Michael Reagan, eldest son of President Ronald Reagan, political commentator, author, radio host of 26 years, and holder of five powerboat racing world records, said he has been asked all his life, “What was it really like being raised by Ronald Reagan?” When he finally set pen to paper, he realized he had much more to reflect on, and he was all the more honest for it.
In 2016, Reagan published “Lessons My Father Taught Me,” a memoir of his relationship with his father and all he learned from him about love, leadership, family, and faith.
American Essence spoke with Reagan about his cherished memories with his father.
On a lesson he learned while growing up: “I really learned about America, and the military, when I would ride out to the ranch on any given Saturday morning with my father and he would regale me with songs of the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard. And he would just tell me about America,” Reagan said.
On what his father imparted to him: “Forgiveness,” said Reagan. As a child, he was the victim of molestation, and the perpetrator’s threats followed him for years. He carried fear, shame, and resentment with him, even walking away from God and his family at one point. “Ultimately, it came to me that I had to live the Lord’s Prayer instead of just reciting the Lord’s Prayer: Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
He recalled his father’s famously good attitude: “Dad was never bothered. Nothing upset him.”
A special bonding moment: Reagan recalled that in 1991 (when he was about 46), while sitting in church, he asked God to show him that his father loved him. In a moment of blame, he thought about how his father never said “I love you.”
“The voice came back and said, ‘So, when was the last time you told your dad you loved him?’” He realized he never had. “Another voice said, ‘Next time you see him, give him a hug and tell him you love him.’”
He did so, and shocked his father—and the secret service—quite a bit. But then his dad returned the hug and said, “I love you, too.”
From then on, that became their ritual every meeting. When Alzheimer’s had taken much of his father’s memory, and he couldn’t say Michael’s name, the president still held out his arms every time he saw his son, because he recognized him as the man who would always give him a hug.
For all of society’s new tech-driven shortcuts, are we more relaxed and in control of our time? On the contrary, life seems to be speeding out of control, and our personal lives bear the brunt of the ensuing chaos and clutter.
One American found an antidote to the modern frenzy in France. After growing up in casual Southern California, Jennifer L. Scott discovered wisdom in Old World etiquette and the traditional Parisian way of dressing, dining, communicating, and living beautifully at home—a higher standard of living. She shares her advice and inspiration on her blog and YouTube channel, The Daily Connoisseur, and in her best-selling books.
“We, especially as Americans, can really get swept up in the rat race,” Scott said. “But I think that we miss something when we do that: We miss a lot about the beauty of everyday life.”
That’s why, she said, “one of my missions in life is to encourage people to live a beautiful life at home, and to live life as a formal affair. I do think that the home is a sacred space; it’s our most important space. It’s where we spend the most time and our environment affects us. … We have a life at home—and for many people that life is in chaos.”
Fish Out of Water
Scott’s slower living approach is a way that Americans used to follow but that she hadn’t encountered while growing up. All that changed the year she went to Paris on a study abroad program.
“Suddenly, I found myself living with this very formal, traditional Parisian family in the 16th arrondissement in Paris,” Scott said. “It’s a fish-out-of-water experience for me.” Her books—“Lessons from Madame Chic,” “At Home with Madame Chic,” “Polish Your Poise with Madame Chic,” and “Connoisseur Kids”—are full of stories about what she learned from her host family, including “Madame Chic”—her nickname for her host mother—and Parisian culture in general.
On one of her first nights there, for instance, she learned a sartorial lesson she’ll never forget. Scott’s host mother spotted her in the pajamas she had brought from California, an ancient pair of sweatpants with a hole in them. Madame Chic was in disbelief. She let Scott know that there was no need to dispense with self-respecting standards just because you’re at home or the sun’s gone down.
“I think, ultimately, the thread of the books is how I meld both what I learned living with this formal French family with my casual American lifestyle, and make it modern and make it significant to me,” Scott said. Since then, she’s discovered even more wisdom and beauty in everyday living, from her personal experiences as a conscientious homemaker and homeschooling mother of four children, ages 4 to 12. She shares her advice with her followers in videos every week.
A Path Through the Noise
The Daily Connoisseur’s slogan is “Keep calm and remain classy.” But as a busy working and homeschooling mom, how exactly does Scott keep calm? “I have to constantly remind myself of it,” she said. “I frequently find myself operating on low levels of stress, sometimes high levels. … I have to consciously step out of that.”
One grounding pillar she always returns to is faith. Scott is Christian, but on her channel, she keeps the tone comfortable for people of any belief system and freely discusses “the major role that prayer and meditation plays in my life,” she said. “[It’s] the thread that kind of gets me through every single day.”
The “noise” on social media and in the news can be an obstacle. Quiet that down, Scott advises, and think about how you truly want to live your life.
“Living beautifully at home is about expressing your style,” according to Scott, who said that her goal is to open people’s eyes to what a fulfilling journey that is. “I just can’t stress enough that it is a beautiful adventure, and that people should wholeheartedly embrace it, even if you are a woman in her 40s who just thinks, ‘Well, I’m not going on an adventure.’ Yes, you can go on an adventure!
“I think it’s exciting when you embark on the journey to improve yourself. And so just enjoy it.”
Tips for Beautiful Living From Jennifer Scott
Scott is not afraid to point out “not-so-chic” choices her fellow Americans make from time to time; she does it with charm, kindness, and humor. But the power of her advice lies in the practical examples of what to do instead. Here are some ways to start living a more beautiful, formal life every day.
Schedule Your Days Mindfully
Self-discipline is a cornerstone of a beautiful life, Scott said—not something to be afraid of. “I like to encourage people to use a planner to schedule their day, write to-do lists, have a morning routine where you do the same things every morning. I think a lot of people are afraid of a routine or getting stuck in a rut by doing the same things all the time, but there’s actually a lot of beauty in [discipline].”
Scott is candid about the sacrifices she makes in order to write her books, helm a successful YouTube channel, and raise her children. “I’m a very disciplined person,” she said, and “that’s how I do accomplish what I do.” Case in point: She keeps up to 10 notebooks at a time to organize the different parts of her life.
That doesn’t mean packing each day with rigid, strictly-business tasks. Scott stresses the importance of taking intentional pauses for the little rituals that nourish you. “Doing the things I love throughout the day, like a scheduled tea time, is something that I’m really known for promoting, because I think it’s so important for people to take a break from their afternoon,” she said. For her, that means making time for meaningful exercise, gardening or going out into nature, taking a long bath with a good book, or writing letters or postcards to friends—“things that you wouldn’t really find on a to-do list, but that are equally as important as our most important items on that list.”
And if it all starts to get too overwhelming, be in tune with that, and adjust accordingly. When Scott finds herself operating on stress, she said, “I have to consciously step out of that and stop my to-do list and say no to commitments, and that helps me remain calm.”
Break Out the Bone China
Or your fine linens, or the nice wine you’re saving—today. A key theme that runs through Scott’s advice is “always using the best things that you have,” she said. “It’s about adopting that mindset of higher living, of allowing yourself to enjoy beautiful things, not saving your best for later.”
That can start small: “Instead of having your afternoon tea in that cracked old mug that you use every day,” Scott suggested, how about “finding that nice bone china tea cup that maybe your grandmother gave you that you never used, and enjoying it.”
Simplify Your Wardrobe To Amplify Your Style
Scott encourages “dressing well for the day, every day”—whether you’re going out or at home. To put that goal within reach, enter the “10-item wardrobe.” It’s a life-changing lesson Scott picked up from her Parisian mentors who owned, by American standards, very few clothes, but high-quality ones that they wore often and took good care of. Each item fit well, looked great, and was timeless and elegant, and most or all of them were chosen so that they could be mixed and matched seamlessly. This approach is the subject of a chapter in Scott’s book—and a 2014 TEDx talk—that she says has enduring and universal appeal.
“I think a lot of men and women, they have way too many clothes, and because of this, their style is confused,” Scott said. “Personal style is such an important part of our lives, so paring that down and expressing your true style through the 10-item wardrobe is a big one.”
The concept isn’t as extreme as it may sound. For each season, pick a few tops, a few bottoms, and for women, a skirt and dress or two. Not included in the 10 items are your jackets, hats, scarves, gym clothes, pajamas, and so on. Unneeded pieces go into storage. Closet space is freed up. Some people choose 12 items; for others, 20 is more appropriate. This capsule wardrobe stays put for about 12 weeks, then you swap it out to your heart’s content.
Bring Formality Back to the Dinner Table
“My favorite thing about living in France in particular,” Scott said, “was every single meal involved conversation, community, and nice, formal manners.” She pointed out that American families used to sit down together to enjoy their meals, but that the pressure to join the “rat race” may have sabotaged the tradition here. Eating has become a casual affair.
Making mealtimes more formal—not stuffy—is one way to slow down, pay attention to quality of life, and replace chaos with order, which begets beauty. Scott has also found a fulfilling creative outlet in setting a pretty table with fine trimmings for her young family at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
There’s a wellness benefit here, too: “If you’re walking down the sidewalk stuffing a sandwich in your face, because you’re late for something, that is not a good way to digest your food,” Scott said. “When you’re sitting down with good posture, a beautifully laid table, and conversation, you’re able to digest your food properly and get that nourishment you need. And it helps with your stress.”
