Gina Mahalek talks to Jamie DeMent, author of The Farmhouse Chef: Recipes and Stories from My Carolina Farm, which is now available at bookstores and from UNC Press.
Gina Mahalek: First, please set the scene for us. You and your partner, Richard Holcomb, run Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough, North Carolina. What’s it like there?
Jamie DeMent: We live and work on an actual farm. In an old farmhouse. Beside a river. With a swimming hole and a rope swing and all the farm life trimmings. Most days, it’s as charming as you might imagine. Our life is fully integrated into the farm cycle. Our house is right in the middle of the action. We look out on our gardens and can take walks by the river. It’s also a working farm, so those walks are often interrupted by a wayward pig and those long gazes are taking notes of chores to be done. The rewards are huge, though. I hope this book goes a long way in showing that.
GM: How did the farm get its name?
JD: Coon Rock Farm came with its name. It is an old name, drawn from a very large rock formation that juts out into the Eno River right at our property’s edge. It’s a landmark that all the old-timers in Hillsborough know, as many of them grew up swimming and fishing at the Coon Rock. We tried for months after we bought the farm to come up with a contemporary, stylish, and fabulous name for the farm, but nothing stuck. Everywhere we went in town, people kept referring to us as the Coon Rock folks, and eventually we stopped fighting the tide.
Coon Rock is just outside Hillsborough, a small town with deep roots in time. Because it sits along the banks of the Eno, it has been a significant staging point for east-to-west travel in the area for more than a thousand years. John Lawson surveyed the area in the early 1700s and found a vibrant Native American community that had been living around Hillsborough for generations. Both the community’s trading path and, eventually, the colonial road to western North Carolina followed the Eno directly past our now famous Coon Rock.
Coon Rock juts up and out of the river and has always made an ideal lookout point and obvious meeting and resting area. Some think the rock may have been named for the local raccoons that have always covered the rock because they got used to the visitors and the trash and food scraps they left behind. These days the rock is more likely to be covered with wayward teenagers coming for a swim, but the name persists, as do the memories of those who stopped to visit. There is also speculation that the name evolved from misspellings of Occoneechee, the name of the Native American tribe that lived along the Eno River in Hillsborough.
GM: Where did you grow up? Tell us about your family and the path that led you to the farm.
JD: I’m from Louisburg, North Carolina—an only child and an only grandchild (“well-loved” in my world, not “spoiled”) and lucky that my family on both sides is full of strong-minded, colorful women who love to cook—my mother, grandmothers, great-aunts, cousins, friends-closer-than-cousins. They are all women who showed their love through their cooking.
While I was growing up in rural North Carolina, my family owned the farm supply store for our county, Franklin County, so I had a front row seat to watch, sadly, the decline and death of many family farms in eastern North Carolina. I saw farms that had been successful for generations fail because they couldn’t compete with thirty-thousand-pig farms, whether in North Carolina or other states, nor with miles of monoculture crops grown in California and elsewhere. A community and culture that had nourished my family for years completely dried up. I didn’t realize how much that had affected me until I began spending time with Richard at Coon Rock.
GM: What are some of the food traditions you grew up with, and how did you incorporate that background into the book?
JD: I hail from a long line of preservers. We “put up” everything. I used to joke that if I hadn’t moved fast enough as a child, I would have been jammed into a plastic bag and stacked in the freezer. Having a stocked pantry and freezer means that I always have things on hand to cook, and I have tried to include options for preserving throughout the book.
GM: You and Richard have other businesses connected with the farm. What are they?
JD: We own Bella Bean Organics, an online farmers’ market that ships our meat and produce and products from other local farmers and artisans throughout the region and nation.
We also own Piedmont Restaurant, a farm-to-table restaurant in Durham, North Carolina. Piedmont is an ingredient-driven restaurant that only uses ingredients from our farm and other local sustainable purveyors.
GM: How do you balance farm life with entrepreneurship?
JD: We work with great people. Farming alone would be impossible the way we do it so we depend on a great team of people who really believe in what we do. In general, Richard and I are the “big picture” team members—we guide the marketing and selling. We have managers and interns who help us coordinate the day-to-day farm operations of planting, picking, rotating and feeding.
GM: What misconceptions do people have about family farms?
