The act of sharing a meal with others can be a uniting experience, with the potential to create memories and build relationships. Ashley English’s new book, Handmade Gatherings: Recipes and Crafts for Seasonal Celebrations & Potluck Parties, is a celebration of just that sense of community. We previously featured another of Ashley’s books, A Year of Pies: A Seasonal Tour of Home Baked Pies on our Journal. I was excited to read this, her latest book, as it focuses on something I truly love: entertaining. I appreciate Ashley’s approach to creating an experience through communal, potluck meals. I particularly value her approach to slowing down and appreciating the process of creating, and was honored to contribute a review of Handmade Gatherings (featured on the back cover of the book).
Handmade Gatherings shows you how to celebrate the seasons and connect with your community through collaborative parties and gatherings. The book features 16 seasonal party ideas, 52 recipes, and 32 crafts and activities. I love the way the book inspires community in true potluck style, dividing the work load among friends and family attending the gathering. The “all hands on deck”-type of gathering (as Ashley calls it) is the most fun for me, as it allows me more time to visit with guests, and everyone is more relaxed and less formal.
The book pays attention to the changing of the seasons and offers fresh inspiration for each.
Ashley is the author of the Homemade Living book series that focuses on so many of the “living arts” that we at Alabama Chanin value. She also served on the editorial staff at Design*Sponge and now curates her own website and blog, Small Measure. Recently, we were able to chat with Ashley about entertaining, what’s next on her plate, and what happens after the party is over.
AC: In your book Handmade Gatherings you mention that you come from a long line of entertainers; how did growing up around entertaining lead you to write this book?
AE: My paternal grandparents and both of my parents entertained regularly, and my father and his wife still do. Having exposure to the ease and comfort with which they hosted get-togethers from such an early age led me to see that it’s totally doable-which is to say, entertaining needn’t be daunting or cumbersome or stress-riddled. It should be fun and light-hearted and even spontaneous, which is a skill I’ve acquired since saddling up to my very “on the fly” husband.
AC: What made you decide to write specifically about potluck-style entertaining?
AE: I have long been a fan of potlucking. I held my very first potluck when I was in junior high school, a “New Kids On the Block” potluck wherein each guest came dressed as their favorite New Kid, bearing their favorite NK’s purported favorite food. For senior prom, I hosted a potluck, too. Six couples convened at my house, each of them supplying a course of the meal before heading out to prom itself. My husband has also long been a proponent of the “all hands on deck” style of entertaining. Our community of friends here in Asheville is a very food-loving/food-enthusiastic crew, so enlisting their talents and skill sets come meal times really just makes sense. Everyone wins!
AC: What do you hope to be the major takeaway from exploring your book?
AE: What I truly wish for those that pick up “Handmade Gatherings” is to come away with a sense of “I can do this.” In addition to the potluck component, wherein guests contribute food to the meal, my book also includes suggestions for collaboratively done decor and crafting. My hope is that people will feel inspired to host truly epic feasts and gatherings, regardless of their age, budget, or resources. When you have gatherings where everyone is involved, the burden of pulling it all off in terms of food, decorating, and activities doesn’t fall on one person’s shoulders, and that makes the whole occasion seem considerably more approachable.
AC: Your book is divided by the seasons, why did you structure it this way? Would you say you eat seasonal foods (or rather, eat seasonably)?
AE: I divided the book by seasonal gatherings because I truly believe that foods taste better when they’re served in season. Natural decor is also abundant and resplendent when gleaned, harvested, and set upon a table during its true time of growth, I have long felt. It just feels right to me to live and eat and work this way, to exist in that rhythm with the natural world come time to entertain. Just because I want to have a good time doesn’t mean I should tax or burden the Earth in my quest to obtain ingredients and supplies. Following a seasonal rhythm means produce or decor doesn’t have to be shipped from far away in order for me and my guests to enjoy it.
AC: What is most important to you as a writer? As a mother?
AE: As both a writer and a mother, the thing I always keep in mind is stewardship. My son will inherit both my writing and living legacies. Accordingly, I want to do right by him, both in the writing that I put out and in the way that I live. I have long felt that the better we treat our bodies, our families, our communities, and our planet, the closer we feel a sense of kinship and connection with all life. That’s why I write about the things I write about and live the way I live-to help engender that sense of connection and, hopefully, inspire a desire to steward our planet.
AC: With such a diverse body of work, what would you say is your next step? More books (we imagine the possibilities are endless), or perhaps a new venture?
AE: I have quite a few projects in the works! My homemade beverage book “Quench” publishes from Roost Books October 15, 2014. I’m also working on a picnic book with them slated for publication in 2016. In and around that, I’m cooking up some ideas for children’s books, a TV show, more non-fiction books, and so much more! I’m never short on ideas, just on time to implement them!
AC: How do you “wind down” after entertaining a crowd?
AE: It might sound funny, but I find cleaning to be incredibly relaxing. My father is exactly the same way, so perhaps our affinity for cleaning is a genetically acquired trait. Once guests leave and my three year-old son is asleep, as long as it’s not too late at night, I start washing the dishes, putting away food, and sweeping up. I find it really helps me to calm down and transition back into a relaxed state of mind. One thing I’ve found with potlucking is that most of the work is done come the time the last guest departs. They’ve taken whatever serving vessel their contribution to the meal came in home with them, and oftentimes even put their dirty dishes into the dishwasher and their scraps into the compost bin. Another win for pot lucking!
AC: Finally, how would you describe your perfect weekend?
AE: The perfect weekend for me begins with a trip to the farmer’s market with my son and husband. A local bakery, Farm & Sparrow, makes these otherworldly pastries and only sells them at the market. We get some of those, see what else is for sale, let Huxley play with whatever friends we inevitably run into there, and then come home for a bit of a respite. After that, a hike and picnic on the Blue Ridge Parkway or a casual dinner at home with friends is all I need to feel fantastic!
Handmade Gatherings: Recipes & Crafts for Seasonal Celebrations & Potluck Parties, by Ashley English, is published by Roost Books, Boston.