Welcome Whimsy Into the Home
Life is hard, Scott admits, and homemaking can become monotonous. She proposes an antidote: Introduce some whimsy to the everyday. A perfect example is her “Gemstone Homemaking” series, in which she chooses one gemstone at a time as a theme, and allows it to “inspire us at home.” Emerald, for instance, might show up as an accent color in an outfit of the day, the focal point in a bouquet of flowers for the table, and a recipe for a matcha-flavored hot drink or delicious pesto pasta dinner.
Scott said she believes this is her signature characteristic. There is no shortage of homemaking YouTube channels, for example, that cover nitty-gritty tips for cleaning, decluttering, meal planning, or etiquette basics. “But I like to explore a more whimsical, different dynamic,” Scott said.
Pursue the Arts and Learning
Scott understands the power of looking good, and she shares plenty of style tips from her wardrobe and home decor, but she always emphasizes that our cultivated inner worlds are what truly make us elegant, beautiful, and attractive.
Art appreciation plays a big role in that for Scott. She studied theater in university, and while studying abroad in Paris, she took an art history class that included weekly trips to museums like the Louvre. The class “totally transformed my life,” she said. “I fell in love with these paintings, because not only are you seeing the painting, but you know the story behind it, about the artist and the time period. There’s history—there’s so much.”
Her video series “Seek Out the Arts” is a monthly appointment with a curated selection of paintings, poems, music, and more. In adulthood, she’d longed for the fine arts again in her life but found few opportunities to include it; she created the series to give herself and others the chance to return to some of their most fulfilling pursuits.
“I love embarking on new ideas and implementing them into my life,” she said. “I’m constantly reading, I’m constantly listening to audiobooks, constantly watching YouTube channels, trying to improve myself, and I’m still learning things every single day of my life.”
Timeless, colorful, and alive: such is a room designed by James T. Farmer III, interior designer, gardener, and all-around Southern gentleman. Farmer embraces the warmth of spirit and classically beautiful, seasonal lifestyle of the South, from generations of his close-knit family and his hometown of Perry, Georgia, and he brings it into his clients’ homes across the country.
Farmer is the author of 10 books on interior design, gardening, entertaining, cooking, and, in general, how to beautify everyday life every day of the year. His titles include “A Time to Plant,” “Sip and Savor,” “Porch Living,” “Wreaths for All Seasons,” “A Time to Cook,” “Dinner on the Grounds,” “A Time to Celebrate,” “A Place to Call Home,” and “Arriving Home.” His latest book, “Celebrating Home,” delves deep into his warm and sincere philosophy on staging seasonally inspired celebrations at home, to recognize life’s precious moments—both small and grand.
American Essence: You’ve written a lot about classic, traditional style. What are some Southern design elements you find yourself coming back to again and again?
James Farmer: Mixing heirloom pieces and contemporary style is how I strive to keep designs both classic and fresh. In the South, we are proud of what came before us, so mixing what’s “mine, Mama’s, and Mimi’s” is a great way to accomplish that. I love mixing silver with contemporary art and brown furniture with freshly upholstered items. In my designs, I tend to use a classic mix of patterns with a floral, trellis, and animal print. You can’t go wrong with elements of nature.
AE: Where do you find the most creative inspiration?
Mr. Farmer: Nature is always my biggest inspiration—flowers, colors, plants. It is our greatest gift! I also love going to other people’s homes for dinner parties—how they do flowers, what they serve, how they host. We can always draw inspiration from others.
AE: What do you feel a space needs before you feel it’s complete?
Mr. Farmer: Flowers! I decorate in layers—layers of fabrics, layers of patterns—but a space feels complete when we place flowers to add that welcoming touch.
AE: Your grandfather and other family members before him were preachers, and their influence seems to come through you by way of the rich voice in the books you’ve authored and in your social media posts. In what ways have your family and upbringing shaped you, that you hope you can bring to your projects and people’s homes?
Mr. Farmer: As a preacher, my grandfather delivered messages that were delightful and hopeful rather than scornful. My grandmother would host people after church, for holidays and throughout the year—their home was a welcoming place for any and everyone in their lives. So much of who I am is because of them. People were drawn to them and their graciousness, and I hope that translates in my life and work.
AE: You’ve written about faith, such as how you “see our Creator” in the garden. Can you tell us a little more about the role of your faith in your life and work?
Mr. Farmer: The garden was His creation, and at the end of the day, hopefully I’m glorifying the Lord’s work in mine.
AE: What aspirations do you have?
Mr. Farmer: Writing is something I truly love. I have 10 books ranging from cookbooks to interior design books, but the one thing they have in common is that I write all of them. I plan to continue writing as much and as often as I can.
AE: Can you tell us about a recent project that has been close to your heart, or that you are especially proud of?
Mr. Farmer: There’s a project we recently completed in Alabama that I first worked on 20 years ago. Very early in my career, this family trusted me. It was small scale—just some work in the garden and a few things inside. Having them trust my team to come back for more work at this point in my career feels very full circle.
AE: What are some simple but effective ways to give a space new life, without packing up and changing address?
Mr. Farmer: A little paint goes a long way! Add fresh flowers, get new pillows, and be inspired by the seasons.
AE: A lot of people have a knack for decor. How did you decide to become professional so early on?
Mr. Farmer: I actually started helping my mother and grandmother’s friends with flowers, pots, and party prep before I could drive, so this style of work has truly become part of my being. Leaning into the ways I could continue as a professional led me to the design world.
AE: What advice would you give to amateur or budding designers with an itch to do more?
Mr. Farmer: I advise young designers to learn from the ground up. So many teams go into making design projects happen—builders, architects, landscape. Learn from them all, rather than just from what you think you want to do. You may fall in love with another aspect of the design world! Always ask what you can do, get real experience, and strive to get a real understanding of the work.
AE: You radiate positivity and this verve for life, and you have written about finding beauty, hope, and renewal even in coexistence with darkness, loss, and grief. Where do you find joy?
Mr. Farmer: Thank you. I find joy in my family, my friends, my work, and my surroundings. My sisters and I are very close, and I am fortunate to have a hand in raising their children, and my aunt and uncle’s home is on the same property as my home, Farmdale. Staying close and connected is a vital part of my happiness—especially when life is busy. I also have an amazing work team, so often work feels like time with dear friends. I do my best to invest time in what matters, whether that’s getting my hands dirty in the garden or babysitting my nieces and nephews!
Quietly nestled along the Narraganset Bay, the Marble House was the first of the stone palaces to be built in Newport—transforming the quiet colony of wooden houses into a bastion of opulence. It would be called a “cottage,” in deference to the earlier shingle style summer residences. But in truth, this was a grand home “fit for a Queen.”
A French Affinity
Alva Erskine Smith was born in Mobile, Alabama, on January 17, 1853. She and her parents would spend summers in Newport, Rhode Island. During the Civil War, her family moved to Europe, and she attended a private boarding school in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Spending some of her formative years in the vicinity of Paris, young Alva became a Francophile (lover of all things French). She and her family eventually returned to America, living in New York. She married William Kissam Vanderbilt, a grandson of the patriarch Cornelius Vanderbilt Sr.
Alva had built her “Petit Château” in New York with the help of architect Richard Morris Hunt. Now she engaged his services once more to create a “summer cottage” that would emulate the fine Beaux-Arts classicism she had admired in France. It would be the first truly grand classical mansion of Newport, Rhode Island. Hunt created for Alva a grand “temple for the arts,” as she called it. The design of Marble House was inspired by the Petit Trianon in Paris, a neoclassical style château located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Construction began on the house in 1888. It would be a present from her husband for her 39th birthday.
In the late 19th century, the estate reportedly cost $10–11 million to build. Seven million of that was for the marble—500,000 cubic feet of it.
Of Marble and Gild
Alva was known as a great entertainer, and she sought to build her own social status. For that reason, Alva collaborated with Hunt to create what became recognized as “one of the grandest ballrooms ever to be built in Newport.” If ever there was a ballroom that epitomized the Gilded Age, it would have to be the ballroom at Marble House.
The Ballroom was literally gilded: The elaborate architectural details of the room, first drawn by Hunt, are all covered with gold. Elaborate cornices, pilasters, archways, and panels of bas relief illustrating classical mythology are all covered with 22 karat gold. Above the relief is a 19th-century painting, in the style of the Italian Baroque painter Pietro da Cortona, of the Greek goddess Minerva.
Jules Allard and Sons, the noted Paris design firm, created the interiors for the house. The Stair Hall and its grand staircase, constructed of yellow Sienna marble, features an intricate wrought iron and bronze railing covered with gold. Copied from a railing in the Palace of Versailles, the railing is signed by Allard.
The opulent Dining Room is walled in pink Numidian marble with architectural details of gilded bronze. Its fireplace is a replica of the Salon d’Hercule (Hercules Drawing Room) in Versailles. The library is in the Rococo style and features carved walnut bookcases by furniture maker Gilbert Cuel, who worked with Allard to create the room.
