Bestselling Author/Designer James Farmer Comes to the Lowcountry
Interview by Mark Shaffer
Photos courtesy of James Farmer
Sea Island Garden Club brings internationally known lifestyle expert and author James Farmer to the Dataw Club Tuesday, November 4th. A native of Kathleen, Georgia, Farmer’s authored a number of bestselling books including A Time To Plant, Sip & Savor, Porch Living, A Time to Cook, and Dinner on the Grounds. He is also an editor-at-large for Southern Living Magazine and has been featured on NBC TODAY, HGTV Gardens, Paula’s Home Cooking, as well as in Harper’s Bazaar, Good Housekeeping Magazine and Woman’s Day. According to jamesfarmer.com his “love of Southern food and cooking have put him at the forefront of the garden-to-table lifestyle. James was taught as a young boy how to pull vegetables, herbs and flowers from the family farm and kitchen garden to provide much of the food, decor and flavor of his family’s everyday life.” I spoke to him by phone from his design and antique store in downtown Perry, Georgia.
Mark Shaffer: How did growing up in a small southern town influence your work?
James Farmer: I still live in that same small town where I grew up, so “influence” is a key word. It’s very much the present tense. There’s a charm that some small southern towns just portray naturally. The way we as southerners decorate our homes and entertain our families and friends is a natural extension of our personas. People like my mother and my grandmother – great entertainers – really set the bar for where I wanted to be.
MS: No one entertains like southerners.
JF: That’s the truth.
MS: Why is that? What’s different?
JF: I think we entertain and treat our guests as if they were family. My grandmother always told me that it was an honor and a privilege to have people at your table. She felt the honor was more service minded, that she was able to serve people body and soul when they were at her table. It’s a sense of humility and at the same time it’s a direct representation of our hospitality.
MS: So your grandmother was a huge influence, as well. Tell me about her.
JF: She grew up in a town not far from here and she grew up with a huge family all around so that any dinner was a familial affair.
She also taught me that we eat with our eyes first. Before we take that first bite we sort of have that first visual feast. She also insisted that what was in season, what was ripe and fresh and local was best. It didn’t matter who was coming to dinner that influenced the menu so much as the time of year they were coming to dinner that determined what we had.
MS: Which brings us to the subject of Farm to Table. These days it’s called a “movement.” We both remember it was just what people did: grow food and eat seasonally. Where are we with this? Is it a fad or are we returning to this as a way of life.
JF: Well, it’s definitely not a fad in the South; it’s a way of life. It’s definitely in vogue to know where your food comes from. My grandfather said something funny at dinner the other night. I was telling him about one of my recent trips to a city somewhere and eating at a farm-to-table restaurant there. And he laughed and said, “If I’d known that eating like poor southern people was going to be all the rage I’d have grown more collards.”
This is a Southern renaissance in the sense that the South just like any region or culture has a history, but there’s a way in which we celebrate and portray it that’s just pretty special.
MS: There seems to be no end to the nation’s fascination with Southern food . . .
MS: I mean they’re serving boiled peanuts in swanky Manhattan bars. Why is this such a phenomenon?
JF: I think a lot of it has to do with the simple connection of the food to the farm. You ask someone outside of the South for a recipe and they’ll tell you how many cups of sugar and sticks of butter to use. You ask a Southerner, you get a recipe and a story. And that to me makes it exciting that Southern food is in vogue and for me it’s a privilege and honor to tout that.
MS: Eating seasonally in the South, what are four things that spring to mind?
JF: Well, for me it’s what I can grow myself rather than depending on a major farm for. And here’s what’s funny about southerners: in the garden we grow vegetables but we grow flowers in the yard.
MS: This is true.
JF: We’re coming into fall and I’m thinking about collards and mustard and kale and all these wonderful greens. I have pecans in the wintertime. So, for me with each season it’s all about what I can grow, whether it’s a flower to go on my table, the fruits and vegetables I eat or a pot of rosemary at my back door. A small garden can still feed Pharaoh’s army.
MS: Is there a particular dish that takes you right back to childhood, something that sort of defines you in a way?
JF: I think my quintessential meal that warms me inside out and sort of feeds my soul as well is what I call my birthday dinner. My grandmother and Miss Mary, who’s cooked for our family for three generations, have cooked this for years and years.
My birthday’s in June so they fry chicken, which is year round for us, but I always have lady peas. I love lady peas. They’re in middle June. And then there’s okra and tomatoes over rice and that combination with the peas and sautéed squash and biscuits and some kind of peach cobbler. Every bit of it is very, very hyper seasonal. It’s not just “oh, the tomatoes are in,” maybe it’s more about the Brandywines or the Cherokee Purples or other heirlooms. Or it could be about those white peaches that come in mid summer and make such great cobbler. I joke that when we enter the Pearly Gates it’s going to smell like peas simmering on the stove.
MS: Suddenly I’m very hungry.
MS: Peas notwithstanding, you’re sort of famous for throwing a party. What is a James Farmer party like?
JF: First off, it’s fun, and I hope no one leaves hungry or bored. It goes back to what my grandmother taught me about feeding people body and soul while they’re at my table. I want my parties to be an extension of spending time with my family and me. You’re going to hear great stories eat great food that’s very seasonally appropriate. A James Farmer party? (Laughs) I love them, because they’re just as much fun for me and I love to watch people be a bit surprised. And it’s a little bit comforting and relaxing, too.
MS: You’ve got a sister in Bluffton. Have you had much experience with Lowcountry landscapes?
JF: Yes, I have. My sister’s a photographer and she’s photographed four of my books. She’s been a great help to me. We grew up going to the Georgia coast and St. Simons, sort of the tale end of the Lowcountry proper. When she moved to Bluffton no one shed a tear because we all get to go visit in Bluffton.
I did a book on porches and a number of the porches in that book are Lowcountry porches. I absolutely love the Lowcountry. I just built a home on my family’s land here and a friend gave what I thought was the greatest compliment. She said, “James your house looks like you took Bluffton and Cashiers and they had a baby.” Cashiers, North Carolina, is another one of my favorite places. And I thought, yes! That’s what I wanted.
MS: Porch living is indeed a very southern thing; it’s part of our culture.
JF: It sure is.
MS: You’re coming to Dataw for a talk and you’re going to have a lot of people who’ve moved here from outside of the South and want to know how to live more like Southerners. I’m sure you get this a lot.
JF: I do. I actually find it flattering that they all chose to leave the cold and the snow. I feel like Ohio’s got no one left. They’ve all moved to Hilton Head.
I look at it as a flattering thing that they want to be here. Sure, the climate’s nice, but the food ain’t bad, either. And hopefully they’ll learn to eat grits –
(Both laugh) – Salting them first, of course.
Sea Island Garden Club presents James Farmer Nov. 4th at the Dataw Island Clubhouse with a luncheon beginning at 11:30 followed by a talk by Farmer, a question and answer period, and a book signing. Tickets are $50 and may be reserved by checks sent to:
205 de la Gaye Point
Beaufort, SC 29902
Deadline to send checks is 10/24; no ticket sales at the door.