Celebrating Our Culture
An Interview with Jill Conner Browne
by Robert L. Hall
Hailed by many thousands of perimenopausal women as “Her Majesty, the Sweet Potato Queen,” Jill Conner Browne started phenomena at once bizarre and important. For she has managed to attract the following of women from all over the country and internationally as well, with the three books of humor that she has written concerning the trials, tribulations, and especially the funny side of middle-aged living.
And she has done so with some darn good writing. For Browne was a freelance humor columnist living in Jackson, Mississippi until a few years ago, when she penned the official manifesto of Sweet Potato Queens everywhere: The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, followed by God Save the Sweet Potato Queens and became a best-selling author. Now, she has followed up with a third book: The Sweet Potato Queens’ Big-Ass Cookbook (And Financial Planner).
Her readers are struck by her frank, unvarnished advice about life, love, families and the men-folk that she presents as practical, (although it is really tongue-in-cheek.) Even though some might find of her suggested tips on eating of fatty and sweet food, as well as references to considerable alcohol consumption rather formidable, it does give the initiated food for thought—which is what she really is trying to do. For Browne, now fifty, admits that “for most of us, life is hard on a good day,” and her stated mission to “make readers rediscover the healing power of fun” is real enough, as is the genuine concern in her words.
Now, there are chapters of Sweet Potato Queens (all named Tammy to protect their anonymity) across the land. How did her ascension to the throne begin?
Ten years ago, Browne she was barely getting by, divorced twice, with a school age daughter and an ailing mother to support. As she recalls: “Life gets bad so gradually that you don’t even realize it,” Browne says. “Suddenly, you’re wondering what happened to the girl you used to be.” She, and a group of friends started donning feather boas and tiaras, climbing aboard a sweet-potato farm truck in an improvised St. Patrick’s Day one day in Jackson, Mississippi. They called themselves the Sweet Potato Queens. What began as a bonding experience, including considerable alcoholic intake, blossomed with the help of the publishing of Browne’s columns and first book, into nationwide parades. Perimenopausal women who took their cue from Browne’s exhortations to live and laugh in an attempt to blow off the steam, established local traditions, dressing up in tiaras, red wigs and majorette boots, with exaggerated gaudiness gone wild. Women in neighboring states began to start SPQ chapters of their own.
I heard of her from her adoring subjects in Memphis, Tennessee and felt compelled to call her. The following is telephone interview I had with her:
I don’t get to talk to royalty often, and I feel quite humbled by the experience. I can say, by way of giving tribute to you, that I gave up watching a Clint Eastwood movie to talk to you. That is saying a lot for a man.
“That is as it should be,” she says regally and, with what I thought was considerable aplomb.
In a world where Hollywood has promoted the image of sexy women as thin and blonde, Sweet Potato Queens are renown for their curves and blazing locks. What would you like to say to Hollywood?
“Hey!” We’re on our way out there tomorrow. We’re happy to be out there, and thrilled that they have the good sense at the WB to want to do a sit-com based on these books, and we can’t wait to get started. We are doing a pilot right now.
Ever since they cancelled the television show, “Designing Women,” there has been a gaping hole in a lot of southerner’s lives. Your book could fill that niche during primetime.
I totally agree. As a matter of fact, Delta Burke has agreed to play the lead.
So, we are real excited.
How do you see your special kind of comedy?
All my books are based on the truth, and my voice is southern. I can’t help that—I am southern, but the experiences are universal, so it crosses all lines.
What was the response on the first St. Patrick’s Day parade you were in?
All the first parade had going for it was a great attitude and a parade permit. Streets were not blocked off, and there was no advertising. We went through downtown five o’clock rush-hour traffic on a Wednesday! The initial response was one of total bewilderment. Of course, the parade has grown exponentially since then since the books have come out.
Did you wear red wigs then?
Uh, no. We just had dresses from the Goodwill.
What did they say when they saw you in those dresses?
They were mostly just “mouthbreathing.” They were confused.
What is the difference today?
Now, there’re thousands of people here. People will come from all over the world. The London Observer sent a reporter for a week last year. They will be from every state in the union and countries around the world. Because we communicate through our web site, http://www.sweetpotatoqueens.com and asked them to come; and boy, did they?
What is the favorite food for Sweet Potato Queens?
Well, we have the foods divided up into the four major food groups: Sweet, salty, fried and au gratin. My personal favorite food recipe is in the book: chocolate stuff, which is the essence of my childhood. So far in life, thank God, nothing so bad has happened that chocolate stuff hasn’t helped somewhat.
I noticed in the book you have a recipe for a day when even chocolate can’t satisfy. What kind of day is that?
Oh, just like uh, well…I don’t think we can say that to your readers!
What would have to happen to you to want more than chocolate? And what kind of recipe would that be?
Pig candy is one of my favorite recipes in the book. You start with bacon, and you know, any recipe that starts with bacon can only end well. You roll it in dark brown sugar and pecans and then bake it. On your super-normal day you would need something from all the four food groups…and of course, alcohol.
What’s in your grocer cart and what can’t a SPQ live without?