Alva had a collection of Medieval and Renaissance objects and artwork, for which the Gothic Room was built. In contrast to the rest of the house’s Louis XIV and Louis XV décor, this Gothic-revival sitting room is modeled after the interior of a house in Bourges, France (built between 1443 and 1451 for Jacques Coer, a prosperous merchant). The room’s chimney piece, of Caen limestone, is modeled after the one in the Bourges house. The foliate (leafy) cornice was also inspired by the gothic French interior, but in deference to Rhode Island’s seaside location, crabs and lobsters are worked into the foliage.
The private quarters upstairs, where the family lived, are finished in the style of Louis XIV. William and Alva had three children. William K. Jr. is known for promoting the young sport of automobile racing. His brother Harold was a skilled yachtsman, successfully defending the America’s Cup on three occasions. Consuelo, the daughter, became the 9th Duchess of Marlborough, marrying Charles Spencer Churchill in 1895.
A Stage for Suffrage
Alva divorced William in March of 1895. She already owned Marble House since William had presented it to her as a birthday present and the deed was in her name. The next year she married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, and she lived with him at Belcourt (another mansion designed by Richard Morris Hunt in Newport) until his death in 1908. She then returned to Marble House and added an ornate teahouse, modeled after a 12th-century Song Dynasty temple in China. It sits at the foot of the Marble House lawn, above the Cliff Walk overlooking the ocean. The design was created by the sons of Richard Morris Hunt, who by that time had taken over their father’s firm.
It was here, and on Marble House’s rear terrace, that Alva began to hold rallies for a new passion. The woman who so ardently strove to bring her family into the realm of nobility now became a champion of women’s suffrage. The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage used Marble House as its headquarters. Alva lived to see the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. Her daughter Consuelo had dissolved her marriage with the British Duke and was now living in Paris. Alva moved to France to be close to her and later died in Paris at the age of 80.
It was mainly for the well-being of their 10 children that Carolyn and Josh Thomas struck out to start their own family homestead 1,000 miles from their home.
Their life in Southern California had been all about chasing a check, climbing the ladder, and getting ahead. They were used to following the crowd.
It was when their first son was born and it came time for his first round of vaccines that the parents became concerned about their lifestyle.
“The doctor had told me that the nurse was going to come in and give the baby two shots,” Carolyn told The Epoch Times. “Well, when the nurse came in, she gave the baby three shots. And both Josh and I have this very clear memory of these three different shots.”
They didn’t think much of it at the time; they were just so used to deferring to what the authorities said.
“When we went home that night, he had a reaction to the vaccines,” Carolyn added. “It made us really wake up and start paying attention and decide that we needed to be in the driver’s seat of our life, and we needed to be making active decisions.”
So the family grew … and grew, and grew. In 2007, Josh and Carolyn made up their mind to purchase a tiny plot of land where they grew their own food; and they awakened to the wonders of what the earth can provide their family. It wasn’t much, but the learning process was essential for what came next.
“We started really learning about the skills of cooking from scratch, making our own bread at home, canning, dehydrating, and different types of preserving,” the mom said. “We wanted to give our children the gift of health and very robust, healthy bodies, and also have the skills of producing our own food and growing our own food. Because at that point, it just started to be way too expensive to buy the amount of food that we needed at the quality we wanted.”
In order to feed their family well, they eventually scaled up to a 20-acre property in Tennessee where they raised their own beef.
They finally bought their 40-acre plot in northern Idaho in 2018.
“The reality is, if you go right to a lot of acres, you won’t have the skills you need in order to actually use them properly or well,” Carolyn said. “You’ll probably get overwhelmed by the experience.”
Yet tough times were right around the corner. In their local area in 2014, employment was scarce, and Josh found himself without the income they needed to sustain their expanding family. Little did they realize that their sustenance lay right beneath their feet.
“We still wanted to eat high quality, nutrient dense, and organic food, but there was just no money to buy groceries at all,” Carolyn said. “And so we really took it to the next level and started growing a huge amount of our own produce, and all of our own meat and dairy, and the fruit for preserving it.
“It really was an important moment for us, as we learned how to do this on a scale that could actually take care of our family and feed ourselves and be self-sufficient if we needed to.”
By now, they knew what to do with the land and how to make the best use of it: The family established one large, main garden for growing their staple crops—such as potatoes, beets, carrots, onions, and garlic, as well as big rows of broccoli and cauliflower. Then there were the perennials—grapes and raspberries.
Adjacent to the house, there is the “cottage garden,” as Carolyn calls it, which is right outside the kitchen. Here, she grows her herbs for seasoning, lettuce and cherry tomatoes for a quick salad, and a few flowers.
Then there is an area out front they call “the forest garden” where they have their fruit trees and some wild edibles tucked here and there.
But beyond mere sustenance, life on the homestead has helped the children bloom—not just in terms of developing good health and natural immunity, but also in their character and confidence.
“It allows each member of our family to know that they’re valued and a valuable part of the family,” Carolyn said. “We all have what we call ‘morning chores’ and ‘evening chores,’ and everybody knows what they need to do in order to get all the basics done.”
Some will be out feeding the animals or rotating the livestock; others will milk the cows, bring in firewood in the winter, or work around the house.
“We find that the kids, when they’re very young, they want to help,” the mom said. “They want to be involved and they ask to be involved. So when we start giving them chores, when they’re two and three years old, they really want to do it because everyone around them is doing it too.”
There’s nothing more natural for a family than life on a homestead. It’s how people have been living for thousands of years.
It may seem novel to some city folk, but the Thomases are just getting reacquainted with what comes naturally. Far from being hooked up to their devices 24/7, or becoming lazy teenagers, all these young ones are early risers. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas have to tell their kids to stay in bed until 6 a.m. They homeschool their kids, and they are happy.
Getting off the grid (they’re not totally there yet; commodities like coffee, etc. are store-bought) was mainly a family lifestyle choice for the Thomases. But in the chaos of the world today—with inflation, looming food shortages, and other uncertainties—the family believes it’s the responsible thing to do. By learning how to be self-sufficient, Carolyn says, we become less dependent on the government and thus more free.
Homesteading might be a check against government overreach.
Besides chores, Josh and Carolyn are now sharing their journey and skills with others. Having started their own YouTube channel and family brand called Homesteading Family, they teach their skills by posting multiple videos per week.
In these, Carolyn has gotten into old-fashioned, traditional cooking. Having dusted off a classic 1700s recipe book, she has unearthed some hearty, wholesome treats like a wonderfully robust pumpkin pie as well as deliciously simple bread pudding, and much more.
Yet she knows not everyone has access to a 40-acre farm. Many of her viewers live in the big city, but there are still things they can do to be more self-sufficient.
“Learn how to cook from scratch, learn how to make better buying decisions, learn how to bulk buy food and store it, even if storing it means you’re putting it under a bed or in a closet somewhere,” she said. “A lot of people think of living a lifestyle that is prepared and more self-sufficient as something they should do in case the world falls apart, some big event, or something major that happens on a large scale.”
The reality is that our great grandmothers and grandfathers always lived a more prepared lifestyle.
“Historically, it’s the normal, wise thing to do, like the parable of the Ant and the Grasshopper,” she added. “Work when it’s work season and put up your food, and have what you need for the off seasons.”
When disaster strikes, Shane Hobel is the guy you want by your side—or better yet, the guy you want to have taught you how to deal with it.
A former stuntman, bouncer, and motorcycle instructor, Hobel has carved out an interesting route to running Mountain Scout Survival School in upstate New York. Two influences have shaped him since an early age: nature and martial arts. His reverence for nature was instilled by his family and Native American heritage, as well as many elders along the way. He also holds a fifth-degree black belt in traditional Okinawan karate.
He is one of five elite trackers in a nonprofit national tracking team founded by Tom Brown Jr. to find missing persons, including lost children, disoriented hunters, and fugitives. (Once, he tracked down a black panther on the loose in the Palisades, New York.) With no hesitation to crawl and wade through any environment, he’s also the man people hire to look for breaches in their home security; he has also been called on to consult for the U.S. military.
Hobel started teaching survival skills to children in after-school programs, then expanded to adults. Successive waves of interest came from “macho” types, outdoor enthusiasts, survivalists, and families. But the largest growing demographic over the last four or five years has been women.
Driven by a mama bear instinct, women have grown unsettled by a world that seems anything but predictable, Hobel says, and are taking the initiative on behalf of friends and family. “One woman said, ‘Can you take my husband for 30 days?’” he remembers.
“There’s a quiet desperation of people wanting these skills. They don’t want to be labeled as doomsday preppers or conspiracy theorists—they just know there’s a simple phrase: ‘Being prepared is being responsible.’ Somewhere deep down, there’s a feeling that ‘you can’t expect anybody to come and save you. You just have to take it upon yourself to do these skills,’” he said.