JD: I think there’s a general misconception about farmers. People assume that you farm because you had to—there were no other options or enough education to do something else. For us, farming was a serious life decision. We do this because we believe in it and use all of our extensive education and resources to try to make it work.
JD: There are no typical days on a farm. You always start with an idea of what you’d like to accomplish, but we’re dealing with live animals and nature—they don’t always follow schedules or instructions, so you make plans and hope for the best.
GM: What exactly is an heirloom variety, and is all the produce raised on your farm heirloom?
JD: The term “heirloom” specifically refers to the way the plants reproduce. Heirloom varieties are fruits and vegetables that are grown from seeds that were saved for special reasons, the same way your grandmother saved her mother’s wedding ring. If you let that collard “go to seed,” flower, and form a seed pod, the seeds inside can be planted the next season, and they will reproduce the collard you loved.
The seeds are saved for flavor, beauty, disease resistance, hardiness, and ease of cultivation. They tend to produce diverse and delicious results. We grow mostly heirloom varieties and occasionally supplement with a natural hybrid when an heirloom variety isn’t an option.
GM: Why should we seek out heirloom varieties and pasture-raised, grass-fed meat?
JD: They taste better and are better for your body and the environment. ALL of the recipes in the book are recipes that will work better with good, sustainably-raised, fresh ingredients. If the product you start with is fresh, picked ripe, and raised properly, it doesn’t take much work or elaborate recipes to make a delicious meal.
GM: The seasonal arrangement of recipes in your book seems just right. Why did you choose to begin with summer?
JD: Summer has always been my favorite season to be in the kitchen. It’s when you’re building your pantry for the rest of the year. You can’t braise that pork shank in January if you didn’t put up tomato sauce the previous July.
GM: The Farmhouse Chef offers 150 recipes. What are some of your favorites and why?
JD: Field Peas—A bowl of field peas or butter beans in their liquor is my favorite thing to eat ever, fresh from the garden or cooked from the freezer. Slurping the liquor left in the bowl at the end is the best part of all.
Tomato & Fresh Herb Pie—It means summer has arrived for me. I could eat it every single day.
Fried Flounder & Eggs—This was my daddy’s favorite, and I loved the enthusiasm he always put into the process and the love he shared when he introduced new people to the dish.
GM: Tell us about the process of writing the cookbook: How did you develop the recipes for the cookbook? Did you work your way through each season’s harvest?
JD: I developed the recipes in the book over more than a decade of living and cooking on our farm. Some are old family recipes, some are recipes I learned travelling the world, and some were invented out of sheer necessity and hunger after a long day of work. All are seasonally driven.
GM: You work all day on the farm—how do you have time to make a home-cooked meal at night?
JD: That’s one of the points of this book! If you are using good fresh ingredients, it shouldn’t take forever to make a great meal! If good food is important to you, you can make a delicious and healthy meal with recipes from this book in the same amount of time it would take you to drive to a fast food restaurant and bring the food home.
GM: The freezer and pantry play a big role in having delicious dining options throughout the year. What kinds of things are you always sure to have in yours?
JD: I always have Roasted Tomato Sauce, Pickled Okra, and Honeyed Figs canned in the pantry, and there’s always frozen corn, peas, butter beans, and chicken broth.
GM: In your opinion, are CSAs continuing to grow in popularity? Do you have any advice for those contemplating joining a CSA?
JD: Unfortunately, for us at least, interest in CSAs seems to be declining with so many ready-to-eat options being delivered to homes every day. I hope this book helps revive some of the interest in cooking with fresh and local ingredients direct from a farm. The best piece of advice we give to new CSA members is to be willing to try something new. That kohlrabi is really going to be delicious. Just ask us for a recipe!
GM: You run a renowned farm internship program. What kinds of qualities do you look for in a prospective intern, and how might the experience and skills acquired at Coon Rock Farm be applied elsewhere?
JD: We look for people who aren’t afraid of hard work or new experiences. Farming is not easy and isn’t always pretty, so we need people who can adapt on their feet and who are truly interested in what we are doing.
The ability to roll with the punches and work well in a group will serve anyone well in almost any life situation.
# # #
The Farmhouse Chef: Recipes & Stories from My Carolina Farm is now available in bookstores and from UNC Press. See the author page on our website for upcoming book-related events.