If I can alternate sweet and salty, I can eat forever. I can eat the salty until my lips are like corrugated paper, then switch to sweet. Back and forth, back and forth.
What I can’t live without is chocolate.
What financial advice would you give a woman wanting a secure retirement?
Financial planning in the Big-Ass Cookbook is really a How-Not-To plan. My particular financial plan was for Daddy to live forever.
Most financial planners suggest dividing income into 30% cash, 30% investments, and 30% savings. They never say anything about the other 10% -- maybe it's their fee. What would a SPQ do with her pay check?
Well, I would certainly divide it up differently because there would need to be a larger percentage put aside for plastic surgery! I advise people that if you can’t afford the plastic surgery, then get a home improvement loan and use it for the surgery. After all, what is more important in your home than you?
What area of your body would you advise surgery for first?
That is purely personal. I had my eyes done last year and I really need to get a hole drilled in the top of my head next and start sucking.
What career advice would you give young Wannabes?
Do whatever makes your heart “sing,” and the money will follow.
What is the significance of the name "Tammy"?
We decided with the first book, since everything is true that we would provide a pseudonym just to provide a shred of anonymity and everyone wanted to be called Tammy. So we decided that it wouldn’t be fair for one to get it, so we all are called Tammy.
So, in case one of you was arrested for public drunkenness, they would say Tammy did it?
Of course, that would never happen.
Sweet Potato Queen chapters are popping up all over. What was your
initial reaction to the Wannabes and what do they do?
How is the Sweet Potato Queen Book Club doing? Many southern authors submitted books to Oprah hoping to be picked. What do you look for?
Great! There are no rules or anything. It is loosely organized like the rest of our group. But, we only read books that will entertain us, loosen us up or teach us how to spin straw into gold. We are not interested in reading anything dark.
A book needs to be funny or uplifting.
Mississippi is known for cooking and the Southern Food Symposium. Do you plan to attend this year?
It just depends on what is going on with the TV. You know, I love that fantastic gathering. It certainly is a big foodfest. Sweet Potato Queens have done a cooking demonstration for it before. Hopefully, we can do that again.
What message would you bring this body of chefs?
(Laughingly, says) Ohhh, I could teach them how to make chocolate stuff! That would help everyone improve their dispositions.
I noticed that you say you are right all the time. Isn’t it hard being right all the time?
No, it’s much harder to be wrong all the time. Of course, it is only my opinion that I am always right. But, my opinion is the only one I am interested in, so…
You write about mid-life and how it is hard just to get through a day. Yet you tell people to discover the “healing power of fun.” It is no coincidence, is it that you discuss both things together?
Everybody does, at any age. You don’t get too old to play. I believe you get old when you quit doing it.
I need to lose weight- I saw that you are under contract for two more books right now. How about doing a SPQ Reluctant Dieting Book?
We would be reluctant dieters. We would be recalcitrant dieters. I’m not in favor of dieting. But, I have a combination dieting/financial tip for you: if you spend enough money on dieting books you aren’t going to read, dieting machines you aren’t going to use and joining gyms that you aren’t going to go to, eventually you will have so little money that you can’t afford to buy food. Then, you will lose weight.
If your first book, The SPQ Book of Love, was your manifesto, about earthy dating tips and the world’s best margarita mix, among other things, what else did it represent for you?
I mean, I got it published.
It was a dream for you, wasn’t it?
Well…sure. I can tell you that it is infinitely better to live your dreams than to dream.
I love what you say in one passage about the Under Forty readers realizing that they are larva, that is, they are babies and should not be running around unsupervised, as well as being doomed to making all the wrong decisions in their lives. Any advice to these toddlers?
Just, if they would read all three of my books and do what I say, it would save them heartache and money, pain and tears. Because I have been down that road and what I am telling them is true. If they do nothing else I say, except for just this one thing, and that is for everybody: be particular.
That is the only advice that my grandfather ever gave me and he never said be good, be sweet, be careful or anything but be particular; and when you think about it, it does cover everything. And if you think about your own life…I know for myself…anytime when I was not, whether it was in the area of food, alcohol, relationships, money, you name it, if you are not particular, it shows.
Would you give me a brief overview of the cookbook?
It ain’t War and Peace. I have no illusions about my work. They are funny books, but they aren’t literature. If you don’t laugh out loud, I will personally send you money back.
Can you divulge to me here what “The Promise” is and what are the magic words that a woman can say to a man to get him to do anything?
I can, but not here.
Is this X-rated?
Oh, yes-s-s-s. But, I can give you the six words that a man can say to a woman to make her fall to your feet.
Oh, then what are they?
“Oh, no. Let me handle that.”
I see that you go to a lot of SPQ parades and support causes with your appearances. Can you tell me about them?
I do a lot of speaking for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. I am the Honorary Chairman this year for our Susan G. Komen Race. It’s a national cancer research organization. I also do a lot of work for Junior Leagues.
Can you give us a hint about your upcoming book title?
The working title for the fourth book is The Sweet Potato Queen’s Field’s Guide to Men (Every Man I Love is Either Married, Gay, or Dead).
Books by Jill Conner Browne
© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved