This year we partnered with Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm to create a Thanksgiving menu inspired by new recipes and old rituals. The farm’s chefs and artisans brought inventive dishes to the table, each with a personal twist. We talked to each of them about their favorite Thanksgiving traditions, as well as the inspiration behind their dishes — read on to hear their stories.
As Blackberry Farm’s preservationist and beekeeper, Shannon Walker works in the Larder, preserving the farm’s seasonal bounty in a range of jams, jellies, preserves and pickles. He also oversees the on-site hives, harvesting distinctly flavored honeys to pair with the kitchen’s highly acclaimed cuisine. For our Thanksgiving menu, he created this roasted squash and gingerbread panzanella, a creative spin on the summer staple that incorporates his pickled ramps and pumpkin and pear butter.
Tell us about your background and where you grew up.
I grew up around here, and I was the only kid in my neighborhood – the ‘neighborhood’ was lots of farmland. There were lots of old farmers, and their wives were my neighbors and friends growing up. My grandparents lived up the road and had a small farm. People produced 90% of the food they consumed. That made a big impact on how I think about food: where it comes from, how you use it, and how you preserve it at its peak flavor in the season. I’m really proud of my Appalachian ancestry. What I like to share with other people is the food culture and history of region we’re in.
How did you make your way to Blackberry Farm?
I grew up close to the place and always knew about it. I went to Savannah College of Art and Design and became a photographer, but soon the industry went digital and was flooded with new photographers – it became not so lucrative. I switched gears and went into another career. I went to a local school to get my culinary arts degree and started as a prep cook on the farm and just stuck with it. I’ve worked a lot of different positions and moved into this role 3 years ago, and I’m really happy with what I do. I took over the bee program this year, concentrating on bees’ health and how to manage pesto control with the bees on an integrated level instead of using chemicals and pesticides.
How do you work with the other chefs and artisans on the farm to create a finished dish?
A lot of times it’s really spontaneous. Wherever there might be a need for representation of artisanal products here, we bring what we’re feeling individually and come together and bounce ideas off of each other. We taste combinations together. It’s a really fun, spontaneous, creative process.
Recently we had a nice chanterelle season; they were abundant and beautiful this year. Earlier in the year I tried German cheese that had chanterelles in it and was blown away, so I took Ryan, our cheesemaker, some chanterelles and described it and turned it over to him. He produced a cheese on par with that one.
Tell us about a typical day in your life.
It’s different every day. Coming in, making sure everybody in the preserved kitchen has what they need to do their job for the day. Oftentimes I have cooking demos and guest exposure, so I get to spend time with the guests and enhance their experience here on the farm. If I’m lucky I’ll be able to get outside and check on the bees, look in the garden, or do a little foraging when the mushrooms or wild fruits are around.
What do you love about your job?
Coming to work in a beautiful place like this every day is inspiring, as is being surrounded by like-minded folks that have the same passion for food and culture and the history as I do. Here, they’re always encouraging us to try new things and create our own way and see what else we can come up with.
What was the inspiration behind the squash and gingerbread panzanella you created for the Williams-Sonoma/Blackberry Farm Thanksgiving menu?
We usually do a panzanella salad on Thanksgiving here on the farm, using roasted pumpkin and sometimes pear and gingerbread. The inspiration behind this dish has more to do with the ingredients than the type of salad. I used the pumpkin pear butter we make because for me, it’s reminiscent of fall flavors.
What are your tips for balancing sweet & savory flavors?
With any sort of sweet component, a really nice vinegar is a good contrast to take the sweetness down a bit. It’s something that speaks to us on a really basic level: sweet things are high in sugar and sought-out to provide energy, while sour components give us a way to preserve things. It’s a really old concept.
How did you go about translating a traditional summer dish to fall?
This is something a lot of chefs do now: take an idea out of its normal situation and apply it to a new setting or new ingredients. With panzanella in particular, if you use some good leafy greens, like the arugula, it offers a healthy alternative to a meal that’s otherwise filled with lots of meat and sweet, heavy dishes. The panzanella is a good, lighter dish for a Thanksgiving meal.
What are some other creative uses for preserved products?
I like incorporating pickled vegetables into salads, whether a tossed salad or a chicken salad. It brings a high note to the flavor profile. Jams are under-utilized in this country – most people just put them on a sandwich with peanut butter. But they’re great with cheeses and cured meats, particularly pork products. If you have a salty country ham, adding fruity sweetness will make it pop.