Denise Gee, writer/editor/stylist
Denise Gee is a magazine veteran who’s written for all the major shelter publications—from Better Homes & Gardens to Coastal Living. Her unforgettable storytelling skills have found their way into each of her cookbooks. If you’re a fan of cocktails, grab a copy of Southern Cocktails. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss her latest: Sweet on Texas.
PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?
DG: A veterinarian. I love dogs, especially, but as it turns out, science not so much.
PPF: How long did the vet idea last?
DG: Until around the time I had to do science fair entries in elementary school. Saying they were awful would be an understatement.
PPF: What was your first real job?
DG: After several magazine internships, I landed my first full-time job as lifestyle editor of my hometown newspaper, The Natchez Democrat. I’m pretty sure I learned more in my nine months there than my entire time in journalism school at LSU. Nothing beats real-world experience and a bevy of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction experiences.
PPF: So did you always know you wanted to go into journalism? Or was there a watershed moment in your life that made you choose to be a writer?
DG: I liked interviewing people from an early age. I’m not sure why, exactly. But there are early cassette tapes of me interviewing my family members, who sound quite exasperated with me. I also loved reading, and by high school I was captivated by a worldly-cool English teacher who’d break out in speaking Middle English on occasion. I thought I’d teach English until my sophomore year in college. A creative writing teacher asked me if I had any interest in pursuing journalism. I took that as a hint that I was better at interviewing characters than dreaming them up.
PPF: You grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, a town known for its amazing architecture and eccentric, creative people. Growing up there, who had the greatest influence on you, creatively speaking?
DG: My grandmother and mother were great storytellers who seemed to keep one foot in the real world, the other in a make-believe one. That I went on to be a young docent at some of Natchez’ many well-preserved pre-Civil War houses—pretending I was a girl in the 1860s who somehow knew all about Aubusson rugs and Belter furniture—certainly sparked my creative side even further.
PPF: Describe your current occupation.
DG: I am a media relations officer at Southern Methodist University. But I still do food and beverage, home design, and personality profile writing. I style for magazines and books. I’m a book author. And last but not least, a human rights education proponent.
PPF: Were you formally trained to do what you do now?
DG: Yes and no. I have a journalism degree, but beyond that, I’ve learned the ropes the hard way—and with lots of help along the way.
PPF: I have already called you my own mentor. I wouldn’t be in journalism if you hadn’t invited me to work for you at Southern Living. Was there a particular mentor, or a person who believed in you and gave you a chance when no one else would?
DG: During my first internship, at Louisiana Life magazine in New Orleans, I had the most nurturing editor that a young, aspiring writer could hope to have. I remember the first story she asked me to write—on a grand-prix-style race around the French Quarter. I thought I’d done a nice job on it, despite knowing nothing about racing. My roommate said she liked my story. And I was considered one of the better feature writers at my college newspaper. What could possibly go that wrong? Well. Was I ever godsmacked when the editor brought me the “slightly revised” version of it to discuss. Those were the days when word processors—glorified typewriters with screens—were more common than computers, so my scroll-like offering, on rolled printer paper, was brought back to me twice the size I’d given it to her. That’s because she’d cut it all up and moved and taped paragraphs here and there, adding strips of yellow legal pad paper on which she’d written transitional paragraphs. It looked like one big crazy quilt of mixed-up confusion. And I was mortified. But she was exceptionally nice in explaining to me why she did what she did, leaving me feeling uplifted, even, by the time we’d finished our talk. I vowed I’d always try to be like her in my work style.
PPF: I must say, having you edit my very first stories was a similar experience for me. You were so graceful with your suggestions. So maybe you did end up with a similar style. You’ve written for so many magazines in your career. What are some of your personal favorites?
DG: The ones left standing.
PPF: What do you think makes a good story?
DG: A great subject and a trusting editor.
PPF: You have always had such a great sense of place—in your writing, in the way you live your life and really get to know every inch of whatever town you’re living in. If you could live anywhere for a year, where would it be?
DG: I think I’d want to live some place like Costa Rica. I love the culture and architecture and food. It would be nice to immerse myself in it.
PPF: You have a knack for writing really lively stories about food. How did you get into writing cookbooks?
DG: By first helping my grandmother, known in Mississippi as “Aunt Freddie,” type up recipes for her little spiral-bound cookbook that was a regional hit—and led to a canning & preserves book she wrote for Clarkson Potter. Then, while working at my hometown newspaper, I had two amazing opportunities: To work with fellow Mississippian Craig Claiborne on a New York Times project he was working on in Natchez, and then help my cousin Lee Bailey with the Natchez-based book Southern Food and Plantation Houses, which won a James Beard Award. After being a magazine food writer for a number of years, some of my work was published in a Cornbread Nation compendium, but it wasn’t until you, Paige Porter, suggested that I’d be perfect for the Southern Cocktails book that Chronicle Books wanted to publish, that I was able to lift off with my own wings.
