Next time you’re in the mountains of North Carolina, watch for a long, low table at the end of a long dirt road. It’s a coveted invite—though not an exclusive one—all you need to be part of it are rolled-up sleeves and a mastery of showing up to play.
Ashley English is the maker of the next-gen “potluck gone wild,” an experience that merges extravagance with frugality, decadence with simplicity, and live music with a year’s worth of pickling. Here, Ashley shares with us a stream of consciousness on how to throw a truly fantastic party, gets a little cantankerous about unattainable exquisiteness, and issues a blanket challenge to would-be gone-wilders everywhere.
People have always come together to entertain, even when times are tight and finances are slim. Did you see that Martha Stewart reissued her classic book Entertaining? It’s exquisite, page after page of parties that are beyond beautiful, but it’s almost like standing behind a velvet rope at Versailles—it’s just all so over the top that I’d leaf through it, then put it back on the shelf and feel further away than ever from being able to pull off something special. I don’t want to feel like an epic event is beyond me—even if I’m in one of those tinned soup phases (and my friends too). I know that if we pool our efforts and talents, we can make our own Versailles.
You can homestead in an apartment in the middle of LA. You might not be able to keep chickens and bees, but anyone can turn a high-rise rental kitchen into a canning and preserving assembly line that produces your own apple butter or cardamom chutney or plum and sage jam. There’s so much pride in it. We can’t all have a circa-1792 saltbox and an orchard on the coast of Maine. Small-scale is a revolution anywhere. Your homestead can be a condo, or a mile down a dirt road. For a while there, when domesticana had its resurgence in the form of coffee table books, I think we lost our way. Too many of us got intimidated. Homesteading is not an aesthetic or a showcase for bought taste. It’s the essence of thrift come to life. All we have to do is relearn our grandparents’ tricks and pass them around. We need to take it all back, turn it into a collective, and make it ours again.
A fantastic night takes distributed creativity. We communicate just enough so that we don’t end up with, say, 10 apple pies. You want to be highly diversified, but cohesive too. Restraints make people more inventive than they might otherwise be. Pumpkin curry, wasabi roasted seeds, sweet pumpkin tart, pumpkin steamers. With a good, narrow theme, people get it right away. Everyone knows that you can’t have an ice cream social with 15 vanillas. You need someone to bring crushed toffee, someone else to bring stewed peaches, someone else to make waffle cones. Once you have one or two events, people get lit up for the next one—they know how to play along.
You don’t need a staff or a spreadsheet. You just need to tap into local supplies and suppliers, and plan around the seasons. Look at what food is plentiful in your neighborhood. Begin there. Then look at the skills and talents that are plentiful among your friends. Combine pooled food with pooled learning—ask your buddy who’s a carpenter to come and show kids and parents how to make pirate swords, and ask someone else to make some stovetop paints. Or if you’ve got a friend who roasts his own coffee, get him to bring it all and talk about it while we all taste-test. All of us have something to evangelize, something that makes us proud to create or cook or make. We’ve got so much to share. The food, really, is just a gathering point to make that happen.
Ancient Lapland shamans used to eat toadstools and go on metaphysical flights throughout the universe. That’s why Santa Claus wears red and white—it’s one of many holiday roots that are fantastically pagan. We had a party to celebrate the origins of Christmas rituals—all the lights were dim, and the woodstove was crackling, and everyone came in fancy dress and drank cocktails to ward off evil spirits. Juniper and orange peel and digestive bitters with citrus, and herbal sachets to cleanse the fire. We’ve lost too much of our magic and our imagination, I think. We need to do more to uncover those roots.
Once we filled a field with blankets and candles and low wooden feasting tables, and everyone came and gorged on Southern comfort food, and there was a cakewalk, and everyone danced in a circle and exchanged handmade gifts. Whenever that happens—when we pull off an incredible night—we feel like we’ve accessed something that would have otherwise felt closed off to us. It’s a triumph every time.
Seek out and cultivate passionate friends who love to cook, eat and show up. Then go from there. That’s all.