Despite North Texas taking a thunderous beating the night before, sunshine and friendly temperatures were on hand Wednesday, March 29, for the Park Cities Historic and Preservation Society Luncheon at the Dallas Country Club.
And what else would one expect with author/gardener/floral and interior designer/cook/garden-to-table lifestyle expert James Farmer as the keynote speaker. Sunshine just seems to be his calling card.
Since his appearance in 2013 for the Kappa Kappa Gamma’s Tablescapes, James flashed the same All-American smile, but there was less of him. He told Honorary Co-Chair Libby Hunt it was due to his giving one of his kidneys to his sister, Meredith. Libby asked if the transplant had caused him to be ill and lose the weight. No, he had been put on steroids the year before and the year after the surgery, resulting in his looking heavier when he spoke at Tablescapes. Now, he was back to his normal weight.
To get things going, PCHPS President Kendall Jennings welcomed the group and asked Pierce Allman to provide the invocation. With his arm in a sling as a result of rotator cuff surgery, Pierce’s presentation was poetic. So much so, that as emcee Scott Murray took his place on stage, he admitted that it was remarkable. When asked if he had been working on the invocation for some time or if it was something that had been handed down from generation to generation, Pierce smiled and said he had just put it together that morning.
As guests like James’ buddy Caren Kline, Debbie and Jim Francis, Heather Furniss, sisters Libby Hunt Allred and Barbara Hunt Crow, Herbert Hunt, Cynthia Beaird, Marla Boone, Lindalyn Adams, Kay Weeks and Lucy Wrubel with mother Jennie Reeves had lunch, they caught up with Melinda Obenchain receiving rave reviews for “B Magazine,” which she just produced for Briggs-Freeman…La Fiesta de Las Seis Banderas 2017 Co-Chair Rebecca Gregory reporting that La Fiesta de Las Seis Banderas would be returning to the Hilton Anatole in 2018.
Just past noon, emcee Scott told the guests how both Honorary Co-Chairs Libby’s and David Hunt’s childhood homes in the Park Cities were still standing. While that may not seem important to many, to this group of preservationist it was, with the recent demolishing of the Trammell Crow and Penson homes. He then had Pierce introduce James. Pierce, who had been tableside with James, described James as covering “everything from dirt to dessert.”
Some of the highlights of James’ talk included:
- “Dallas still has a small-town feel. Had dinner last night at Café Pacific and knew people at the other tables.”
- Having grown up in Perry, Georgia, “If you needed something made, you had it made there. If you wanted something from a foreign land, you went to Atlanta.”
- As a five-year-old he was playing T-ball and was assigned left field. There he spied a colony of ziggy holes. In South Georgia, ziggy worms are grub worms. “I knew instinctively that if I dug out a ziggy or two and put them in my pocket and took them home and threw them in our pond, I would catch catfish. And my Mimi, my grandmother, would fry that catfish and we would eat that catfish on my Aunt Irene’s Limoges plates. There’s a connection. Y’all can go to a nice restaurant and pay $30 for that fish now and it’s called ‘Pond To Plate.’ But I understood as a child that something from the ground could get to our table.” On this day in left field, he decided that he had found the “honey hole of ziggy worms.” He dug them up and put them in his pocket. “A kid from the opposing team had the nerve to hit a ball my way. I had to do what came natural to me, so I protected my ziggy colony.” The coach informed James’ father that his son was not an athlete. To this Dr. Farmer responded, “Yes, but he knows the Latin name for every blade of grass out in the field.” It would be 13 years later that James would receive a scholarship from a garden club for Auburn, and the kid who hit that ball received a scholarship to play baseball at Georgia. “So, you see we were both playing on the same field, but ended up where we were supposed to.”
- Frank McCall influenced James with his “full service architect” firm that drew on a southern lifestyle and “helped my parents create their home.” McCall told James’ mother, “Every Southern lady needs a beautiful home. Every Southern lady needs fine silk. Every southerner needs a damn good chest.” She suddenly realized, “He wasn’t talking about Aunt Irene’s chest.” In the future, James would realize that McCall was talking about being confident and proud of what you have.
- It was while attending Auburn that James threw his first “dinner party.” It was in the dormitory kitchen. “I had a hankering for fried chicken and I knew how to fry chicken because you know every 18-year-old goes off to college with an iron skillet. Do you know how many friends you can make in college by making fried chicken? I never missed a sorority ball. Those girls were hungry, too. Those girls were off getting engagement rings and thinking, ‘Oh, my, I gotta learn how to cook.’ That was my ‘fried chicken moment.’”
