Southern Brunch at the Farm

An afternoon with author, Kathryn Stockett of The Help, Chef & cofounder of Serenbe, Marie Nygren and FarmerWilliam Hennessy

Southern Sunday at Serenbe by Julie Bryant Fisher
Ducking under the wisteria to find a spot on the porch at Serenbe’s Farmhouse, you know you’re in for a true taste of  what the good ole South has every right to brag about. The For Foods Sake salute to spring March 27 was one of those warmly relaxed gatherings where everything just comes together. You catch fascinating people in their unscripted moments, you gather up with friends new and treasured, and the food  – well it takes  you on a culinary journey that gives your tongue something fit to wag about -  right down to the pickled okra garnish in your dadgum good Bloody Mary.

From the steps of the Farmhouse porch, proprietress Marie Nygren greeted guests along with her daughter Garnie Nygren. The pair represent four generations of prized Southern cooking genius. Marie’s mother was Margaret Lupo, the famed founder and face of Mary Mac’s Tea Room in Atlanta. And it turns out that Marie’s grandmother was one of the first dieticians in the country. Now Garnie, a graduate of hospitality and operations at Cornell University, has freshened the roots of her heritage by joining her mother in the kitchen and taking over operations at the wildly popular Serenbe community just outside Atlanta. After cooking for her own family for so many years, Marie made the leap two years ago to stand over the ovens at the Farmhouse, carrying on the beloved tradition of Southern cooking – but with her own handy twist.  “My mother’s cooking was the Southern food you drink with sweet tea. Mine is the Southern food you drink with a glass of wine,” said Marie, describing how her mother’s collard greens often simmered for hours, while hers are a quicker fix, coated with a savory lemon butter. It’s clear the family ties are strong ones. Marie turned a little misty as her daughter proudly told the family’s tale before turning the floor over to her beaming mother. Perhaps the greatest Southern tradition is hospitality, Marie explained. And the South can’t be touched when it comes to the fresh variety of ingredients that create its legendary recipes. “I love the cornucopia of vegetables,” she said. The beans, squash, collard greens and the list goes on. Serenbe is unique in that it is also a farm – a place Marie said she hopes people come not just to visit, but to experience farm-to-table dining and good Southern food that is also healthy and delicious. Marie – who is married to Atlanta hospitality icon Steve Nygren of Peasant restaurant chain fame – maintains an all-female staff of cooks that has mothered over the creation of a New South menu dotted with deviled eggs and pimiento cheese fit for even the most gracious of banquets. Surprisingly, one of the South’s most prized recipes – fried chicken – is a new one to Marie, who decided that after witnessing her mother’s sheer mastery of the dish, she didn’t plan to touch it with a ten foot pole. She finally gave in, but brings to her tables a skillet-fried, lightly breaded version, versus a deep-fried soul food style. You can catch it most Sundays at the Farmhouse. Between Marie’s zesty descriptions, tempting aromas were drifting across the crowd, cueing the assembled For Foods Sake guests that a feast was upon them.

