Jamie DeMent comes from a great plate-making tradition, that pillar of Southern hospitality that dictates whenever a family member or friend, stranger or preacher happens by and crosses the threshold, they’re immediately invited to make a plate, to fill it with whatever feast sits in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter.
From a half-dozen dishes covered with plastic wrap, anyone could feel that they were expected and welcome.
“I come from a world where feeding people is how you take care of them, it’s how you show your love. It’s your connection,” DeMent said on a recent morning on the porch of her farmhouse.
“My grandmother, until probably about 10 years ago, she still fed everyone at her house every day,” DeMent said. “You knew that if you went by my grandmother’s house at any time of day, there were at least two versions of a full meal ready to eat.”
Never miss a local story.
This week, DeMent’s debut cookbook, “The Farmhouse Chef,” was released, showcasing the life she’s lived through food and the meals she serves on Coon Rock Farm in Hillsborough. That’s the home she’s has shared with her partner, Richard Holcomb, for 14 years.
Coon Rock’s 55 acres, nestled close to Eno Mountain, have been farmed for more than a century, but these days the farm is known as a pioneer in sustainable farming, planting heirloom crops and raising grass-fed beef and pastured pigs.
It’s the farm that supports booths at farmers markets, subscribers to Bella Bean Organics (their Community Supported Agriculture program) and the menu of Piedmont restaurant in Durham, which DeMent and Holcomb have owned for eight years.
Holcomb bought the farm as a weekend retreat in 2004, where his four kids could get about as far outside the Beltline as possible. But pretty soon, it became home for him and DeMent, and soon thereafter a way of life.
Life on the farm
Before they were farmers, Holcomb founded and sold several software companies and was semi-retired by his early 40s. DeMent, a former UNC Morehead Scholar from Franklin County, had just returned to North Carolina from Capitol Hill in Washington, where she worked as a legislative aide for former Democratic Congressman Brad Miller.
The couple met when DeMent was 23 and was working in fundraising for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Holcomb was a new member to its board.
“He was my scandal,” DeMent said of the 18-year age difference between them.
She’s now 37 and he’s 55.
“There were a few moments of ‘Jamie are you kidding?’ from everyone, my parents, everyone at the museum,” DeMent said. “My friends would say ‘Good God Jamie, you’re dating a man 15 years older than you.’ But it worked. It worked from the beginning.”
Holcomb had bought the farm six months before he met DeMent. He repeatedly invited her to visit.
“And then I came out here, going to stay for dinner but stayed the whole weekend,” DeMent said. “I fell in love and haven’t looked back. That was 14 years ago.”
They built Coon Rock Farm together. DeMent is a lifelong environmentalist, who got a call in the eighth grade from then-Vice President Al Gore congratulating her on starting a recycling program in Franklin County. Her family owned a farm supply store in Youngsville. Holcomb grew up on and around farms in Columbus County.
It started as a quarter-acre garden, initially supplying the now closed Zely and Ritz restaurant in Raleigh, and doubled production each season. They now farm more than 10 acres of vegetable gardens and greenhouses.
A seasonal life
Right now, things are quiet on the farm. It’s something like an intermission between the seasons, the curtain of summer dropping on the last few rows of tomatoes and peppers, only to rise soon enough with the planting of the fall crops, the set rearranged and everything reset. While the earth waits and yawns, calves just weened from their mothers huddle together in the shade and Boone and Frida, the farm’s two border collies are down by the Eno River barking at local kids in the swimming hole.
Like the farm, DeMent’s cookbook lives by the seasons. It’s divided into summer, fall, winter and spring and offers recipes made from ingredients when they’re available and at their best, but also when they need to be canned, jammed or put up. There’s a time for every leafy green or melon and also a pickle or preserve for every season. She’s already shipped off the manuscript for her second book, dedicated solely to canning.
“In the book I wanted to make sure I was teaching recipes, so you were able to take something fresh from the garden or the market and very easily turn it into a meal,” DeMent said. “ There are long days, and none of us want to come home and spend three hours in front of an oven. But if you’re using fresh ingredients, you don’t have to. A little salt, a little pepper and some olive oil goes a long way with something fresh.”
Summer is North Carolina’s bounty prepared simply, tomatoes every which way, cornmeal dusted okra, burgers on the grill and DeMent’s mother’s salsa. Fall is broccoli and squash, winter is root vegetables and greens, braises and stews and spring is fava bean pesto, arugula and strawberry salads and pimento cheese deviled eggs, the recipe DeMent fought the hardest to get in the book.
That “The Farmhouse Chef” is a Southern cookbook is beyond question, but it’s from a changing South, one that’s more diverse in its tastes and cultures. There are butterbeans and cole slaw, but there’s also kimchi, kebabs and Thai fish cakes. When DeMent tells you you’re going to eat a grilled chicken heart and that you’re going to love it, kissed with fire and a spicy sauce, there’s no doubt.