- “The pearly gates will smell like Lady Peas.”
- “I love to teach the generations what the generations before had.”
- “My grandfather was a Baptist minister and because of that I am a recovering Baptist. Thankfully, the Episcopal Church has a program for us. What the Episcopal Church does is they tell you to come to church and bring a bottle of wine.” On his first field trip with the Episcopalians, they went to the liquor store and he was told to make eye contact with people, you address them by their first name, and bring that drink to the church and drink it.”
- Each year his grandmother Mimi made her famous fruit cake. It called for rum. His grandfather wanted a piece with the rum: “It’s not drinking it if you’re eating it.” Being a good Baptist, his grandmother had a Methodist friend buy the alcohol at a liquor store. When the friend died, Mimi “put on some attire that the sheik of some Arab country would wear,” so no one would recognize her. When James confronted her, asking, “Did King Abdulla die?,” she proudly stated that no one had recognized her being incognito. But her grandson countered with, “But you drive the biggest Buick in town. If they saw it whipping around the liquor store…” She responded, “But I parked it at the Winn-Dixie.”
- James’ first job was redecorating on his grandmother’s Baptist Sunday classroom. He soon learned that everything in the Baptist Church is done by committee, “which I believe is a version of eternal damnation. I would rather work for a dictator than a Baptist committee.”
- Regarding his first work, he heard a dozen “Nos” from New York publishing houses. “They were No York.” But a Salt Lake publishing house agreed to take a meeting with him, where they wore football jerseys and jeans and James was “dressed like Astor’s pony.” The Salt Lake group agree to publish 500 copies of “A Time To Plant.” His response was, “That’s sweet, but y’all know I’ll sell 500 copies in the Winn-Dixie parking lot from the back of my Suburban.” He ended up ordering all 500 copies himself and told them that he had some book signings coming up and friends like Caren and Peter Kline in Dallas who were going to support him with book signing events. Some friends in New York City arranged for him to prepare a dinner party for them and have a book signing afterwards. “I ran out of books. I had a conference call the next day with my publisher and I told them, ‘Y’all, I’m out of books.'” They said, “That’s what we want to talk to you about. Barnes and Noble just ordered 2,500 copies.” And it wasn’t just Barnes and Noble. Other stores were placing huge orders. The publisher asked, “What are you doing?” James responded, “Well, last night I cooked a dinner party for some friends of mine. Do you know Al Roker and Deborah Roberts?” They said, “No, but we know you’re not talking about the ‘Today’ host and the ABC reporter.” James trumped them by saying, “Yes, I am. Al and Deborah are very good friends of mine.” The publisher asked how James knew Al. “I know Al through Deborah, who’s from Perry.” They asked if he had other similar events planned. James said that he was headed down to Washington where a friend was going to host another event. “Is the President coming?” James said, “He was invited, because he’s, you know, busy. But they’re gonna take some books to the White House.” The publisher was curious, “Who do you know in Washington?” James asked, “Do you know Senator Sam Nunn? He’s from Perry.”
- His latest book, “A Time To Celebrate,” started out focusing on big parties and deb balls. During the year that he was creating it, both his mother and grandmother died. “The word ‘celebrate’ took on a new meaning.’ It was Sunday night at home having scrambled eggs and watching ‘Downton Abbey’ with Mama.”
- In writing “A Time To Celebrate,” he took Jenna Bush Hager up on the offer to “do anything for him.” He wanted her to write the forward. She admitted that she just didn’t know how to do it. James then told her, “You saw your mama and grandma entertain in the White House. I saw my mama and grandma entertain in a white house.” The common denominator was the fact that whether it was the president of a foreign country or the local minister, the way people come together is over food.
- One of his favorite stories is about his mother, when they hired an Atlanta decorator. Previously, they had used a local decorator, who wore denim on denim — an “I only shop at Kmart look. She would use red latex magnolias dipped in gold glitter for Christmas.” The Atlanta decorator arrived in a black Mercedes and wearing Chanel. At one point, his mother said, “I love ‘Carl.’ I just have to tell you that ‘Carl’ makes me happy. . . And ‘Carl’ makes me smile a lot.” When the decorator finally said she didn’t understand, because “Your husband is Ted,” Mother Farmer said, “I’m talking about the color.” Translation: coral.
- In summary, James said, “Keep it real. That’s what the South is about.”
James talked about Al Roker, Deborah Roberts, Jenna Bush and Sam Nunn in such a way that it didn’t appear like name dropping, but rather they were just James’ friends and real.
If you weren’t able to make the luncheon, get one of James’ books and you’ll find a brand-new BFF.