Interview: Author Ashley English on Holiday Entertaining & Handmade Gatherings

Ashley English

Ashley English is a total rock star. Don’t know who she is? You should. She’s best known for her wildly successful Homemade Living series, in which she beautifully, patiently schools readers in the fine domestic arts of canning and preserving, bee and chicken keeping, and crafting homemade dairy products.  The loveliest thing about Ashley’s work is that it isn’t just work–it’s her life. She lives deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina on a mini-farm with the love of her life, Glenn, and their precocious toddler, Huxley. 

Though they live down a quiet, secluded country road, the English are far from being loners, opening their idyllic home to family and friends on a regular basis. “Wild Things” themed birthday parties! Ice cream socials! An annual holiday cookie exchange! It’s only fitting that Ashley’s forthcoming book, “Handmade Gatherings” (April 2014, available for pre-order), extols the virtues of hosting thoughtful, sustainable get-togethers and the importance of creating community. If you want to be utterly seduced by the idea of small-scale homesteading, you can take a peek at their charmed country life on Ashley’s blog, Small Measure, and her frequent DIY posts over at Design*Sponge.

EcoSalon’s Kelly Aaron chats with Ashley English about her new book, gets some tips for simple holiday entertaining, and wrangles a pre-press recipe from “Handmade Gatherings”!

Kelly Aaron: We all have something we want to be when we grow up, invariably changing our minds a gazillion times.  Was “Cookbook Author/Appalachian Tastemaker/Chic Homesteader” ever on your radar? How did you get here?!

Ashley English: HA! Yes, and no. In high school, I aspired to be a writer, working on my high school’s newspaper staff. I was also quite concerned about the environment and involved myself with any organization with an environmental emphasis whenever I could. My focus shifted briefly right around age 20, when I thought I’d actually like to someday be a fashion designer. That interest is what ultimately prompted me to leave Asheville, NC, where I was currently living, and head to Washington, D.C., thinking it would be a stepping stone to an eventual move to NYC. Thankfully, though, in D.C. I was introduced to natural foods stores, as well as social activism (via an ex-boyfriend), and decided to circle back to my initial interest in environmental activism.

KA: What was the inspiration behind “Handmade Gatherings”? Did this have more to do with throwing your own parties or with being a lucky attendee at other people’s soirees?

AE: Glenn and I love to entertain, and I’ve been entertaining, as well as potlucking, since junior high (my debut potluck was a New Kids On the Block potluck, wherein guests arrived dressed as their favorite New Kid, bearing their favorite New Kid’s favorite food; later, for senior prom, I hosted a potluck at my house before our motley crew of rag-tag eccentrics headed to the formal prom). We also cook with a seasonal focus, so uniting those loves of seasonal cooking and collaborative entertaining in book form just made sense, and so “Handmade Gatherings” was born!

KA: Tell me about a handmade gathering, for which you were the host or a guest, that changed you in some way, for better or worse.  This could be something subtle (Whoa! I never thought to serve chili out of a pumpkin!) or, you know, an earth-shattering epiphany (I witnessed a Handfasting ceremony and was moved to start my own coven).

AE: December 2008, Glenn and I hosted a “Winter Wonderland” holiday gathering. I’d been intrigued by all of the culinary and botanical elements associated with the holiday season and had been doing research on the origins of their use. Hosting a gathering that celebrated, as well as explained, why things like poinsettias, juniper, fir, oranges, cinnamon, and more are so closely tied to the holiday season was not only fun, it was deeply meaningful. Some artist friends visiting from out of town arrived early, and headed to the woods surrounding our home to forage for decorative elements. They brought back branches and seeds, pods and mushrooms, and created a gorgeous centerpiece from them. I lit loads of candles, and served a number of appetizers and cocktails deeply linked to the holidays, detailing to guests why I’d done so before serving time. Guests also departed with herbal sachets I’d made, containing a botanical blend believed to evade evil spirits on the hunt come wintertime, as well as digestive bitters I’d brewed to promote health. There were about 10 guests, plus ourselves, and to this day, we all still comment on the mark that gathering left on us.
Holiday door

KA: One thing that’s always impressed is your seemingly effortless way of creating community within the walls of your home. I always leave with a full belly, a warm heart, and a new friend.  What’s your secret?

AE: I really believe that spaces create certain experiences. If I wanted to be awed, I’d climb up to the top of a nearby mountain, or gaze at a sacred image. So too with desiring comfort. In my home, more than anything else, I want guests to feel welcome, and comfortable. I work to achieve that by, well, bringing the outdoors in, so to speak. Our walls are painted soothing earth tones, our furniture is all meant to be lounged on (and has the cat scratches and dog indentations to prove it!), there are wooden and metal and glass objects everywhere, and lots and lots of blankets. I can’t begin to tell you how many people have told us they completely lose all sense of time when they’re in our house, and, more recently, two friends said our home felt like a “big hug.” When you’re in an environment that feels inviting, you loosen up physically and, for some, mentally, too. Such a state is super conducive to making new friends and lingering over good food.

KA: Do you have a few off-the-cuff pointers for hosting a last-minute holiday gathering? Help us!

Never underestimate the power of the homemade, as well as the “simple.” My friend and fellow author and blogger Amanda Soule recently wrote in an issue of Taproot magazine (for which she serves as founder and editor) that her holiday mantra is “simple and special.” I couldn’t agree more.
Sometimes, the simplest gesture, be it locally made beeswax candles, a jar of jam you made, or a scarf you knit leaves a more lasting impression than a costly, shiny, yet impersonal item. The same mindset for gift-giving applies to hosting winter gatherings. Pine cones gathered from your yard and placed in a bow and a heap of candles burning evoke a mode and atmosphere that’s hard to beat. Don’t feel like you have to guild the lily. Winter, with its stretch of days spent indoors, invites quiet, thoughtful reflection, not to mention collaboration (cold days are much easier to manage when you’ve got a crew ready to help you shovel snow, build a snowman, or sip hot cocoa together!). If you want to entertain, but lack the time or resources to do so, rope in your friends! It’s likely they’re wanting the very same thing.
Ashley English

A little gift for our readers! This recipe, perfect for serving, sharing or gifting is featured in”The Cookie Exchange” from the forthcoming book, “Handmade Gatherings“, by Ashley English.

Rosemary & Orange Shortbread Cookies
Yield: 2 dozen
-2 cups all-purpose flour
-½ cup sugar
-½ teaspoon salt
-1 cup butter (2 sticks), cut into chunks
-2 tablespoons finely minced fresh rosemary
-Zest of two oranges
1) Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt together in a food processor.
2) Add the butter, rosemary and orange zest.
3) Pulse until the mixture begins to come together and hold its shape. This will take about 1-2 minutes, so don’t worry if the mixture looks crumbly at first.
4) Divide the dough in half. Place one halve onto a sheet of parchment paper. Shape it into a 6-inch log and roll it up in the parchment.
5) Repeat with the second half of dough.
6) Place both parchment-wrapped logs in the refrigerator and chill for 1-2 hours.
7) Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.
8) Remove the dough logs from the refrigerator. Slice each log into 12 rounds, about ½-inch thick each.
9) Bake at 300 degrees F for about 25 minutes, until the edges just begin to brown.
10) Cool cookies completely, and then transfer to a lidded container.

All images courtesy Ashley English

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