- Posted by Johanna on March 31, 2013 at 11:26 am
- Category: Books and Prose, Recipes and Food
- CREDITS: by Ann B. Ross
- PUBLISHER: Viking; $26.95 US
I wasn’t previously familiar with the Miss Julia series of Southern novels. The new installment, Miss Julia Stirs Up Trouble, is due out next week; it’s the 14th (!) in the run. (The full list can be seen at author Ann B. Ross’ website.)
I believe I was asked to talk about this volume because of its food connection. Miss Julia is a well-meaning upper-class remarried widow in a small North Carolina town, the kind whose Presbyterianism requires good deeds and upholding the way things have always been done while gossiping with women like her and their kitchen help to figure out what’s really going on. In this installment, her neighbor Hazel Marie is overcome by trying to take care of twin babies and her husband while her housekeeper is laid up by a broken wrist. Because Hazel Marie can’t cook, Miss Julia hatches a plan. She’s going to ask the women of the town to come over, fix a meal for Hazel Marie and her family, teach her how it’s done, and assemble the recipes into a cookbook gift.
As we’re told in the first few pages, Hazel Marie is Miss Julia’s dead husband’s mistress, but they’ve since become friends, bonding over Hazel Marie’s son by said adulterer. Because Miss Julia spends the first chapter thinking about everyone who’s a significant player in the book in the kind of internal monologue that’s completely unrealistic but needed for new readers, you can start the series here — but I don’t recommend it. I stopped halfway through the book and got the first volume, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, from my library. After reading that, I felt much more aware of who the players were. I would advise anyone interested to start there, since it explains a lot about the cast and their relationships. Plus, that story, which involves a lot of change for Miss Julia and an attempted kidnapping, is more interesting to a reader who doesn’t already care about the characters. By comparison, this book pokes along in a catching-up-with-old-friends fashion.
The recipes are all included, although most of them are the old-fashioned casserole kind. The main dishes all require mixing some things together, then leaving them on the stovetop or in the oven for an hour or two. I haven’t seen so many recipes that use Kitchen Bouquet in years, and it’ll be no surprise that several require cans of soup. All of the vegetables, unless you count onions, also come out of cans.
It’s old-school housewife cooking, where you put dinner together and then finish your cleaning while it cooks. The desserts involve layering store-bought cookies or canned fruit with some whipped cream or, in the one that most stunned me, mixing egg whites, sugar, and crushed Ritz crackers and calling it a pie. On the other hand, you’ll learn to make that Southern celebration staple, cheese wafers. I didn’t see any I wanted to try, although I’m not cooking for a family every day.
The events of the series will feel familiar to anyone who’s white and privileged in the South. These women reminded me of those I’d known, particularly through church, when I lived in North Carolina. Those who aren’t comfortable with those categories may be put off by how stereotypical some of Miss Julia’s attitudes (and those of her friends) can be, particularly about the proper places of men (making the money) and women (looking pretty for them and feeding them). Miss Julia is well-meaning, if overly certain of herself and her beliefs, and there’s a certain amount of humor, but it plays best to those who know and don’t question this milieu. I’m going to give this book to my mother, for example, who will likely enjoy it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to younger readers outside the region. (The publisher provided a review copy.)