled at Georgetown but completed her bachelor’s degree in political science at American University, where she graduated in 1984. After working at the Orlando Sentinel and U.S. News & World Report, she joined Vogue in 1988 as a features editor. She was soon writing as well, notably covering luxury fashion retailer “Miss Martha” Phillips: “She pats, she clucks, she says ‘Heddo’ in that adorable twenties way.”

“She cared about every word choice, every comma,” David DiBenedetto, editor in chief of Garden & Gun, tweeted after Ms. Reed’s death. “One of our last conversations was from a hospital bed where she took me to task for changing an adjective. She, as usual, was right.”

“The magic of her writing was that she invited readers into the party, handed them a drink, and then turned up the music,” he said in an email. “We were all voyeurs, in a way, her readers and editors, to a life so much larger — and more fun — than our own.”

Ms. Reed’s marriage to John Pearce, an oil-and-gas lawyer, ended in divorce. Survivors include her parents, both of Greenville, and a brother.

In recent years Ms. Reed split her time between New Orleans and Greenville, where she helped promote and expand the annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival and opened a bookstore. She also partnered with Keith Smythe Meacham to found Reed Smythe & Co., which sells home and garden goods made by Southern artisans.

“I had a wonderful, rich life and career as a journalist in Washington and New York. But after a while, I missed my native land,” she told an interviewer in 2018, explaining her decision to move back to the mossy oak-filled land of her childhood.

“When I returned home for visits, I’d rent the biggest car I could find in Memphis — even though in those days there was a plane from Memphis to Greenville — roll down the windows and blare the air, and breathe in that inimitable Delta scent of soil and pesticide. I swear it was like heaven.”

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