It can be easy to feel panic-stricken at the thought of emergency preparedness. But as Hobel points out, those who have adopted a proactive approach toward preparation are already on the way to a healthier mindset.
“If something goes wrong, it’s not going to be a surprise, it’s an anticipated change. … With people who have skills, it becomes just a nice vacation, something that is not so terrifying. It doesn’t have to be extreme survival,” Hobel said.
When it comes to children, it’s especially important that “if something happens, this is not a crisis. This is an exciting adventure.” Be upbeat and positive, and you’ll see that your child is able to keep up with you. “But the moment the child realizes it’s a disaster, they’re not going to give you that energy.”
If you suspect a disaster is about to take place, “Jump in the car, go to Jersey, go to some Airbnb, go have some strawberry shortcake. If nothing happened, you took a day off, good for you. But if something did happen, you’re at an Airbnb with strawberry shortcake and you’re watching the world burn from a distance, but at least you’re smart enough to get out on the first wave.
“So your approach and how you go about it will be the attitude of success. If I start off as a victim, so I will become.”
Survival Skills Are Ancestral Skills
Under a fall canopy of beeches and maples, Hobel muses about the current state of the world. His reference points: raccoons and squirrels.
In an era of distraction and modern conveniences, it’s easy to become passive, going about life immersed in technology but not necessarily connected to other people. Like raccoons, we are distracted by the newest and shiniest toys and gadgets.
Squirrels, however, think about the future. In the fall, “they’re making provisions now for something that is about to happen. Quite more often than not, they dig up somebody else’s nuts. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but their medicine is thinking forward. And making these provisions is why people are coming here,” he said.
Hobel is hopeful that people are bringing along friends and family. “It’s great support because you can’t do this by yourself.” Going alone would require a very high-level set of skills, he explained.
Mountain Scout Survival School covers typical survival school topics such as shelter, water, fire, and food, but it also teaches tracking, awareness, and movement. (There are legendary tales of men and women who could survive in the wild and move about undetected.)
The outdoor camp at the school shows some of the students’ work: strong lashings to make fishing spears, and tongs (“fancy chopsticks”) to move coals onto short stumps to form drinking cups. As they burn, they create a hollow that can be polished with a river stone. Scale it up and you can imagine how to make a canoe.
“Nature is the great equalizer—fire, cold, hunger, bears—none of those things [care] what your religious status is, your political status, your job title,” Hobel said.
The skills that Hobel feels are his duty to preserve, protect, and pass on are actually not survival skills at their core, but ancestral skills.
These skills were “extremely sophisticated,” though coming from “what we deem a very primitive time. We are living in a very sophisticated time but we are in fact quite primitive,” Hobel said.
Some Native American prophecies mention a time of upheaval on Earth, marked by food and water shortages, diseases, natural and man-made disasters, and war. After a period of chaos, humanity will find itself in a primitive place again, left to rely on these ancestral skills.
“I do this because I want people to be closer to the earth and live a beautiful, harmonious life. I don’t do this to prepare them for the Armageddon. But they’re empowered just in the event of.”
At his school, people have “a physical space by which they can come, be around the medicine fires, learn these empowering skills.”
Ultimately, Hobel wants to pass on the knowledge of these ancestral skills to children, explaining, “I want to put this back in the elementary schools and junior high schools, where it belongs.”
Hobel, who works seven days a week, has no shortage of ideas and projects—though not enough help and funding to make it all happen. He also has a nonprofit, Arrows of Honor, for veterans and first responders, that aims to address PTSD. He envisions them coming around the fire, becoming instructors, and then going back to their hometowns to teach children and adults these skills—and be looked up to.
“They have to be returned to ceremony, back to fire, back to being a warrior again … to realize that all of that trauma is not theirs—it was theirs to experience but it’s not theirs to keep or hold on to.”
In the end, it’s a journey of self-discovery.
People come to Hobel’s school thinking they’ll just learn about shelter, water, and food. “But what they realize is, ‘this is a journey to myself’—because it’s you that has to make that fire and shelter. You have to get out of your own way to be successful.”
Getting Out of Dodge
Unusual for a survival school, Mountain Scout Survival School, in Hopewell Junction, New York, two hours from Manhattan, teaches both wilderness survival and urban emergency preparedness—a hot topic, given 70 percent of people currently live in urban areas.
“The subject matter is overwhelming,” admits Hobel, who consults for private groups as well. In quaint gatherings in brownstone apartments, small groups come together around food and wine, focused on developing a solid plan to get out safely should a disaster happen.
The skill set required in the city is different from being out in the wilderness. The bottom line is, there is no sustainability in the city; it is wholly dependent on supplies coming in. In case of danger, Hobel advises city dwellers to get out with the first wave of exodus. Though you can stay for a little while, “eventually you’re going to have to go. My suggestion would be to go with the waves and don’t go alone; if you’re a solo operator, you’re just a target. Remember that the most scary individual in the world is a hungry person.”
The topics include communication options and protocols, plans detailing meeting points and how to get there, resources along the way, safety, and the big subject of go-bags—emergency backpacks to take when you leave home.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Hobel saw many companies sell generic, sub-par go-bags. He still urges consumers to be wary and do their research, since these kits aren’t adapted for your personal circumstances.
Go-bags can range from a 24-hour bag designed to get you by with the bare minimum, to the 36- to 72-hour bag (the most common), to what Hobel calls a “sustainability bag,” which can sustain you indefinitely—as long as you have the skills.
You also need to consider the time of year, and know your plan: where you’re going, who’s going with you, how fast or slow you need to go to accommodate the slowest member of your party, and whether you can replenish items along the way. Make sure to have a couple of exit routes in mind, and know how you’re getting to your destination.
Every member of your group of family or friends should have a go-bag, “packed and identical.” Crucially, get out and practice with it.
And learn the skills: If you lose your go-bag, “your skills don’t go in the bag and they stay with you; for example, first aid and CPR—start with that. You can help yourself and then you can help others,” Hobel said.
The Persian melon, a honey-sweet, orange-fleshed variety dating back to its namesake empire and the progenitor of all American cantaloupes, was a standard in American gardens for two centuries, but it is now virtually unseen and in need of rescue. Montana lavender clay corn, with its striking, deep purple kernels, was blended by a Montanan corn breeder who used a Mandan tribe variety that once passed through the hands of Lewis and Clark and Thomas Jefferson. The buena mulata pepper, a chameleon variety that fruits violet and pink, then ripens through orange and brown to a final red, was extremely rare but rescued from obscurity in the 1940s by Horace Pippen, a black veteran and folk artist who traded his seed collection for therapeutic bee stings.
All of them heirlooms; all of them now safely kept and made available to gardeners around the country to grow for a few dollars. This is the world of Jere Gettle.
Heirlooms: The word itself has an emotive effect, something meaningful, something passed down, something belonging to the family. And indeed, many of these are generational family treasures, fruits and vegetables that have been around and passed down for years. For Gettle, they appeal to his “passion of always finding something new and unique, and telling the story about a family, a region, or country where [it] came from,” he said. In 1998, when he was 17 years old, he founded Baker Creek Seed Company as a tiny, one-man purveyor dedicated to finding and sustaining these myriad varieties. Today, with his wife, Emilee, and a staff of more than 100, Gettle manages the largest catalog of heirloom seeds in North America.
The seed company, named for a creek not 1,000 feet off the back door of its public store, occupies 17 acres 5 miles north of Mansfield, Missouri, a town of about 1,200. Yet this year, Baker Creek is mailing out 1.5 million full-color seed catalogs filled with more than 1,000 heirloom plants.
Gettle grew up in the Boise Valley, but on the Oregon side of the border—an area of great soil, he pointed out. “Everyone pretty much farmed or gardened at least on some scale,” he said. His paternal grandmother, born in Mexico, lived on the same property, growing the crops she remembered from her childhood; his other grandmother lived 15 miles down the road and raised many varieties of squash. His parents grew and preserved much of their own food. They’d visit cousins “and everyone was basically talking about what they were growing, what was ripe.”
His earliest memories are of the garden, of spending time there with his grandmother, and of sitting nearby as she cooked tamales and other homegrown foods over an old wood stove, while he, curiously, paged through seed catalogs—the way other kids might flip through comics or story books. “It’s kind of how I almost learned to read,” he said.
“I got interested really early in all the different colorful vegetables, flowers,” he said. “Everybody was always planting something, so it got me started.” Even as a child, Gettle grew unusual items, such as scallop squash and banana melon, a yellow-rind melon with salmon-colored flesh and a hint of its namesake’s flavor. By the age of 9, he was sending off for his own catalogs, and his dream to work with a seed company took root.
The family moved to Montana when he was 5, and then to Missouri when he was 13, settling on a 176-acre property—becoming only the third family to have occupied it since it had been parceled out in land grants in the 1830s and ’40s. As a teenager, Gettle started saving and trading seeds. When he was 17, he made a 12-page price list of all his seeds and distributed it to family and friends, and he placed a classified ad in the rural newspaper. He ended up making photocopies for 550 people who responded requesting the list. That was 1998, and thus Baker Creek Seed Company was born.
