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Ranching Roots to Stardom: Country Queen Reba McEntire Shares Life Lessons

Some would say the McEntires are a very set-in-their-ways, stubborn, hardheaded bunch of people. But I think that hardheadedness is what got Daddy to where he was, Grandpap to where he was, and his father, Pap, to where he was. Some might say it wasn’t all that far—but it was much further than where they started!

None of us McEntires came from money, but each generation’s been a little more prosperous than the one before it. My daddy, Clark, was determined to make a better life for himself than the one he’d been handed. Like Grandpap before him, Daddy had the rodeo bug. He knew that rodeo couldn’t pay all the bills, but it sure helped get him started.

Take, for instance, one time when Daddy won a roping competition. The prize was a new car and 500 dollars cash. He gave it all to Mama and sent her to swap it for 80 acres of land that Uncle Dale, Mama’s brother, owned. That gave Daddy enough space to expand his ranch with more cattle. It was the start he needed. A few years later, in 1957, Daddy and Mama were able to buy a much bigger plot of land in Chockie, so he moved the family and all the cattle over there. Not exactly the land of milk and honey, but little by little, he was moving on up.

Ms. McEntire’s grandfather, John McEntire, competing at Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., 1934. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Land in Chockie was only $6.40 an acre, and there was good reason for that! A lot of neighbors called it “sorry land,” and they warned Daddy not to buy it. It was rocky, hilly, and didn’t grow much except briars and scrub brush, but he saw something no one else saw in that “sorry land.” He turned a profit selling timber to the paper mill and rocks to the architects in Dallas. Then he struck gas.

That sorry land turned out to be worth more than anyone realized.

Daddy liked the rodeos, but he loved ranching. Rodeoing and selling timber, rocks, and natural gas all helped in the progression of our ranch. Daddy had to travel to compete in rodeos, but he wanted to be home on the ranch.

But ranch life is not an easy life. Maintaining the land and cattle takes time, and you can’t skip a day just because you’re worn out. Working the land was a whole family affair. The only time you wouldn’t find us kids helping out was when we were in school. I thought that going to college would give me a break. Nope. I was wrong. Daddy had leased some land halfway between home and the Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma. So every other day, after my classes, I loaded 30 fifty-pound sacks of feed into my pickup truck and fed the 300 head of cattle.

Not quite the college experience everybody else had!

I didn’t really know anything else though. I had started pitching in before I could even sit in a saddle. I don’t remember exactly the first time I was on a horse, but it feels like I was born riding. Us kids spent a lot of time rounding up cattle. It was rough country, and often we’d have to ride through brush and briars taller than we were on the off chance we’d find even one lonely steer. There was always more work than hands to do it. We got cattle in the spring, straightened them up, and shipped them off to the feed lots in the fall.

Reba McEntire (center) rides on the family ranch in Chockie, Okla., alongside her parents and siblings Susie, Alice, and Pake, while filming the “Reba: Starting Over” CBSTV special in 1995. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Daddy always had a plan to get the job done. Problem was, he wasn’t the best at relaying his plan to the rest of us. He was usually looking the other direction or doing three things at once when he was giving us our instructions for the day. Most of the time, we only got a quarter of what he was trying to tell us. We always looked to Grandpap for an interpretation. I’m sure glad we had him to help us out!

The most important thing about helping out on the ranch was getting in line, doing your part, and following instructions. If our instructions were to sit at a gate until Daddy returned, under no circumstances were we going to abandon our posts. You sat at that gate until Daddy came back and told you that you could leave. It could be several hours, but that didn’t matter. Hot or cold, rain or shine, you stayed glued to your saddle.

It was out there in those hills that I first learned that the work is in the waiting.

Fast-forward 15 years, when I got into the music business. I knew less than nothing about how it all worked. I thought that once your record got on the radio, you got a tour bus and a big ol’ check. You’d made it. You were a big star. Wrong!

I remember being so excited when I heard my debut single playing on our staticky, old radio for the very first time. Mama, Susie, and I were all sitting on the floor, crying with joy, thinking, “This is it.”

But then—not much happened. No fancy tour bus or big royalty check appeared. I felt pretty sure that God had called me to the dream of singing, but much like my daddy giving me instructions up in the hills, it felt like I had only gotten a fourth of what God said, and I knew I needed to wait for more information. So just like I learned as a kid, I stayed patient. And I kept working.

“Not That Fancy: Simple Lessons on Living, Loving, Eating, and Dusting Off Your Boots” by Reba McEntire (Harper Celebrate, 2023).

