Last Friday at the Texas Rose Festival Ladies Luncheon I had the great honor of meeting the talented and accomplished James T. Farmer III. If you don't know the name, you have most certainly seen his work in the pages of Southern Living Magazine. As editor at large, his features often capture the garden-to-table lifestyle that is rich in the South.
"There is a gentility and gracefulness about Southern cooking and lifestyle and how we prepare, serve and enjoy a meal that is very attractive to many outside the region, as well as across the South," Farmer said.
He has also published six books since 2011 — "A Time to Plant," "Sip & Savor," "Porch Living," "Wreaths for All Seasons," "A Time to Cook" and "Dinner on the Grounds." Each of them beautifully captures an aspect of Southern lifestyle – food, garden, events and interior design – that Farmer is passionate about.
From the old family recipes, that include homegrown ingredients, to the beautifully designed gardens that, when flourishing, become part of the home décor, Farmer's designs are inspired by the Southern landscape and can be lavish arrangements or simply a Ball jar filled with his favorite hydrangeas.
Farmer is from Perry, Georgia, where he learned the joys of seasonal cooking and eating at the side of his grandmother. Throughout each of his books, Farmer's family recipes and Southern charm, drip off the page like butter melting off a hot piece of cornbread.
The stories that accompany the recipes and his youthful, yet skilled, voice can be heard as you read through book. Just be sure to imagine his "honey-tongued Southern accent."
One particularly funny story he tells about his mother accompanies the Shrimp Remoulade recipe that's found in "Dinner on the Grounds."
"When I was a young boy, Mama had a decorator from Atlanta come down and give her some ideas for our farmhouse. When you are a country mouse, a city mouse – especially a decorator from Atlanta – has supreme authority when it comes to proper interior design or architecture. Mama told this well-dressed European-car-driving decorator that she loved ‘Carl.'
‘Carl makes me happy, Carl makes me smile, Carl simply lights up my life,' she said.
The decorator asked her, ‘who is this Carl you speak of, ma'am? Your husband's name is Ted.'
She looked down at her fingernails that were painted a bright shade of coral.
Soon thereafter our living room was painted in Mama's favorite color – also known as coral. From the shrimp to the sauce, this Shrimp Remoulade is a perfect array of ‘Carl' hues." Farmer said in his book.
The pictures in this particular book are mouth-watering and the scenery of the soirees in the garden make you want to create your own garden party with nothing more than spinach salad, chicken salad, shrimp salad, corn salad, pasta salad, potato salad, corn muffins and pound cake – an example of the simple Southern recipes that hold an honored place at a Farmer family reunion potluck lunch that he describes in the book.
He learned, as he was cooking for friends in college, that his generation – Farmer is in his early 30s – did not know how to cook. He taught the girls he knew in school how to make fried chicken and made sure they all understood the finer qualities of Crisco. Through his books he's revitalized an interest in gardening and cooking and adapted the flavors to contemporary tastes that speaks to generations – young and old.
At the luncheon, we were served Farmer's Autumn Harvest Chicken Salad, Caprese Panzanella with Vinaigrette Dressing and Honey-Lemon Olive Oil Cake – all recipes from "Dinner on the Grounds."
I purchased this book after I had the chance to interview Farmer, prior to the luncheon. As I briefly glanced through it, I already had my eye on the Honey-Lemon Olive Oil Cake and couldn't wait to make it. I was thrilled when I realized this was the dessert we would be eating.
It's a very moist sponge cake that uses yogurt, olive oil and honey, instead of butter and sugar in the batter. There are also two heaping tablespoons of lemon zest and fresh lemon juice that infuses the cake with what tastes like a sweet lemon glaze from the inside out.
Prior to the luncheon, Farmer and I talked about some of the projects he is working on currently. Along with the features, he does for Southern Living, he is also working with Paula Deen on content for the new Paula Deen Network, an online interactive cooking network.
"Paula is a joy to be around and absolutely beautiful," Farmer said. "What you see is what you get. She's the kind of friend you can sit on the couch with, watch TV and eat Chinese food. She'll have no makeup and hair in a ponytail and she is absolutely beautiful."
Farmer also makes appearances on NBC's Today and Kathie Lee & Hoda. He has been busy with book tours and traveling throughout the South and further north.
"I'll be in Ohio next week and might need to take a translator," Farmer joked.
But he always enjoys visiting Texas, especially East Texas. As he likes to say, "East Texas and Georgia are the bookends of the South."
For more information about Farmer and his books go to www.jamesfarmer.com.