Gettle became a lifetime member of Seed Savers Exchange, and the internet opened up a lot of connections, pushed him forward, and piqued his interest in the diversity that was out there. One of the first varieties he received, and his company introduced in the United States, was the Ali Baba watermelon. “It was sent to me by a gentleman in Iraq in 1998 or ’99,” Gettle recalled. “He said that due to the war going on in Iraq, he was afraid it was going to disappear, and he wanted to keep it going. And when we tried it, it was the best-tasting watermelon we’d ever grown. It had a hard rind, kept well, had great flavor, and it was one of those varieties that had been around in Iraq for a long time.”
He obtained a greater understanding of what was out there in the wider world, and what was disappearing in American catalogs. His passion for the seeds became a love of travel and discovery, and he ventured to the corners of the Earth to track down interesting varieties. Even now, when he has the opportunity, he travels to places like Southeast Asia, Japan, and Guatemala to learn about what people eat and grow.
Seeds even brought Gettle and Emilee, his wife, together. Emilee’s father had farmed and her family home gardened, so, naturally, she ended up with a Baker Creek catalog, and the two met at the seed store. They had two kids, adopted two more, and another is on the way. Acorns don’t fall far from the tree: Several of the kids, ages 7 to 17, have traveled with their parents on “seed discovery missions” abroad to collect seeds, eat interesting fruits and vegetables, and meet people with a shared commitment to preserving seeds and growing their own.
Baker Creek’s seeds are not necessarily all heirloom, which Gettle calls an engineered term meaning traditional or old varieties. An “old” variety is a matter of perspective, relative to a person’s age, he noted. But they are all open-pollinated—plants naturally pollinated by bees, birds, the plant itself, or by hand, rather than selectively cross-pollinated with other varieties, as hybridized seeds are. “It’s either an heirloom or well on its way to becoming an heirloom,” Gettle said.
The key here is consistent preservation: Unlike hybrids, which don’t always produce enough seeds, nor seeds of the same variety, heirlooms breed true from the seed that you saved. This is imperative for those relying on their gardens as an independent and secure food source. That consistency also maintains a direct line to cultural heritage while preserving biodiversity, a crucial aspect that protects us from disturbances in the ecosystem.
The term also does not always mean rare, Gettle said—“You can get some of them at Ace Hardware and anywhere else”—but the majority of what Baker Creek offers is not readily available. “Those are the varieties I really specialize in.” As an example, he points out the Kuroda carrot, a short, sweet, stocky Japanese heirloom that grows well in strong summer heat. “We have black carrots, red carrots, yellow carrots. We have one of the larger collections of everything put together in one place.”
It makes it hard to choose a favorite. Ask Gettle what he likes best and it’s as if you asked him to rank his children. He doesn’t commit but eventually simply starts naming whatever lovely thing comes to mind, and each comes with a story. The Okinawa white bitter melon, for instance, is unique to their catalog. “We were looking for an old version, but all we found were hybrids. But then we found a few pounds of it in Okinawa, and I picked up my first seed packet in Japan about five years ago. They are bright white, amazing-looking on the vine, and [have] a milder flavor. They can be used for soups and curries—and also make a great pickle!”
In Gettle’s second year in business, the Y2K problem grabbed all the headlines. “There was a big interest in homesteading and gardening,” Gettle recalled. “We went from 550 catalogs to around 7 or 8 thousand.” The 2008 financial crisis showed similar growth. Any time people face financial uncertainty, Gettle sees the rush to grow their own food.
And again, uncertainties over the last couple of years drove people to the garden. “Some were gardening for food, some were gardening for food and relaxation, and some just wanted to do something that got their minds off of everything that was going on,” Gettle said. “I think that’s one of the big reasons people do it—besides, everyone just loves fresh tomatoes.”
Now, in addition to their print catalogs, the Baker Creek website (RareSeeds.com), which boasts the “largest selections of 19th-century heirloom seeds from Europe and Asia,” attracts 1.2 million users per month. They fill about a million orders per year, with an average order size of 13 packets, and customers now order more often throughout the year, not just in spring. The largest demographic groups are the 24- to 34-year-olds and the pre-retirement group, 55 to 65, but those differences are not large, and even the 18- to 24-year-olds are getting into it.
Baker Creek is for gardeners who want a lot of choices, Gettle said. “If you’re just looking for a radish, you’re probably just as good going into a hardware store. But if you’re looking for the best paste tomato or the best orange paste tomato? We have some options—better flavor; or sweeter, lower acid; larger size; or a different color.” The company grows a variety of crops on its Missouri farm, and it also works with about 200 growers, gardeners, and small seed producers.
“People have gotten away from eating the same old varieties,” he added. Think the ubiquitous Red Delicious apples and Cavendish bananas, easy to ship and blemish-free in the produce aisles. These commercial varieties, Gettle explained, are mostly bred for shipping, while heirlooms were originally bred for local consumption—so whether or not it bruised easily or ripened in transit didn’t matter when it only needed to travel across the yard to the dinner table. His customers “miss the flavors from when they were children, or they learn about the different flavors from the farmers market or a restaurant or their neighbors, and it gets them excited once they start growing the different varieties. It’s hard to quit trying different things.”
For Gettle, the joy of working with these heirlooms always comes back to the bigger picture. It’s about learning the stories behind these unique varieties and “being able to pass [them] on, and connecting people with their food cultures and gardening cultures, and connecting it all back together in a way so that they can relive their past—with their grandmother, their ethnic culture or country,” he said. At the same time, it “introduces people to other traditions and foodways and ideas about food—as well as, you know, flowers and gardening.
“It all feels good, it feels like something we should be doing: connecting to my family, and other families, and at the same time building a more sustainable local community where people grow some of their own food.”
Myka Meier, founder of Beaumont Etiquette and the Plaza Hotel Finishing Program, knows first-hand that knowledge of the codes of etiquette does not come automatically. “If anyone can learn it, I can!” she laughed. Bright-eyed, lively, and smiling, her exquisite poise is familiar to anyone who has watched her short, fun, and informative YouTube videos. Despite having a natural grace that many might consider unattainable, Meier’s humor and openness gives her warmth and makes her relatable—and makes the rules of etiquette seem easy.
She believes that they are! She offers classes through her New York-based international etiquette school; has a YouTube channel providing tips on how to tie a scarf, how to withdraw from toxic relationships, and how to drink tea properly; and has published two books on etiquette, the first of which sold out in 24 hours. Her business is thriving, and people are hungry for more. So, what is she teaching, and how is she teaching it, that makes something apparently so old-fashioned seem relevant, meaningful, and necessary?
Etiquette is for Everyone
The word “etiquette” can seem intimidating, stuffy, old-fashioned, and overbearing. And yet, in the West, we look to certain figures with pride and perhaps even reverence for their poise, control, and perfect grace. Princess Diana, bending sweetly to take the hand of a child in India; slender Kate Middleton, seated with her legs slanted off to the side. If we love to observe these people, then perhaps we do not find grace, poise, and good manners so stuffy after all. Do we, in fact, wish to be more like them ourselves?
Meier’s approach to etiquette is the opposite of stuffy and overbearing. With her wide smile, she laughed and told anecdotes of social blunders she has made. She referenced pop culture and celebrities to keep her content up-to-date. She gave classes fun names, like “The Duchess Effect.” But more importantly, she has an underlying guiding philosophy that people are keen to hear.
For Meier, at the heart of good manners, poise, and grace is compassion and respect for others. Yes, you might be impressive at your next job interview, but what you’re really signaling with your polish is kindness, care, and consideration for the people around you. She said, “You’re doing what is the most respectful, kind, and considerate thing in that moment—it’s about emotional intelligence.”
It was emotional intelligence that made Meier want to learn more about etiquette. She was living in London, the only American working in a British company, and she realized there was a kind of unspoken code of behavior that was foreign and mysterious to her. In a desire to feel more comfortable and avoid social gaffes that created awkward situations, she took her first etiquette class. “I must have made every mistake in the book,” she laughed.
She was astonished at how much more confident she felt after taking etiquette classes, and she noticed how, once she stopped feeling so shy and anxious in social situations, other people around her seemed more at ease as well. One of her teachers had been Princess Diana’s aide, “and she taught me all the things that she taught Diana, and I thought, wait a second, here I am, just a middle-class American practicing something that I thought you had to be a princess to learn.”
Once she saw that etiquette was something anyone could learn, and that it was fun and transformative, she started holding fun cocktail parties for her girlfriends and teaching them tips. And word spread. “Soon enough,” she recalled, “we would have massive dinner parties where I was teaching everybody over dinner the correct formal etiquette. I thought you had to be born with it. But I realized that etiquette is just about kindness, and showing respect and consideration. Anyone can learn this.”
She started Beaumont Etiquette in London first, and in 2014, she opened an office in New York. In 2016, she partnered with the iconic Plaza Hotel in New York, and the Plaza Hotel Finishing Program was born. “I love doing this,” she said. “I teach confidence through etiquette.”