From hearing that first song on the radio, I spent the next seven years traveling around, playing everywhere I could, living on greasy burgers and corn dogs at truck stops and county fairs from Los Angeles to Boston—seven years of performing at fairs, rodeos, and honky-tonks, singing over bar brawls, tractor-pull competitions, and bull sales. Seven years of patience before I had a real hit, “Can’t Even Get the Blues,” in January 1983.

Even with that hit, the first time I headlined my own show, in 1984, only 800 people showed up, and I actually lost money. I had to write a check to get out of town because I didn’t sell enough tickets. And I thought, “Welcome to the big time!” I sure did appreciate the few who did show up, though!

Thank God for that McEntire determination.

When it came my turn to be a parent, I was determined to teach my son, Shelby, how important hard work is too, but I didn’t need to worry. From an early age, Shelby was a very determined young man. He has a great work ethic. When it came time for him to start his own career, he put his nose to the grindstone. When Shelby told me he wanted to be a race car driver, I wanted to help but had no clue where to start. If there had been a “Racing for Dummies” book, I would have bought 10. I asked anyone I could think of for information, but no one I knew had much advice to give. Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine Records and a former race car driver himself, told me to buy him a go-kart. But Shelby already had a go-kart! So, we bought Shelby a membership to the Skip Barber Racing School. It’s a school that teaches kids the racing business, and it allowed him to race in as many races as possible. You have to pay your dues in racing, just like you do in the rodeo and music businesses. Shelby raced in the Southern and the Western series. He drove eight to nine races a day for three days every weekend. I gave him my airline miles and hotel points from years of touring, and he flew on Southwest and stayed in the cheapest motels to make the most of it. Funny part was, he was too young to rent a car, so he had to get a taxi or bum a ride to the track.

Ms. McEntire with her son, Shelby, at the race car track. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Shelby could have followed his daddy’s, Narvel Blackstock’s, footsteps into music management, but he chose to chart his own course. He’s now into real estate and developing property. You don’t think your kids listen to half of what you tell them, but Shelby did. I’m so proud of him. He’s kind and confident and is building a life that he’s proud of and that makes him happy. And he still wants me to be a big part of that. I am so grateful.

Most of what you hope for in this life takes time and some old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness. None of us in the McEntire family were overnight successes. From generation to generation, we just keep learning, dreaming, and working hard.

One thing I’m sure of: Good things won’t come if you give up and go home.

RECIPE: Mama’s Pimento Cheese Sandwich

RECIPE: Fried Green Tomato Slices

Taken from the chapter “A Lot of Hope and Hard Work” from “Not That Fancy: Simple Lessons on Living, Loving, Eating, and Dusting Off Your Boots” by Reba McEntire. Copyright 2023 by Reba McEntire. Used by permission of Harper Celebrate.

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Features Lifestyle

Hemingway’s Granddaughter Finds Peace Through Family, Faith

Mariel Hemingway was born four months after her famous grandfather, Ernest Hemingway, committed suicide with a shotgun. Growing up in a family blessed with creative passion and shadowed by mental health crises was a balancing act if ever there was one.

“There have been seven suicides in my family. While it is amazing to be Ernest Hemingway’s granddaughter, there were moments when I thought, ‘Oh no. Does this mean I’m next?’” Hemingway said.

As a child and young adult, she watched the members of her family struggle with their passions and their pain, and she felt her own lack of balance threatening to derail her. The so-called “Hemingway curse” weighed down on her. Until she decided to fight back.

“Sometimes we put meaning to something that happened in the past and think it’s a curse. We have the ability, though, to change how we think,” Hemingway said. “The way to create a world where you’re not a victim of where you came from is to define your story. Awareness is everything. Once you become aware of the story, you don’t have to be its victim.”

Now, the actress—who began acting at age 14—is also a writer, public speaker, and outspoken mental health advocate. She’s passionate about encouraging others along their own mental health journeys, and sharing how her holistic lifestyle is central to her happiness and well-being.

American Essence spoke with Hemingway from her home in Venice, California, about her childhood, a life-changing experience with the Dalai Lama, and her routines and rituals for wellness and balance.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

American Essence: What were the steps of your own mental health journey, from the time you were a child until you started to find your own balance?

Mariel Hemingway: I grew up in this amazing, creative family. However, my father suffered because his father, a great man, was probably not a great father. My father drank a lot. My mother also drank. She had lost her first husband, the love of her life, in World War II. They’d only been married for nine months, and he was shot out of the sky. There was a tremendous amount of tension between my father and my mother.

