Hot Potatoes

Back in 1982, in Jackson, Mississippi, four girlfriends decided to spice up a St. Patrick's Day parade by donning extravagant thrift-store costumes -- complete with wild wigs, sequined ball gowns and inflated bosoms -- and dancing along to "The Book of Love." The act was a success, and the Sweet Potato Queens were born.

"In the South, there is a queen for every occasion and every day of the week," explains Jill Conner Browne, who came up with the idea and eventually wove the group's tales of Southern life, marriage, men, friendship and food into a best-selling book, The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love. "Nothing makes you feel as good as a sparkly crown on your head."

Browne, who has just released her third book, The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook (and Financial Planner), will be dishing in Denver at a Cherry Creek Tattered Cover book signing next Tuesday. "Life is hard on a good day," says Browne. "By dressing up and acting silly, you can step outside of yourself for a while, forget that you have a drunk ex-husband or breast cancer. Laughing helps make the load a little easier to bear."

The Sweet Potato Queens' Big-Ass Cookbook includes tried-and-true family recipes such as Whatchamacallit Chicken and Bitch Bar Bacon Swimps, as well as Browne's unique investment advice. Tip number one: "Hope that Daddy lives forever." And keep a positive attitude, just in case: "There's a lot to be said for rich old guys with bad hearts and no relatives, but you can't always get what you want."

"If there is anybody out there that knows less about money than I do, I'd be scared to meet them," laughs the author. "This is more of a 'how not to' book."

So what is Browne's favorite new recipe? Pig Candy, which is made by rolling bacon in brown sugar and pecans and then baking it. "Anything that starts with bacon can only end well," she says. "They're just heavenly."

Browne's down-home philosophy has definitely caught on: Today there are over 1,900 Queens groups around the world. "It really has taken on a life of its own," says the head Queen, adding that more than 50,000 people headed south to march with the group last St. Paddy's Day. "We snaked back almost a mile long. There were Queens everywhere."

And not just female Queens, either. Denver drag queen Nuclia Waste wowed the crowd by dancing along the parade route on stilts. "It was like a huge sorority outing," recalls Waste, whose recipe for Secret Weapon Hair Spray is included in Browne's book. "[The Queens] embody a sense of fun that I think a lot of older women have lost. It is all about just having fun, dressing up and acting crazy for a little while."

Colorado alone boasts 27 chapters, including the Mile High Queens and the Boulder Bare Pit Hippies, whose members will be out in force -- and full costume -- to support their Queen Spud. "We'll be wearing hippie flared jeans with red fringe, rhinestones and leopard-print bras," promises Anne Buhl, head of the Boulder Bare Pit Hippies. "It's our way of doing something just for ourselves."

Browne recently signed a deal to write two more books, and she's in talks with the WB network for a sitcom pilot and a possible talk show. "It isn't War and Peace, but there is a powerful message in the books: You don't have to be miserable," says Browne. "Put your tiara on, come on out and have some fun."

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Julie Dunn
Contact: Julie Dunn