A Birthday Dinner with James Farmer

In a preview from his new book, CELEBRATING HOME: A TIME FOR EVERY SEASON, James T. Farmer III shares tips for a beautiful and relaxed birthday celebration.
James Farmer at birthday buffet
I like to set up a buffet and let my friends fix their plates. My dear friend Drew English prepared a feast! It was my birthday dinner, after all, so I wasn’t the chef that day.

A true gift for me is to entertain at home—even for my birthday party! Setting the table, cutting flowers from the garden, cooking some best-loved dishes, and being able to work the angles of creativity therein is a favored occasion. My birthday is at the onset of the summer, and the produce and flowers of the season are starting to fill the farmers markets and our gardens. Inspiration comes in the form of a flavor or flower, a texture or tone or even that threshold crossed when the anticipation for something becomes reality—such as a birthday or the changing of a season.

Buffet of panzanella, watermelon slices, caprese salad, and roast pork
The buffet reflects a Southern summertime bounty. In the South, dinner is a celebratory meal, such as a Sunday midday meal, Christmas dinner, holiday or birthday proper. A supper is an evening meal. For a High Hampton birthday dinner, Drew cooked a spread of some favorites—Georgia Caprese Salad and Georgia Panzanella (peaches included with the tomatoes), fresh corn, wedges of watermelon and a pork roast.

My longtime friend and fellow gardener, Drew English, is also one of the best cooks I know. He grows the most gorgeous dahlias, and any chance I am invited to dine at his table is a treat. Since it was my party, after all, I recruited Drew to handle the buffet. We schemed over some of our favorite Southern classics for summertime soirées and gave them a twirl on their tradition. From the charred lemon that gives panzanella pizazz, to peaches layered in a traditional Caprese salad, to roasted radishes accompanying a pork roast, I relished the chance to carry on a tradition yet add my own take . . . well, Drew’s take, more so!

Cecelia's Spanish lemon cake
Cecilia’s Cake Shop in Athens, Georgia, is a longstanding source for Georgians’ celebratory cakes. My favorite, the Spanish Lemon cake, is perfect anytime of the year.
gardenia-scented ice cream
Serve homemade vanilla ice cream with a gardenia garnish. The essence of the scent flavors the ice cream. Cold silver punch cups add to the sensational dessert.

One of the best gifts one can bestow on oneself is to delegate when entertaining. Don’t become stressed or overwork yourself before a dinner party—have a bakery make your favorite cake! For me, the Spanish lemon cake by Cecelia’s Cake Shop in Athens, Georgia, is an ultimate splurge. Though I would not typically put lemon desserts at the top of my list, this cake is truly divine—lemon done right with the perfect icing and layers of cake too! The lemon curd between the delicious layers is topped with a fluffy meringue icing—sweet and tart and textured beautifully. Gardenia-scented ice cream accompanied the cake, giving that heavenly Southern scent to creamy scoops of vanilla.

Table set with green and white table cloth, and flower arrangements
Bringing some of the summer’s first zinnias and dahlias with me up the mountain, I give my summer- time home a foretaste of the glorious summer to come. Arranged with hosta leaves, basil and Queen Anne’s Lace pods, a trio of bouquets serves as the centerpieces of my table. I love to have bouquets “marching” down a table, interposed with votives and candles.

And, rather than playing bartender at my own party, I made a Peach Paloma base, to which my guests could add more or less of their preference—some with more fizz, others less, etc. Before-dinner drinks were taken into the garden, while the finishing touches were prepared on the meal. My preferred evening of this sort is to have a cocktail hour and dinner served buffet style with second helpings encouraged, and a dessert keeping the feast going well after the meal is finished. Wine at the table paired with the dinner relinquished one less decision, too. I think I inherited this from my mother, but that lingering moment after the dinner and dessert, when there is talking and laughing as the candles burn down, is probably my favorite moment at a dinner party.

Green and white flower arrangement and table setting
Green and white is always right! Any season or setting, I love this classic combo. Here, shades of chartreuse mingle with verdant foliage. Zinnias, hosta leaves, bolted basil and Queen Anne’s lace pods bloom out of trumpet vases. Touches of gold, warm bamboo, crystal glasses and white linens carry on the summery palette.

In a time when so many things are hurried and rushed, the luxury of lingering is a treasure for sure. The gift of time, to yourself and to your friends and family, is a precious gift. It’s a gift not given lightly, but a trove to be cherished and stored deep within our hearts and minds. I am immeasurably blessed by these dinners of these good and perfect gifts.

Cover of James Farmer's Celebrating Home bookBy James T. Farmer III

Photography by Emily Followill

Excerpted from Celebrating Home: A Time for Every Season (Gibbs Smith, 2022).

“Nothing is too insignificant to celebrate,” says beloved author and interior designer James Farmer. In his newest book, James shares his love of planning and hosting celebrations at his homes in Georgia and North Carolina. His signature style that combines classic design with today’s contemporary mindset is displayed in every perfectly curated fête. As James says, “I hope this book inspires readers to use the good linens, cut some camellias from the yard and pull out the heirloom serveware—because setting the table for life’s milestones, big and small, makes all the difference.”

Buy the book and enjoy more from this gracious birthday dinner and ten more beautiful, seasonal celebrations!