“It’s a reflection of the new South, that we don’t all look like me and you anymore,” DeMent said, meaning white and blonde. “Thank God. There’s lots of Asian influence. From the beginning there’s been lots of African influence. There’s no Southern food without African food. If you try to do Southern food without bringing all that in, then it’s crazy.”
After DeMent and Holcomb bought Piedmont, they turned it from a well-liked Italian spot to a restaurant that often makes best-of lists. In that time, the farm-to-table concept has gone from radical to trending to an expectation. Everyone is farm-to-table now, but DeMent says it’s more complicated than that.
“When you start digging, it’s not always as accurate and honest as you’d like it to be,” DeMent said of some uses of the farm-to-table label. “When you’re hearing that, that it’s local, is it sustainable local? That’s a hard question. How do you define sustainable? Are you taking care of the ground? Are you taking care of the people who grew it? At Piedmont we took it to all local, obsessively local.”
Piedmont chef John May often drops by the farm unannounced and may have the dream relationship between chef and farmer. At the beginning of each season, he gives Coon Rock a wish list of what to plant, and even weighs in on when it gets picked.
Though Piedmont may be the idealized version of farm-to-table, May has stopped thinking of it that way.
“What they really mean is seasonal,” say May, who worked as a sous chef at Vivian Howard’s Chef & the Farmer restaurant in Kinston before coming to Durham. “They’re actually kind of ruining the term. There are certain farms in our area that are not following organic practices, that are extending seasons and not living up to the tenants of what farm-to-table is about. It’s a term we get roped into but I don’t use that term for us.
“We’re hyperlocal, microseasonal,” he says. “We work with an ingredient that could only be found in a small amount of time. We’ll run a dish for one or two nights and then once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The week before “The Farmhouse Chef” was released, DeMent had a homecoming on the farm for many of the Coon Rock interns from over the years. They cooked recipes from the book, including four pounds of grilled chicken hearts that went so fast DeMent didn’t even get one.
During the party, she said she took stock of Coon Rock’s impact, beyond what’s pulled from the ground or put on a plate. Working on the farm has launched a small group of passionate sustainable farmers and has led to marriages and children.
Perhaps most of all, it has celebrated the power of sharing a meal.
“This is a community, being here and growing this food and cooking it,” DeMent said. “It brings people together, and when people are sharing food together, you’re breaking down barriers, because you’re having this common experience. You’re sharing something that’s very elemental: everyone has to eat. Barriers do break down and you have moments where you can share stories and share life.”
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
Here are some upcoming events. Many include small bites made from recipes in “The Farmhouse Chef” and will feature beverages from local purveyors. For more on Jamie DeMent and her book, go to jamiedement.com.
Sept. 8: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tasting and book signing at Raleigh City Farm. 800 N. Blount St., Raleigh. A portion of book proceeds this night will go to Raleigh City Farm.
Sept. 9: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tasting and book signing at SEEDS, 706 Gilbert St., Durham. A portion of book proceeds this night will go to SEEDS.
Sept. 13: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tasting and book signing at Google Fiber. 518 W. Jones St., Raleigh. Presented by CurEat.
Sept. 14: 4 to 5:30 p.m. Happy Hour at LaPlace Louisiana Cookery, 111 N. Churton St., Hillsborough. Happy Hour is free. A ticketed dinner will follow at 6:30 p.m. with dishes made from the book. Tickets are $89 and include cocktails and dinner. Make reservations at 919-245-0041.
Sept. 19: 6:30 p.m. Cook the Book dinner at Piedmont, 401 Foster St, B2, Durham. A multi-course meal features dishes inspired by the book. Make reservations at 919-683-1213.
Cane Syrup Pecan Pie
Some people say that I live in the superlative. Everything is the very best or very worst. Well, this is the best pecan pie you will ever cook. I promise. No corn syrup needed. People from around the world will sit at your dinner table and tell you how brilliant you are. You will win Thanksgiving every year. Peace on earth will descend around you. All because of some pecans and some old-time cane syrup.
1 unbaked piecrust
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 1/2 cups pure cane syrup
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup pecan halves
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 tablespoon bourbon
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a 9-inch pie pan with the pie crust.
In a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter and stir in the flour and cornstarch until smooth. Add the cane syrup and sugar, and boil for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
In a separate small bowl, beat 2 eggs. Add the eggs and the rest of the ingredients to the pot, and stir them to mix well. Pour everything into your pie crust and lightly tap it on counter to even out the nuts and release any air bubbles.
Place the pie in the oven and bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 degrees and bake for an additional 30 to 35 minutes – until the pie is done and not jiggly in the center.
Remove the pie from the oven and allow it to cool a little before serving.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
From “The Farmhouse Chef: Recipes and Stories from My Carolina Farm” by Jamie DeMent. Copyright 2017 by Jamie DeMent. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press.