For etiquette classes to be appealing in America, she said, they have to be relevant, approachable, and relatable. She started her classes by creating a judgment-free zone where people can ask her anything. She told her classes to forget everything they think they know about etiquette: “I want to retrain everyone in here to think about this social skill set in a new way.”
How Etiquette Works
The word “etiquette” comes from the French royal courts of the 17th and 18th centuries. When Louis XIV’s gardener realized that aristocrats were trampling his gardens, he put up signs, “etiquets,” to tell people to keep off the grass. Later, the idea expanded to social events, where the signs told people where they should not stand or what they should not touch. “So,” Meier explained, “historically, it was about showing respect in a social environment. Now, fast forward to today. Really, it’s the same. It’s about showing someone through your actions, and your interactions, and your words, that you are there in a peaceful and friendly spirit, and that you want to do what will make them feel most comfortable.”
Meier’s approach teaches people techniques that they can put into practice immediately and use every day. “There’s no point in teaching a skill set that you use once a year,” she said. Her classes offer people real-life tips that can change the way they interact with people and their environment immediately.
For example, she teaches the “WWHC” formula for starting a conversation anywhere with anyone. First, ask a question beginning with “what.” Follow with a question beginning with “why,” and then one starting with “how.” Give the person you are talking to a break from questions by following up with a compliment. This shows how closely you’ve been listening to their answers and how appreciative you are of what they said. By this time, conversation should be flowing nicely, and you’ve put the other person at ease.
Similarly, making an effort to dress nicely when you are meeting someone not only makes you feel good and well put together, but it also shows the other person that you put thought and care into your appearance. Dressing nicely can be as simple as wearing an ironed shirt, tying a bright scarf around your neck, or slipping on high heels.
“Please just relax, have fun,” Meier said. “This is a judgment-free zone, you can ask me anything.” Within the first five minutes of her classes, she takes the intimidation factor out of etiquette lessons by getting people laughing: “I usually crack some kind of joke to make people feel comfortable or give an awkward story or scenario that happened to me, just to make them say, ‘Oh, okay, she’s normal.’” In human interactions, it is normal to want to set others at ease, and following the rules of etiquette is the way to do it.
For Christine Dunst, co-founder and CEO of Embody Wellness Company, “the word ‘transformation’ always resonated deeply when thinking of how I wanted to serve this world,” she said. It had to begin with her own.
In her mid-20s and -30s, working 70-hour work weeks to climb the corporate ladder in the New York healthcare world—while living on processed veggie burgers, diet coke, and restaurant food—left her diagnosed with several stress-related illnesses. At 33, she had two miscarriages that “shook me to the core,” she said. “I knew I needed to fundamentally change my lifestyle, manage my stress and diet, and look deep inside.” Watching her sister fight and lose a heartbreaking battle with an eating disorder strengthened her resolve.
She became a certified integrative holistic wellness coach, and now draws upon her experience to help others—both individuals and corporate clients, which have included Google and Morgan Stanley.
“This matters on a soul level to me,” Dunst said. “It’s more than a job. Serving others is what makes me feel alive.” She spoke to American Essence about her own wellness practices, her work helping others, and the life-changing power of tiny habits.
American Essence: How do you start and end each day?
Christine Dunst: I wake up at 6:30 daily. I do a hand-on-heart, 12-minute, deep-belly breathing gratitude meditation before I even get out of bed. Then I say my mantra and think about how I want to show up to the world today. Mindset is key. I follow all that with hot water and lemon to alkalize my body and stoke my metabolism, and then make matcha and ashwagandha for antioxidants and de-stressing goodness.
My non-negotiable nightly practice is a Dr. Joe Dispenza meditation for 20 minutes in my daughter or son’s bed as they fall asleep. My kids now ask me (and their father, who practices Falun Gong meditation) to meditate with them nightly. It’s special.
My daily rituals help destress my nervous system and tone my vagus nerve. Small habits, like gifting yourself the time for self-care rituals, done with consistency, can have a profound impact on your life.
AE: What do you typically eat in a day?
Mrs. Dunst: I cultivate and trust my intuition, so my body tells me what I need to feel good. I eat real, whole food and limit processed junk, sugar, and gluten. I also believe in eating organic and local and limiting exposure to toxins.
I’ve been plant-based for 20-plus years, but now eat wild-caught fish and grass-fed organic meat on occasion. I often incorporate gut-healing foods like fermented vegetables, celery juice, bone broth, collagen, prebiotics like garlic and onions, as well as digestive enzymes and probiotic supplements. I also load up on antioxidants, anti-inflammatory foods like ginger and turmeric, and healthy fats like nuts and seeds, EVOO, and wild salmon. I can’t forget adaptogens; they have been a lifesaver for me. Stress wreaks havoc on the body and adaptogens help keep me balanced. I add them to my matcha, tea, or smoothies.
I try to practice mindful eating daily, slowing down and actually chewing food—it matters! It improves digestion and helps you absorb nutrients more effectively. I’m really trying to curb my habit of eating while standing up. Never perfect, always growing.
AE: What are the most common issues you see your clients dealing with?
Mrs. Dunst: We see many clients who have gut issues—constipation, bloating, weight gain, and feeling lethargic, irritable, and anxious—and may not relate these symptoms to their gut. Eighty percent of immunity resides in your gut; it truly is like a second brain.
Habits we see include beating themselves up, guilt, self-sabotage, and overall speaking unkindly to themselves. We are constantly working on mindset re-writing. Working with clients to celebrate their successes and challenges is positive psychology, which starts to shift their perception of themselves, and teaches them to celebrate themselves in their thoughts and actions. Changing our thoughts impacts our current and future reality.
AE: What’s your advice for someone who isn’t sure how to start on his or her own self-improvement path?
Mrs. Dunst: Start identifying why you want to improve; then, define what you want to improve. During our first session with a client, we always help them create their exact goals and success metrics. Having this in writing is powerful. We have them print and say their goals every day so that they are their guiding force in all the decisions they make.
Pick one or two micro-habits you can commit to, and start there. Maybe it’s drinking half your body weight in ounces of water a day. Great! Commit to this for 14 or 30 days. Then layer on additional habits.
De-stress your nervous system daily—examples include deep-belly breathing or a gratitude practice—even if you start at 1 to 2 minutes. Move daily, even if it’s a 10-minute walk. Small habits, done with consistency, can have a profound impact.
AE: What has been your biggest life lesson over your years as a wellness coach?
Mrs. Dunst: Letting go. Especially after illnesses, a car accident resulting in a TBI and neck injury 6 years ago, and losing my father and sister within months of each other, I have a deep faith in something bigger than myself guiding us all.
Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
From January Issue, Volume 3
If you’re inviting Jacques Pépin to Thanksgiving dinner, you’d better have turkey on the table.
How about something else this year, you might venture—a nice roast chicken, or a glazed ham?
“I don’t want to do something else,” the chef would kindly, but firmly, inform you. “I want to have a turkey for Thanksgiving; I want to do Brussels sprouts and sweet potato and an apple tart.” The bird has been a non-negotiable since Pépin’s first Thanksgiving in 1959, two months after he arrived in America as an eager young chef with experience working in Paris’s most prestigious kitchens. He fell in love with the spirit of the holiday—“There is no political affiliation, no religious affiliation; it’s just people getting together, enjoying food, wine, and company,” he said—and with America itself.
“I only came to stay a year, maybe two years, to learn the language, and go back to France. I loved it and never went back—except for vacation.” Since then, the transplanted Frenchman has taught millions of Americans how to cook.
He’s the author of 32 cookbooks, the most recent being “Art of the Chicken,” published in September 2022, and a longtime host of PBS cooking shows—including one with his dear friend and fellow pioneering TV chef, Julia Child. Since the beginning of the pandemic, he’s continued to offer confidence and comfort to anxious, sheltering-at-home viewers with the award-winning “Jacques Pépin: Cooking at Home” web series, in 280-and-counting 2- to 6-minute videos posted to Instagram and Facebook with the help of his daughter, Claudine.
At nearly 87, Pépin still chops and sautés with an efficient, effortless fluency honed over decades of experience. His narration is just as easy and precise, deftly doling out instruction as he breaks down a whole chicken or shimmies a perfectly fluffed French omelet onto a plate.
And after all these years, he still cooks with an unmistakable French accent—though he’d argue that it doesn’t extend so much to the food. “Very often, people consider me the quintessential French chef,” Pépin said from his home in Madison, Connecticut, where he’s lived since 1975.
“And then you open one of my books, and there on page 32, you have a black bean soup with banana and cilantro on top.” Pépin’s late wife, Gloria, was half Puerto Rican and half Cuban. “Then you have a Kentucky fried chicken from Howard Johnson. Then you have a lobster roll from Connecticut. So I mean,” he said, smiling, “I’m probably the quintessential American chef now, after all these years.”
Dreaming of America
Born in Bourg-en-Bresse, France, a small town northwest of Lyon, Pépin grew up helping out in his parents’ restaurant, Le Pélican. At age 13, he left school to begin a culinary apprenticeship at the Grand Hôtel de L’Europe. By his early 20s, he’d worked his way up Paris’s culinary ladder, and, during his military service, he served as personal chef to three French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle.
