Julia Reed could make boiled newspaper sound delicious. It’s not just that she describes a meal well, though there are several in her new book that had me drooling (none of which involved ladling the Washington Post on toast). She gives each meal a juicy backstory and characters you wish you’d stayed up all night carousing with, making it the stuff of legend and not just a midnight snack. Her latest essay collection, But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!, is a sensory delight and fantasia for aspiring chefs, but it’s also big-hearted and fun.

Reed, a contributing editor at Garden & Gun magazine, writes a column there called “The High & the Low.” That phrase captures some of the book’s charm. When Reed breaks off an engagement, she and her fiancé still take the honeymoon to Paris, then have a falling-out which sends her rushing to Vogue icon Andre Leon Talley for cocktails and solace. Just when a reader might start to chafe at the soirées and name-dropping, Reed shifts gears and riffs at length about holiday grog and family dysfunction, as seen through the lens of the Robert Earl Keen song “Merry Christmas from the Family,” an anthem of equalization if ever there was one. And then, of course, there are those recipes.

“Southerners have been doing ‘farm to table’—mostly by necessity—since long before the phrase was taken up by every foodie in the land,” says Reed, and many of the meals and cocktails outlined here are inspired by seasonal bounty (or excess of same). There are treats cribbed from five-star chefs featured alongside classics of Southern hospitality like Spinach Madeleine, which will never be the same now that Kraft has discontinued their jalapeno-spiked Velveeta.

From a gourmet meal taken in an Afghanistan lodge reclaimed from the Bin Laden family, to an intimate look at the making of Spanish paprika (with a few trips to the bullfights thrown in), But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria! is as heady as the brew it’s named for, uptown yet simple in its elegance.

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