I spent a lot of time as a child trying to make myself invisible, at the same time wanting to be noticed. I used to go outside and hope that somebody would notice I was gone. I’d come back after hours had passed and nobody had realized I wasn’t there.

When I was about 10, I decided I was going to fix them all. I was going to pick up the wine glasses and broken bottles after they’d had a fight. I really believed it was my role. I feel for my parents because my two older sisters both had mental illness. And me, I was the good girl, doing everything right and helping Mom and cleaning the house, thinking that I could be the savior.

At the back of my mind was always the fear that I might end up like my mom or dad or my sisters. I started to think the way to control myself was to control what I ate, my exercise—I overdid everything in order to try to find balance.

Over time, and trying to follow gurus and diets and exercise routines, I realized that my solution was within me. I spent countless years giving my power to everybody else and thinking that somebody had an answer for me until I realized it was me.

AE: How did you come to realize that you already held the answers?

Ms. Hemingway: I had an experience in India with his holiness the Dalai Lama. It was in a small group of people and he was listening. I sat next to him. He kept looking at me—he has this wonderful smile. The other people were asking important questions and I was just sitting there. But as I stood up to go, he put his hand on my hand and he looked me in the eye and he said, “You’re OK.” And he took my breath away.

Over the next couple of years, day by day, I understood it more: “Oh, I am OK!” Now that’s my message to others: You’re already OK. Let’s find the tools that work for you to chip away at habits of mind or body that interfere with you being OK. I want to help people break free of belief systems that tell them they’re not OK, they’re broken. I don’t believe anybody’s broken.

Mental health is an ongoing journey. Every day I’m finding my balance. You need to find peace within the choices that you make, or you will be chaotic. We need to find our balance every single day.

AE: What are your tools for finding your balance every day?

Ms. Hemingway: My tools are my lifestyle, which is simple and ritualistic. My lifestyle is the only reason that I am feeling happy, healthy, and better about my life than I ever have.

Morning is a very important time for me. How you start your day is how the day will unfold. I start my mornings with a prayer, by being grateful, and by paying attention to my breath.

One of my tools is belief in something greater than myself: I believe in God and that belief is strong in my character, and it is a connection to earth and all that is beautiful. Nature was always the thing that literally grounded me when I was a child. I didn’t know that the fact that I loved being barefoot was actually helping me.

Being intentional is an important tool. Making deliberate choices about food, being aware of my breath, my thoughts, aware that I drink water. We take these things for granted, but if we start to pay attention to them, we start to live in the present.

To be present is to know where you are in the moment. Multitasking is really just an inability to stay here. If we aren’t present, we can get wrapped up in what has happened or what’s going to happen and we forget about the importance of this moment, right now.

AE: What advice do you have for someone who is struggling?

Ms. Hemingway: Talk to somebody right away. Don’t let it fester inside and become bigger than it needs to be.

Then, try to look at your lifestyle and habits and see where you could make some shifts. Lifestyle is powerful. Food is really significant: If you’re eating too much sugar or processed food, it all has an effect. Stick with simple, real foods.

Try to form habits of being outside and getting connected with the earth. A while ago, I had a friend who was really struggling. I phoned him and recommended that he go outside. I said, “I want you to look up at the sun. Take your shoes off, even if you’re in the city. Sit there, stand there, walk, whatever. Take at least 20 minutes and then call me back.” He called me in about an hour and a half and said he couldn’t believe how different he felt. When you change your energy by going outside, it’s going to shift things.

Laugh, play. I remember when my kids were young, I would watch them play and feel jealous. I grew up in a family where I became an adult too fast, and I didn’t know how to play. But if you think about it, play is instinctive to children. Why shouldn’t we adults also have fun and play?

AE: What can people do to help when someone they love is struggling?

Ms. Hemingway: Listen. Don’t say anything. Anybody who is struggling needs to be heard. Learn to be a good listener. Most people don’t know how to listen because they’re thinking about what they want to say. If somebody’s in pain, they probably feel isolated, lonely, unheard, and unseen. For you to witness them in their pain is the most powerful thing you can do to help.

At a Glance

Lives in: Sun Valley, Ida. and Venice, Calif.

Notable Films: “Lipstick” (1976); “Manhattan” (1979); “Running From Crazy” (2013), a television documentary about her family; “God’s Country Song” (2023)

Notable Books: “Finding My Balance: A Memoir” (2001), “Out Came the Sun: Overcoming the Legacy of Mental Illness, Addiction, and Suicide in My Family” (2015)

From Sept. Issue, Volume 3

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Arts & Letters Lifestyle

My Father, the President: Ronald Reagan’s Eldest Son Reflects on Life Lessons from His Father

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. 

From Aug Issue, Volume 3

Categories
Features Lifestyle

Finding Beauty in the Chaos: A Case for Slow Living in the Modern World

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.

(Fei Meng for American Essence)

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.

(Fei Meng for American Essence)

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.”

From Aug. Issue, Volume 3

Categories
Lifestyle

Southern Hospitality: The Vivid World of Interior Designer James T. Farmer

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.

(Emily Followill)

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.

Roses and foxgloves uplift an al fresco table set by interior designer and entertaining expert James T. Farmer. Pictured here in the garden at Farmdale, his home in Perry, Ga. (Emily Followill)

This is a short preview version of the story from the July Issue, Volume 3

Categories
Features Arts & Letters House of Beauty Lifestyle

Alva Vanderbilt’s Marble House Became the Blueprint for Gilded Age Grandeur

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.

(Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)

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.

The Gothic Room was designed to display Alva Vanderbilt’s collection of medieval and Renaissance decorative objects. The stone fireplace in the room was copied by Allard and Sons from a fireplace in the Jacques Coeur House in Bourges, France. (Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)
(Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)

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.

Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the grand staircase in the Foyer was constructed of yellow Sienna marble and features an intricate wrought iron and bronze railing covered with gold. (Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)
The Dining Room features pink Numidian marble, architectural details of gilded bronze on the walls and ceiling, and furniture of velvet fabric laced with metallic threads. (Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)

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.

The Grand Salon (also called the Gold Room) served as a ballroom and was recognized as “one of the grandest ballrooms ever to be built in Newport.” The Gold Room features gold gilt paneling over wooden walls carved to represent scenes from classical mythology, inspired by the Apollo Gallery at the Louvre. (Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)
(Courtesy of The Preservation Society of Newport County)

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.

The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage used Marble House as its headquarters. Picture of the National Woman’s Party at Mrs. Belmont’s house in Newport, R.I., 1914. Library of Congress. (Public domain)

From February Issue, Volume 3

Categories
Features Lifestyle

SoCal Couple Start Homestead in North Idaho to Grow Own Food, Raise 10 Kids in Traditional Lifestyle

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.

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

“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.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

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.

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

“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.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

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.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

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.

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

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.”

(Courtesy of Carolyn Thomas)

From February Issue, Volume 3

Categories
Features Lifestyle

Mountain Scout Survival School: Be Prepared to Handle Everything from Wilderness Survival to Urban Emergencies

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.

Hobel considers it his duty to preserve, protect, and pass on the skills he teaches to the next generation. (Samira Bouaou)

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.

Don’t Panic

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.”

Hobel shows how to make cordage using a double reverse wrap from found materials. (Samira Bouaou)

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.

Shane Hobel runs Mountain Scout Survival School in Hopewell Junction, N.Y. (Samira Bouaou)

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.”

 Traditional Knowledge

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.”

A backpack can either be conventional (pictured here) or tactical, though the latter might attract more attention. Another alternative is to wear a photographer-style vest with many mesh pockets for your items and wear a coat over it. (Samira Bouaou)

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.

From January Issue, Volume 3

Categories
Features Lifestyle

This Family-Owned Seed Company Is Telling—and Saving—the Stories of Heirloom Seeds

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.

(Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./RareSeeds.com)

Humble Roots

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. …

(Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co./RareSeeds.com)

(This is a short preview of a story from the January Issue, Volume 3.)

Categories
Features Entrepreneurs Lifestyle

Etiquette Coach Myka Meier on How True Grace Exudes from a Heart of Kindness

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?

(Courtesy of Myka Meier)

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.”

(Courtesy of Myka Meier)

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.”

Etiquette lessons with Meier’s team are available both in person and online. (Courtesy of Myka Meier)

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.

From January Issue, Volume 3

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Features Entrepreneurs Lifestyle

Why a Corporate High-Flyer Left the Big Pharmaceutical World to Become a Holistic Health Coach

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.

(Samira Bouaou)

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

Categories
Features Food Lifestyle

Jacques Pépin Didn’t Mean to Stay in America—But He’s Become the ‘Quintessential American Chef’

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.

Pépin with his daughter, Claudine, who often appeared in his cooking shows and now works with him on various projects for the Jacques Pépin Foundation. (Courtesy of Jacques Pépin)

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.

Pépin teaches a cooking class at the Billings Forge Community Works in Hartford, Conn., in 2019, as part of the Jacques Pépin Foundation’s work with culinary training programs across the country. (Courtesy of Jacques Pépin)

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.”

(Courtesy of Jacques Pépin)

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.