Whether they are entertaining Miss America or friends and family, these Southern men serve their guests with plenty of food and hospitality that goes beyond the table.
Georgia natives and authors James T. Farmer III and Johnathon Scott Barrett know a thing or two about how to set a beautiful table, make guests feel at home and create a memorable evening for everyone.
Farmer, editor-at-large for Southern Living and author of “A Time to Celebrate: Let Us Keep the Feast” (Smith Gibbs, 2015), is known for his soirees. He’s created dinner parties with a guest list including television personalities Al Roker, Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb.
Barrett is the author of “Rise and Shine!: A Southern Son’s Treasury of Food, Family and Friends.” (Mercer University Press, 2015) Barrett is a part of the Savannah, Ga., food scene, where he is known as a welcoming host whether he’s serving a casual meal or a black tie dinner.
Georgians are known for their hospitality. Men entertain as much as the women. The gatherings tend to be more formal, more festive than North Carolina.
“Even at an oyster roast in Savannah, the men wear lovely blazers and Cole Haan shoes,” Barrett says. “Women don cashmere sweaters and nice dresses.”
“We are unapologetic Southerners,” Farmer explains. “We will serve you pimento cheese on a silver platter or fried catfish on Limoges china. It’s a mix of high and low. … You don’t have to apologize because you did it just the way your mama did it.”
Last month, Farmer served shrimp and grits, ambrosia and pimento cheese on pretty family heirloom dishes to Miss America Betty Cantrell, a Georgina native, and some of her pageant sisters during a Sunday brunch at his home. “It’s a kind of comfort food presented formally,” he says.
As Barrett likes to quote Julia Child saying, “You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.” But it helps if you feed the body and the soul on good china, ironed linen and with a heart full of grace and generosity.
Here are a few tips for entertaining this holiday season from Farmer and Barrett:
Focus on the beginning and the end. “You have to have a great start and a great finish,” Farmer says. He suggests having something to offer guests as soon as they walk in the door, such as a cheese tray, fruit tray or a dip. Then have something for them to take home, like cookies in a bag. “It’s that first impression and last impression that really sticks,” Farmer says.
Entertain Savannah-style. “You need a well-stocked bar in Savannah,” Barrett says. “They enjoy libations.” He also keeps roasted pecans and cheese straws in the house at all times, for something easy to throw in a bowl to nibble on as you sip.
The host should have fun, too. “The host should have as much fun as the guests,” Barrett says. “Don’t create too much work for yourself.” He does that by planning menus ahead of time and preparing some dishes the day before.
Have help in the kitchen. “Always, always, always hire someone to man the kitchen, whether it’s a friend who volunteers that you pay with a pecan pie, or actually someone who that’s their job,” Farmer says.
Display a fabulous flower centerpiece. You need a showstopper, but it doesn’t need to be expensive, Farmer says. It can be sticks painted gold with apples around them.
Don’t forget the bathrooms. Always have a candle and flowers in the bathroom, Farmer says.
Limit the side dishes for dinner. “I don’t have choices,” Barrett says about offering a vegetable, a starch and a meat. Too many sides mean you run the risk of a dish not being served at the right temperature.
Think like a man. Women think too much about the main meal, Farmer says. But men are hungry as soon as they walk in the door. Have lots of appetizers. That way you can stretch the tenderloin a little further.
Be prepared. “Keep on hand extra presents that are wrapped without a name tag on it,” Barrett said. He makes whole fig, peach and pear preserves along with scuppernong jelly and apple butter. The homemade jar goodies are the perfect gift for those who drop by during the holidays.
Be a confident host. “The best dish a hostess or host can serve is confidence,” Farmer says. His grandmother gave him that advice. If your guests walk in and you are nervous and jittery about whether the pies turned out, you make them feel uneasy. Always serve friends and family with fun and flair.
Bridgette A. Lacy is the author of “Sunday Dinner, a Savor the South Cookbook” (UNC Press).
Pimento Cheese Biscuits with Ham Butter
From “Rise and Shine! A Southern Son’s Treasury of Food, Family, and Friends,” by Johnathon Scott Barrett (Mercer University Press, 2015).
2 cups good-quality ham, such as Honey Baked
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
2 cups self-rising flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup whole-milk buttermilk (don’t use the low-fat buttermilk or the biscuits won’t be as moist)
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 4-ounce jar pimentos, drained
Make ham butter: In a food processor, finely grind the ham. Add the butter, and pulse several times to thoroughly mix. Place mixture in a bowl, stir in the chives, and cover tightly. Chill for 4 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 475 degrees.
Sift flour and dry ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Add shortening. With your fingers, very gently rub together the flour and shortening until thoroughly incorporated, about 2 minutes.
Drizzle the buttermilk over the mixture. With a large fork, gently mix the buttermilk and flour/shortening, folding over and over until just mixed together well. This step is crucial for light biscuits: if you are too heavy-handed with the mixing, the biscuits won’t rise and will be hard.
Add in the cheese and pimentos; mix lightly until just incorporated. With a spatula, fold the mixture out onto a floured surface.
Flour your hands and gently knead together a few times. Gently spread the dough out until it is a disc about 6 inches wide, and fold over onto itself. With your hands, push down on the dough until you get a flat surface that is roughly an inch- or an inch-and-a-half thick. You can use a rolling pin, just don’t press too hard.
Using a floured 2-inch disc, cut the biscuits out and place on a nonstick cookie sheet or a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. Place biscuits in oven and reduce heat to 400 degrees. Bake 8 to 10 minutes until done and just beginning to brown on top.
Remove from the stove; allow to cool to room temperature. Serve with Ham Butter.
Yield: 20 servings on 2-inch biscuits
From “A Time to Celebrate: Let Us Keep the Feast,” by James T. Farmer III (Gibbs Smith, 2015).
2 tablespoons vegetable oil plus more for the pan
3 cups pecan halves
2 cups walnut halves
2 cups whole roasted unsalted cashews
1⁄2 cup whole almonds
1⁄3 cup pure maple syrup, honey, or cane syrup
1⁄2 cup loosely packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
2 1⁄2 teaspoons ground chipotle powder
4 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves, divided
4 teaspoons sea salt, divided, plus more for seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush a sheet pan generously with vegetable oil.
In a large bowl, combine the pecans, walnuts, cashews and almonds with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, the maple syrup, brown sugar, orange juice and chipotle powder. Toss to coat the nuts evenly. Add 2 tablespoons rosemary and 2 teaspoons sea salt and toss again.
Spread the nuts across the prepared baking pan in a single layer. Roast the nuts for 25 minutes, stirring twice with a large spatula or spoon, until the nuts are glazed and golden brown. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons salt and the remaining 2 tablespoons rosemary.
Toss the nuts well with the rosemary and set aside to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. Taste and add salt and pepper as desired. (Another sprinkle of sea salt is perfect while the nuts are still warm.)
Serve warm or cool completely and store nuts in an airtight container at room temperature. They make great host and hostess gifts.
Yield: about 7 cups
Red Velvet Trifle
From “A Time to Celebrate: Let Us Keep the Feast,” by James T. Farmer III (Gibbs Smith, 2015).
1⁄2 pound (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
2 ounces red food coloring
2 1⁄2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 (3-ounce) package instant chocolate pudding mix
2 cups milk
3 cups whipped cream (preferably freshly whipped), divided
1⁄4 cup pecan pieces, soft peppermint candy, or crushed peppermint leaves, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prepare three 8-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
Using a hand mixer in a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs, butter and sugar until creamy. Add the cocoa and food coloring. Mix until well combined.
In another mixing bowl, sift together the flour and salt. Add the flour mixture to the creamed mixture, alternating with the buttermilk. Blend in the vanilla. In a small bowl, combine the baking soda and vinegar, then add to the batter and mix in. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center. Allow the cakes to cool completely.
Meanwhile, prepare the instant pudding according to the package directions using 2 cups milk. Allow the pudding to set up in the refrigerator for 10 minutes. Using a spatula, gently fold in 2 cups of the whipped cream.
To assemble the trifle, cut the cake into 1-inch cubes. Place an even layer of cubed cake in the bottom of a trifle bowl. Top with one-third of the pudding mixture. Repeat the layer process so that the final layer is pudding. Top with remaining 1 cup whipped cream, pecan and/or candy pieces or fresh mint leaves. Chill until ready to serve.
Yield: 12-16 servings