Eat this, Betty Crocker 

The Sweet Potato Queen serves up decadent down-home goodness

Jill Conner Browne likes to eat. Preferably, she says, by the vat-full.

The self-proclaimed Sweet Potato Queen, a mini-industry all to herself, details her love affair with food -- and with a new beau -- in her new book, The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner), published this month by Three Rivers Press.

For the uninitiated, Browne writes with a catty, carefree and uniquely Southern sensibility, a Steel Magnolia who's had a few margaritas and ain't afraid to admit it. The Queens' rise to power started in the early '80s, when Browne and a small crew of close friends donned royal attire for a St. Patrick's Day parade in Jackson, Miss. Decked in green-sequined swimsuits, majorette boots and enormous red wigs, the Queens have made the parade a much-anticipated and ever-expanding annual tradition.

In 1999 Browne chronicled the queenly way of life in The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love, a surprise best seller and an irreverent slice of Mississippi wit. God Save the Sweet Potato Queens followed in 2001. Combined, the books have sold more than 750,000 copies, and Browne's website claims 1,885 local SPQ chapters around the world.

Although the Queens always greeted their parade spectators with an air of royalty, Browne says the books' popularity has been a pleasant surprise.

"You just never know," she says from her home in Jackson. "It's kinda like taking off your clothes in public. You just hope for the best."

While previous Sweet Potato titles featured a few recipes as after-thoughts, the new Big-Ass Cookbook puts the down-home cooking front and center. The dishes all come with bits of advice on living as well as more side-splitting anecdotes on the adventures of Browne and members of her royal court, all of whom she refers to as "Tammy." The author, 50, also relates her courtship with the Cutest Boy in the World, who she married at the beginning of this year. The recipes came from the Tammys, family members and Queens-in-training Browne has met on her book tours, as well as from the message boards on her website (www.sweetpotatoqueens.com). Most are variations on classic Southern concoctions, though with names your granny almost certainly never used ("Catshit Cookies," "Bitch Bacon Bread Sticks," "Motor Home Marvel.") The names also reveal a sweet authenticity, such as "That Pumpkin Stuff That Dorothy Makes," a potluck favorite, or "Kathy's Nobody-Else-in-Venice-Beach-Cooks-Like-This Jell-O."

In the first chapter, Browne wastes no time in attacking the myths of the 1950s homemaker, blaming Betty Crocker for the fact that 50 percent of Baby Boomers are now on Prozac. Not that anti-depressants are needed in the Queen's world; her best cure for the doldrums is a big bowl of something, preferably fatty, sweet or both.

Her favorite recipe in the book?

"It has to be Pig Candy," she says. "It satisfies several of my needs."

The confection of bacon baked in brown sugar came originally from a fan in Kansas City, who brought Browne a greasy grocery bag of the stuff when the author was there on a book tour. ("Fergie had been at that bookstore the week before," she confides, "and they said I had more people show up. But, well, queen does trump princess.")

Browne, who was sick with pneumonia at the time, says she took the bag back to her hotel room and ate every bit of its contents. And yes, she felt better afterward.

A former aerobics instructor and personal trainer, the Queen readily admits that these recipes have to be taken sparingly. The titular "Big-Ass" might just become a reality, because most of the dishes call for a whole tub of something (usually butter) and enough sugar to downa hippo.

"Obviously, we can't eat all this all the time," she says. "It will kill you. But, you will die happy."

tray.butler@creativeloafing.com

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