But he set his sights on farther shores.
“America was always kind of the Golden Fleece for me,” Pépin said. “Most people who come to America come here for economic reasons, to have a better life maybe, or political reasons, or religious reasons. I didn’t really have any of that. I had a very good job in Paris. My parents had a restaurant. I was fine. But I wanted to come to America.”
At the age of 23, he made good on his wish. He arrived in New York in September 1959. He didn’t mean to stay for long, but life changed his plans.
Within 48 hours of arrival, he landed a job cooking under Pierre Franey at Le Pavillon, the pinnacle of haute cuisine in America at the time, and he soon befriended the “who’s who” of the burgeoning food world—chef James Beard, New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne, and, of course, Julia Child.
“People were extremely welcoming,” Pépin recalled, and he saw “the possibility of doing basically anything” in his adopted country.
Spreading His Wings
Pépin took that possibility and ran with it. After less than a year of cooking at Le Pavillon, he was courted by the Kennedy family—regulars at the restaurant—to become the White House chef. He turned down the offer—he’d already cooked for presidents, after all—to instead take a job in a wholly new world: as director of research and development at Howard Johnson, then the country’s most successful restaurant chain, developing new recipes and pioneering high-quality frozen foods.
“That was a totally American environment, working only with American chefs and American eating habits,” he said. “I learned about marketing, mass production, the chemistry of food, all kinds of things I didn’t really know as a French chef.” When he wasn’t in the kitchen, ever the eager student, he continued his studies at Columbia University—eventually earning a master’s degree in French literature.
It was during his time at Howard Johnson that Pépin started writing down recipes, unwittingly setting a foundation for his future ventures. “At a regular restaurant, you learn by osmosis … and you duplicate what you do,” he said. “That was the way I worked in France for over 10 years; I never wrote a recipe, I didn’t have a cookbook. At Howard Johnson, of course, it had to be organized.”
Developing a chicken pot pie, for instance, started with a recipe using 3 chickens in the test kitchen, then scaled up to 20 chickens. “Eventually, we did 3,000 pounds of chicken in a thousand-gallon kettle pot. All of that has to be organized exactly in a recipe.” That experience with high-volume production proved crucial, he said, when he left Howard Johnson in 1970 and opened his own restaurant, La Potagerie, serving soups to the busy Manhattan working crowd, and later managed food operations for the newly opened World Trade Center.
Sharing His Knowledge
In 1974, Pépin suffered a serious car accident. After a long recovery, he left the restaurant kitchen world to turn his focus to writing and teaching. He taught at Boston University, where he and Child founded the culinary arts certificate program, and he later became Dean of Special Programs at the French Culinary Institute in New York (since renamed the International Culinary Center).
Pépin further extended his teaching legacy through the Jacques Pépin Foundation (JPF), the nonprofit he launched with his daughter, Claudine, and her husband, Rollie Wesen, in 2016.
As Wesen was assembling Pépin’s lifetime of books, videos, and other materials, Wesen asked, “‘Who do you think we should teach with these things now?’” Pépin recalled. “And I thought, maybe we should teach people who have been a bit disenfranchised by life—people who’ve come out of jail or former drug addicts or homeless people or veterans.”
Now, the foundation supports culinary training programs for adults with high barriers to employment across the country, through offering books, videos, and grants. In 2021, its grant awards totaled $167,500.
These programs take students who might be 40, 50 years old, Pépin said, “and we want to teach them the basics of cooking.” With that foundation set, “you can join a kitchen, start doing basic work, start going up by yourself, and get to redo your life and be proud of what you do and make a living out of it.”
When JPF’s fundraising decreased during the pandemic, Wesen asked acclaimed chefs from across the country to film cooking videos in their own homes, as Pépin was doing. “He asked like 50 chefs, from Daniel Boulud, to Jose Andrés, to Martha Stewart—no one said no,” Pépin said. “Then he asked 50 more, and then he asked 50 more.” The resulting video recipe series, “Cook With Jacques Pépin and Friends,” is available to JPF donors. “Chefs are very generous,” Pépin said. “It’s part of who we are, to give away.”
Just the Essentials
Despite his age—“I am not a young man anymore,” he said with a laugh—the chef has hardly slowed down. “The secret is to keep busy and do things,” Pépin said. “If I don’t have anything to do, I kind of feel depressed.”
Of course, some things have changed with age. “I certainly don’t cook the way now as I did when I was 25 years old. When you’re younger, you tend to add to the dish, add more, make it fancier. At my age, you kind of take away, take away, take away from the plate, to be left with something more essential, something without too much embellishment.
“If I have a great tomato from the garden, have great olive oil and a bit of salt over the top, I don’t want more embellishment. This is it.”
What else has remained essential? The techniques, Pépin said, the foundational skills behind everything he cooks and teaches—and, certainly, the Thanksgiving turkey. He still insists on it every year, whether he cooks it himself or with his daughter at her Rhode Island home where he often goes for the holiday dinner. And then, more importantly, there are the people—the heart of every meal, the reason for cooking. “Being with your family and your friends together, you remember that more than the food itself,” Pépin said.
As a chef, he said, “What you do is, you feed people. You give pleasure to people by doing what you do. Even if you don’t become famous and all that, it’s a great way of spending your life.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.
Chris Hastings is comfortable in his own skin. Trim with short hair and glasses, he tucks his shirt in and speaks with the authority of someone on a mission—one of providing mouth-watering cuisine to his customers and fans.
Hastings has been around the culinary block a few times. In 2012, he beat Food Network star-chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, and in 2013, Hastings received the top culinary prize in America: a James Beard Award. His Hot & Hot Fish Club has dazzled Birmingham’s sophisticated clientele using a modern approach to blend Southern food with French and Californian styles and techniques.
Hastings works with his family. His wife Idie runs the business side of the restaurant, and his son Zeb is a sous-chef. Their daughter-in-law Molly helps Idie with marketing and public relations.
“We opened the original location of the Hot & Hot Fish Club in 1995. When we opened, everyone thought we were crazy because the location was questionable,” Chris said. Then, with a mischievous smirk, he continued, “We have made it work, though. And now, in this new location at Pepper Place, we are really cooking.”
The new Hot & Hot Fish Club is in the Pepper Place district of Birmingham, filled with artisans, galleries, and other creative ventures. The Hastings family opened the restaurant six weeks before the pandemic hit.
“When we opened here in Pepper Place, everyone was so excited, the staff, our loyal guests. Then, the pandemic hit,” Idie said. “We had no idea how long we would be closed, but it dragged on. We finally opened in October of 2020, and it’s been terrific.”
Chris and Idie have been married for 34 years and have worked together for 27 years. The couple enjoys being with each other despite having different management styles.
“The two of us working together is like the yin and yang. I may not agree with everything Chris does, but at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it,” Idie said. Chris laughed, winking at his wife, “Exactly. But believe me, everyone knows who the real boss is.”
Chris studied as a chef at Johnson & Wales Culinary School in Providence, Rhode Island. He then moved to Birmingham and worked for legendary chef Frank Stitt as chef de cuisine of Highlands Bar & Grill. After a stint in California, the Hastings family returned to Birmingham and opened the Hot & Hot Fish Club, followed by Ovenbird, another restaurant in the same district.
The Hastings family loves the farm-to-table process. “We have the best food artisans and purveyors here in Alabama,” Chris said. “I truly love what I do; it’s what wakes me up in the morning. And I adore working with my wife and my family. I can’t do much of anything else, but I love being a chef. I love the tasting and handling of food and the creation of the dishes. To this day, it’s exciting every day. I live for that feeling I get when I know the dish is right.”
Chris has had his share of high-profile accomplishments. He has appeared on the Martha Stewart Show and the Today Show. He has impacted the culinary scene in Birmingham and the South at large. His two restaurants, Hot & Hot Fish Club and Ovenbird, continue to receive rave reviews. But one honor rises to the top.
“Beating Bobby Flay on Iron Chef was just … sweet!” Chris said. “We practiced for two months. Then we competed and created five dishes around sausage. When they announced that we won, it was surreal. That moment will probably live forever.”
Idie peered at her husband, nodding. “When they said, ‘And the Iron Chef winner by one point is—’ there was this silence for what seemed like forever. Then they said Chris’s name. I let out a scream so loud you could hear it on television. I was going crazy. I couldn’t believe it, and then, I could believe it. I definitely could believe it. Chris is extremely talented.”
Zeb and Molly joined in the conversation while carrying their two little ones, Fraser and Hubbell. “We loved it that my dad won. Working together can be challenging, but for the most part, it works. Sometimes we have really tense moments; other times it’s a lot of fun,” Zeb added. “We cover a wide range of emotions, believe me.”
Molly nodded at her husband while squeezing little Fraser in her arms. “I love the fact all of us work here, and even though it’s not that easy sometimes, we know we’re very fortunate.”
