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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
By 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!