PPF: I have shared that book with so many of my own friends and family. My husband loves it as much as I do—the stories and traditions behind each cocktail are so unforgettably described that you can’t help but want to try them all. And Bobby’s photographs are simply beautiful. You two make quite the creative team–in both your marriage and your creative endeavors. Your most recent cookbook, Sweet on Texas, just landed on bookstore shelves. Tell me a little bit about that project.
DG: Well, Chronicle Books and I decided it was high time somebody wrote about Texas desserts, which often are the most important part of the meal. For instance, folks here like to talk business over slices of pie known to induce brilliance. The book has 65 beautiful and doable recipes that I think really define the regional characters and flavors of the state—from “Big Hair” lemon-lime meringue tartlets to the best-ever pecan pie. I also feature the ubiquitous Texas sheet cake, sometimes called “sheath” cake in the west of the state. There’s fun food inspired by the state fair, cookies from the super-cool “Food Shark” truck out in Marfa. It’s a well-designed book, and it makes an excellent holiday gift, I might add with a smile and a wink.
PPF: I can’t wait to get my copy! You are a natural entertainer. Entertaining is like a pastime in the South. Did you learn the tricks of this trade there?
DG: I learned from watching the pros—that is, the heavy partiers in Natchez, who often had lovely houses and smart style. I studied how their bars were set up, what glasses they liked to use, what made good cocktail conversation, what put people at ease.
PPF: So, moving from happy hours to not-so-happy ones, what has been the lowest point in your career?
DG: Working for a newspaper company in which a boss’ big vision was not to embrace digital platforms, but rather to introduce a glorified fax machine to consumers. I knew we were all doomed. And we were.
PPF: What has been the highest point so far?
DG: Being able to complete two books—both of which allowed me tremendous creative freedom while working with my talented photographer-husband—all the while holding a full-time job that allowed me to write about and promote human rights education. But now? I dream of sleep.
PPF: What is essential to help you do your best work?
DG: A quiet, organized space and a good amount of research done in advance. And no Facebook or Twitter allowed.
PPF: Describe your version of the perfect day.
DG: Listen to Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” song. I’m right in there somewhere.
PPF: What job could you never, ever, do, no matter how broke you were?
DG: Run a meth lab.
PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?
DG: Pretty much all the time, I think.
PPF: When have you been most afraid?
DG: When freelance checks were long overdue and so was the mortgage.
PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?
DG: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
PPF: If you could choose it ahead of time, what do you want your last meal on earth to be?
DG: Well, hopefully I could enjoy this the day before I died, since I’d hate to die on a full stomach, but I’d delight in broiled lobster and sangria from El Quijote and fresh oysters from Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City. Hot, boiled crawfish and boiled crab cooked in Grand Isle, Louisiana. And some prosecco with a bit of Elderflower liqueur to wash the first part down, followed by a good cold beer or two to finish.
PPF: Can you give me five cookbooks that have shaped your meals and dinner parties over the years?
–The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations from Two Great American Cooks, by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock
–Hints & Pinches by Eugene Walter
–Lee Bailey’s Southern Food & Plantation Houses, Lee Bailey and the Natchez Pilgrimage Garden Club
–The Coastal Living Cookbook, by Coastal Living/Oxmoor House
–My New Orleans, John Besh
PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?
DG: Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy, by Paul Hendrickson; A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn; Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser; and Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Liberia and Their Legacy in Liberia by Alan Huffman.
PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking “one day”?
PPF: First concert you ever went to?
DG: The Cars, 1979
PPF: Best concert you ever went to?
DG: Oooh … that’s tough. U2, Bruce Springsteen, Rolling Stones, Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg, Depeche Mode immediately spring to mind.
PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?
DG: “Yakety Sax” by Boots Randolph
PPF: Best meal you ever had?
DG: Fortunately there are truly too many to recall.
PPF: What are you really good at that would surprise a lot of people?
DG: Solving computer problems.
PPF: If you could interview someone and ask him/her these questions, who would it be?
DG: Oscar Wilde. I’d want to ask him, “What writers did you admire and why? And how did you develop such an amazing ear for dialogue and wit? And tell me more about that hideous wallpaper.”
*Photograph of Denise by Robert M. Peacock