Summing up the Hastings family’s journey to success, Idie took a long breath, then peered at her husband, her children, and the two little ones. “When I look at my family, the restaurant, and all that we have accomplished, I am seriously blown away. … I never set out to accomplish all of this. Our journey has evolved,” she said. Her dream was to be happily married, work with her husband, and raise a family—and it came true, in a way she didn’t expect. “I am very grateful and proud.” Idie was silent for a few seconds. She closed her eyes and made a tiny and content grin, one of assurance that all was good in the world. “I couldn’t ask for anything more in my entire life.”
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.
Winding down the mountain and through the rugged landscape of dense forest scattered with enormous rock formations, the road flattens out at the tiny, outdoor town of Ponca, Arkansas. With a population of fewer than 120 people, a post office, and a couple of wilderness outfitting stores, Ponca is the middle of nature-nowhere for the Midwest. With stunningly beautiful rustic surroundings and a full array of outdoor adventure opportunities, this northern Arkansas area is perhaps one of America’s best-kept secrets.
Ponca rests on the Buffalo River, the first river in America to be designated a National River. Commencing deep in the highest elevations of the Boston Mountains, the river’s over 150 miles of winding water carve a path eastward through the wilds and wonders of northern Arkansas. Its uppermost section boasts such steep terrain, sharp ridges, crags, and crevices that roughly the first 16 miles are further designated as wild, and the upstream gem is officially known as the Buffalo National Wild and Scenic River.
Show up at the Ponca Low-Water Bridge on any spring weekend morning, and you’re likely to see groups of people wearing orange life vests, paddles in hand, shoving off from shore in canoes bearing outfitters’ logos. Across the bridge lies a short trail to a historic cabin built in 1882, as well as a trailhead leading to a scenic, full-day, 12-mile hike upstream to Boxley—a small community in times past but now a river put-in and trailhead itself. Beneath this hiking stretch, the valley extending up to the ridgetops is a favorite location for Arkansas’s only herd of wild elk. Catching sight of them grazing before a backdrop of sloping terrain near the river’s emerald green waters resembles a scene from somewhere out West.
The Buffalo National River was established in 1972; its founding was the result of a long, contentious battle that began in 1960 when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed the construction of two hydroelectric dams that would have destroyed the river and buried its beauties. Under the leadership of Dr. Neil Compton, area residents and outdoor enthusiasts united to fight the proposal, forming a coalition known as the Ozark Society. Their decade of unwavering commitment to the river’s preservation ultimately saved the Buffalo and the treasured wilderness surrounding it.
The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo as a nationally protected area.
One of the few remaining free-flowing rivers left in the lower half of the country, the Buffalo River itself is a sculpted work of art, with water carving around rock and winding through untouched stretches of Arkansas wilderness. Its towering, seemingly painted bluffs are striking, and the clear emerald water that runs beneath them, vibrant and pristine. The waterway is a mecca for canoeists, kayakers, fly-fishers, and riverside campers. Perhaps an even greater set of wilderness wonders, however, exists within the surrounding crags, cliffs, and creeks beyond its banks—discoveries found after setting out with a pair of hiking boots, a map, and a backpack.
Area hiking expert Tim Ernst has spent almost a lifetime unveiling some of those discoveries, carving out trails, and documenting many of the Buffalo Wilderness Area’s wonders. His journaled publications are vital to hikers and backpackers alike, as they record miles of hiking trails ranging from the frequently traveled to the obscure, the relaxing stroll to the arduous climb, and the tiny trail to the week-long expedition.
Buffalo Wilderness Area
The nearly 95,000 acres encompassing the Buffalo National River hold a network of trails and treasures that extends even farther as it connects with the surrounding 1.2 million acres of rugged Ozark National Forest. With levels of exploration ranging from novice to hard-core hiking, and opportunities for mountain biking and equestrianism as well, the undeveloped remote areas are full of treasures waiting to be discovered by outdoor enthusiasts of all levels and ages.
Hiking the Buffalo Wilderness Area is also year-round. “You can’t hike in the Rockies, the Appalachians, or the Pacific Crest in the middle of winter,” said Ernst, “but you can hike in northern Arkansas—and the Buffalo’s emerald-colored water contrasted with scenic views of grays and browns is striking.”
Just this past January, Ernst completed an end-to-end winter bushwhacking journey starting at the river’s Cave Mountain headwaters and traveling 151 miles down to the mouth at the White River. A spinal issue prevents him from carrying a pack, so he completed the two-week excursion tentless and stoveless, sleeping under bluff overhangs and traveling ultra-light. “It was one of the most fun and spectacular trips I’ve ever taken,” he said.
Day Hiking Discoveries
You don’t need to sleep under a rock in winter to see some of the best of what the Buffalo River’s wilderness areas have to offer. Although there are plenty of single-track trails for backpackers and serious trekkers, easier trails with amazing sights and abundant waterfalls are not far from the pavement (or gravel, in this case).
Lost Valley is one of those signature trails, with everything from vertical walls of rock reaching upward from the valley floor, to Cob Cave—named after the many cobs of corn discovered there in 1931 when it was found to be rich in preserved native artifacts. Following Clark Creek, Lost Valley’s beauty is on display throughout the entire hike, winding through a lush forest full of waterfalls, cascades, and amazing rock formations. Packed with outdoor works of art and springtime wildflowers, the short, two-mile round trip is a scenic journey from start to finish and a small taste of the entire Buffalo River area.
Another offering among the renowned trails and signature sights is Hemmed-in Hollow, a towering waterfall and impressive rock formation that spills out varied amounts of water or displays icicles, depending on the season. A more arduous trail with a 1,400-foot elevation change, it isn’t for the faint of heart. Those up for the challenge will not be disappointed, though, as the famed, 209-foot vertical rock face is the tallest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians, and hiking to its base is like discovering a secret hideaway at the end of a canyon.
Nearby lies another geological wonder that, when first encountered, might feel like a sacred discovery as well. Big Bluff, accessible via the appropriately named Goat Trail, is an impressive, oversized rock face, leaning out over the river with breathtaking views. Wrapping around the mountain and morphing into a mammoth wall of sandstone, the somewhat precarious trail narrows to curve around the bluff, revealing a 550-foot drop and an expansive view of the river and backcountry below.
Backcountry and Dark Skies
Lost Valley, Hemmed-in Hollow, and Big Bluff are just a few of the amazing trails and seemingly endless sights for day hikers to explore. On the other hand, hikers preferring to gear up with backpacks and tents for a weekend or two, venturing off the beaten path in the woods, can find what they’re after on the Buffalo River Trail. Winding back and forth across the river, as well as up and down in elevation, the “BRT,” as it’s known, totals almost 80 miles in length and can take you downstream via foot rather than canoe. Eventually connecting with the almost 200-mile network of the rugged and remote Ozark Highlands Trail, the Buffalo backcountry feels endless—ideal for trekking each day and sleeping under the stars each night.
Speaking of stars, the Buffalo National River was recognized in 2019 as an International Dark Sky Park. With the darkest nighttime skies in all of Arkansas, the park is a great place to go to escape suburbia and do some stargazing, learn the constellations, or see the Milky Way. With park regulations aimed at eliminating light pollution, the natural twinkling lights of nighttime skies are now as protected as the wilderness they blanket.
Preservation Through Growth
Many historical cabins and preserved homesteads are scattered throughout the Buffalo area as well. Granny Henderson’s cabin, the Parker-Hickman Farmstead in nearby Erbie, and the Villines family cabins in Ponca all commemorate a past era when pioneers worked tirelessly to survive in the wilds of a rugged landscape while carving out hard livings.
Although times have greatly changed since those days, the raw, rustic, and simplistic form of much of the area is still preserved. In the past 50 years in particular, since the national park and national river were established, the town of Ponca and the Boxley River Valley have remained virtually unchanged. Nestled in the valley between mountainside and river, the old-school mountain town atmosphere is difficult to miss.
The Buffalo Outdoor Center outfitters and Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging rentals still reside as the only two businesses of tiny Ponca, and most of the cabins viewed from the road are rentals. There are no motels. Although certainly adding to the area’s charm, the simplicity also poses some issues during crowded times, especially as the area grows in popularity.
“Elk, waterfalls, and hiking trails have increased traffic to the Buffalo River immensely,” said Ernst. “Particularly when the big bulls are out there bugling.”
The once-unknown, tiny area’s increased popularity hints at the need for new infrastructure to handle it—apparently, grants are in place to do just that. In the meantime, though, this area is still “in its infancy,” as Ernst said, citing that there aren’t too many places left in the United States where you can still chart new territory as a hiker or backpack a 47-mile section of backcountry without any established campsites.
Labeled the “Natural State” for a reason, Arkansas has plenty of raw, rare, hidden beauty, and although it’s rapidly growing, the Buffalo River remains a somewhat unrecognized outdoor mecca. “I doubt that the personal experience of discovery will ever be completed here,” Ernst challenged. So next time you’re in search of adventure, find Arkansas Highway 43 on a map, head south, and wind down into Newton County, stopping off in Ponca. A bit like venturing off the grid, the disconnection from your everyday world may end up connecting you with exactly what you’ve been looking for.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.
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