Giving a lesson in what goes into creating artfully fresh-grown dishes, local farmer William Hennessy was on hand to talk about the emerging modern age of farming.  Just down the road from Serenbe, the budding agrarian nurtures a picturesque slice of his family’s land, bringing everything from garden vegetables, to muscadine grapes and shiitake mushrooms up out of the ripe ground. It’s refreshing to see a 20-something farmer coming into his own, since the average age of a farmer is closer to 55, Marie explained. It’s a trend she said she hopes Serenbe can help grow by enticing other farmers to move into the area with the idea of turning the surrounding Chattahoochee Hill Country into a kind of Napa Valley for modern farms that grow and sell a host of healthy offerings. It’s been a learning experience for Hennessy, who laughingly described the first time he got an order from a big-time Atlanta restaurant. They wanted 40 pounds of beets and Hennessy had to dash over to the Nygren’s doorstep just to make sure he had what the restaurant was looking for. Not much of a beet eater, Hennessy obligingly accepted a little 101 training in not only what a ripe beet looks like, but how scrumptious they can taste. Since then, he’s branched out, growing heirloom rattlesnake beans, Asian pears and hops for a brewery in Atlanta. Hennessy now cultivates about three acres of his family’s land, part of a much larger farm and wildlife habitat. There are no animals on his part of the farm yet, save for his yellow Lab pal Delk, but there are preparations underway for the introduction of chickens.  Hennessy said he hopes that people see local and sustainable agriculture as a necessity for the long-term well-being of our environment and the generations to follow.  With the hopeful and earnest spirit of Hennessy’s words still ringing, guests shuffled onto an expansive, wrap-around porch, picking seats around a generously and elegantly set table. And if you didn’t know why the porch ceiling was painted sky blue, others were happy to explain that it’s a time-honored tradition that keeps the wasps from nesting – or keeps the haints away, depending on where your Southern is coming from. Peering in at the spread, served buffet style inside what was once the Nygrens’ country home, it was hard not to snatch a plate and cut in line.  Guests stuffed their plates to overflowing with Marie’s skillet-friend chicken, her buttery collards, fried green tomatoes, rice onion casserole and a host of other delectable choices. And just as the caramel cake (natch) was being served alongside fresh cobbler and a moist, semi-sweet chocolate cake, out from behind her corner of the banquet came none other than best-selling author Kathryn Stockett, the beguiling scribe behind list-topping Southern tell-all “The Help.”

Primed for an intimate chat, there wasn’t a question Jackson, Mississippi-born Stockett wouldn’t answer as she perched herself lightly on a stool at the head of the table. Charmingly shy and humorously grounded about her success as a novelist, Stockett said she, indeed, drew from a collage of her own experiences when telling the 1960s story of growing up in a traditional Southern household managed by black help. Though she isn’t really Skeeter, she certainly identifies with the book’s lead character, having perpetrated her own rebellious escapades as a young Southern belle – like the time she got all dolled  up and played hooky from high school, heading down to New Orleans to wile away the day drinking Hurricanes.  The kind of book that may make some Southerners blush over its only-too-true revelations, it has delivered to Stockett her share of curious, and sometimes angry, followers. She has taken it in patient stride, finding some interpretations of the book – now translated into many languages all over the world – downright funny.  Like the UK’s interest in the novel. Ever enthusiastic about pointing out less flattering images of America, the country was quick to snap up the book for British audiences, even changing the book’s cover to a candid picture of two black maids with a white baby in a stroller. Of all things, when asked for permission to use the picture, Stockett was shocked to find the photograph credited to a town in Mississippi. She rather easily traced the picture down and was able to name the maids pictured – something she found fairly hilarious since popular opinion of Southerners has them either all related, or all bumping into each other at the grocery store.  Perhaps even funnier have been the various thoughts about a possible secret meaning behind the cover photo on the American version of the book, which shows three birds resting on a wire against a simple backdrop of warm yellow and purple.  Stockett received a hasty message one day from a college professor who claimed to have cracked the code, happily announcing that her class had determined that the birds represented certain characters in the novel. Not so.  Turns out the cover was the result of one of those exhaustive back-and-forth efforts that ends with a resounding ‘…Oh, fine. That will do.’ In fact, Stockett said, all she really requested of her publishers was that the cover please not be yellow or purple. So much for that.  As coffee cups were being filled and the last bites of dessert were proving irresistible, Stockett turned to talk of the Big Screen. The screenplay for her novel, written by her dear childhood friend Tate Taylor, has become a major motion picture due out in August.  Having turned this chapter over to a trusted friend, she has been all too happy to relinquish control and stay out of the mix – making only the single request that the screenplay writer be from Mississippi, of course. Taylor also directs the movie.  She said she’s pleased with the cast of actors chosen to play the characters in the book, especially Sissy Spacek, who will play what Stockett called a “s*&t-bird crazy” Mrs. Walters. Emma Stone plays Skeeter.  Now working on her next book about a group of women who come together during the Great Depression, Stockett said she can almost promise she “…is going to get into a lot of trouble over this one.”  Stockett stayed behind to sign a few autographs as guests drifted away from the morning’s repast, having reconnected with the soul of  great dining, reminded again of why it’s so good to be in the South.  For Foods Sake member- Julie Bryant Fisher

Photos Provided by Kitty Ray Swain