Three Questions with JLM Sustainers: Mary Joy Knowlton

Introducing Three Questions with JLM Sustainers – A new feature highlighting the inspiring legacies of our fellow Junior Leaguers.

As we reflect on our 100th year, we want to honor many of the Sustainers whose contributions have left an indelible mark on both Memphis and our JLM organization. Over the next few months in our Three Questions with JLM Sustainers feature, you’ll read fascinating stories of passion and dedication certain to deepen your pride in our amazing membership. 

Mary Joy Knowlton

Imagine if Junior League of Memphis had not been able to support Memphis in May, Memphis Heritage, Friends of the Orpheum, the Runaway House, Cystic Fibrosis Clinic, Memphis House and many more. The $600,000 in revenues generated by sales of 10 editions over 30 years of JLM’s very successful party book and cookbook Party Potpourri enabled JLM to support dozens of organizations like these.  In today’s feature, we ask Mary Joy to catch us up with her answers to our Three Questions.

Q1. Mary Joy, tell us your JLM story.
I remember wanting to join Junior League of Memphis as I’d heard it was the plum of all organizations for women in the city.  I’ve always felt I was part of something very special, and I still do.  

Like a lot of other members, I enjoyed working in the thrift shop.  And, I wrote for the JLM magazine, Volunteer Voices.

Q2. What is your favorite JLM memory?
Definitely, it was my placement as co-editor of the Party Potpourri cookbook. 

In the late 1960’s, the JLM identified a need for a party-themed cookbook.  At that time, it wasn’t at all common to do ‘take-out’ or to pick up dining ‘to-go.’  Good food and party food was mostly done by the hostesses who were doing the entertaining.  

My co-editor, Barbara Prest, and I had the hardest working committee, made up of editors, a bank of typists (yes, on real, sure-enough typewriters that you only hoped were electric) recipe testers, with the collaboration of idea/party experts who were some of Memphis’ most glamorous party givers.  

We worked on the development of Party Potpourri, a party-themed cookbook, every day for two years.  We all met face to face, every single week, in an annex behind the old JLM house on Union Extended, taking home dozens of recipes to read and manually edit.  Creating a brand new cookbook was very different than today.  You’ve got to remember that in 1971 no one had ever heard of computers, the internet, e-mail (conversations were done by phone) or Word. Spell-check was every writer’s dream.  And, not everyone had access to typewriters, so when we put out the call for recipes, some arrived typewritten, and most hand-written – and I even remember a few arriving hand-written on grocery sacks.  It was virtually hand-done.

Every recipe went to testers with an evaluation sheet.  We had set rules that the testers followed for quality.  And they were all fantastic – either fantastically wonderful or fantastically horrible.  Once again, the typists set to work to update the recipes with the feedback from the testers.  And then, the recipes were mailed to the editors to begin the compilation into party themes to make it easy for hostesses to use.

Party Potpourri went on to sell over 201,000 copies, and was recognized by USA Today, Ladies’ Home Journal, and chosen by Southern Living for its cookbook Hall of Fame.

For me, personally, this JLM placement was a life altering experience. Before Party Potpourri, I simply liked to cook; it was a hobby.  After Party Potpourri, I went on to teach cooking lessons at the Shop of John Simmons; John even added a kitchen to the Laurelwood store just for cooking classes and demonstrations.  I also represented JLM on the live morning show of the time, The Marge Thrasher Show, and even ended up studying cooking in Paris. I would have never done any of these things without Party Potpourri.

Q3. What makes you smile when you get up in the morning?
I’m so thankful. Milton and I have a wonderful home where I garden. Our children and grand-children are here. And, I’m still cooking.  In fact, my Party Potpourri is out on my kitchen counter as we speak.  I use it to this day.

In closing, we asked Mary Joy for her thoughts on the JLM Centennial.
She recalled a project when she was the Sustainer representative to the JLM Board. Mary Joy explains, “Nearly forty years ago, the Board voted to contract with a well-known artist, K. Doyle Ford, to paint a portrait of the founder and first President, Harriet Van Vleet.  I met with Mrs. Van Vleet and talked with her about her portrait.  She told me there were two things of which she was most proud: first, founding JLM, and second, volunteering as a Red Cross Gray Lady in WWII.  She asked that her portrait feature her with a sweater draped over her shoulders, and roses, her favorite flower.  One hundred years later JLM still honors our founder, whose portrait hangs on the second floor landing of the CRC.”
We talked with Sid Evans, editor of Southern Living magazine, about the shared history between Party Potpourri and Southern Living.  Nearly 30 years ago, in 1993, the magazine named the party cookbook to the Southern Living Community Cookbook Hall of Fame. Then, as the 50th anniversary of Party Potpourri approached, Sid featured the popular cookbook in his Letter from the Editor. We caught up with Sid today, where he talks about seeing his mother Marsha, a JLM Sustainer, cook from a well-worn copy.
“I remember seeing a worn copy of Party Potpourri on a shelf in our kitchen next to some other legendary Junior League cookbooks – River Road, Jambalaya, The Memphis Cookbook and others. My mother (Marsha) cooked out of it all the time, but I never fully appreciated it until Mary Joy asked me to speak at the book’s 50th anniversary luncheon a few years ago. I think the magic of that cookbook is that it captured the spirit of the Junior League of Memphis, as well as the creativity, charm and charisma of the women behind it.”

Thanks for reading Three Questions with JLM Sustainers featuring
Mary Joy Knowlton.


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