Find The Soul of Summer At Blackberry Farm
If you need inspiration to cook with berries this summer, look to Tennessee's elegant Blackberry Farm and the visionaries behind it.
As you drive along West Millers Cove Road in Walland, Tennessee, you'll wind up the mountain past scattered houses and barns, the Memories of Ole Tearoom, an honor system farm stand, and Millers Cove Primitive Baptist Church. You're in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, passing cows, horses, and fields that have been farmed for generations, with the occasional rusty tractor to show for it. Keep going for a while, and you'll come to a well-maintained white fence, shaded by tall pines, that runs along both sides of the road. There's a groomed meadow on your left and a stately red barn on your right, and then after a few more turns, you'll see a pair of stone pillars and a simple wooden sign marking the entrance to Blackberry Farm.
If it's summertime, you won't have to look hard to find the wild blackberries that gave the resort its name. As the story goes, the first owner of the farm, Florida Lasier, a Chicago doyenne who bought the place with her husband in the 1930s, snagged her silk stockings on a blackberry bramble soon after arriving. Today, the prickly bushes are more contained, but you'll still find them sprinkled around the property, growing on fencerows or in the sun on the edges of the woods. Their season is short, intense, and greeted with excitement by everyone in the region, from local chefs to gardeners to kids who pick them before breakfast.
Though it's hidden in these hills about 45 minutes south of Knoxville, Blackberry Farm is now recognized as one of the preeminent resorts in the world, especially when it comes to food. Bought in 1976 as a family home by Kreis and Sandy Beall (who founded the Ruby Tuesday restaurant chain), the farm evolved into a seasonal bed-and-breakfast with a handful of cottages and an ambitious menu. While Sandy managed the business, Kreis was the early visionary, not to mention the cook, decorator, and hostess. They hired chefs like Robert Carter and John Fleer, who put Blackberry Farm on the culinary map with a new kind of cooking called Foothills Cuisine. It was all about local ingredients and old Southern methods. Every dish was somehow connected to the farm, using seasonal fruits and vegetables such as sugar snap peas, hen of the woods mushrooms, heirloom string beans, and, yes, blackberries.
But it was the Bealls' food-obsessed son Sam who took the reins from his parents in 2003 and ultimately harnessed the farm's potential. He had grown up hanging out in the kitchen—sometimes taking plates out to guests in his pajamas. After attending Hampden-Sydney College and spending a couple of years in California, where he went to culinary school and spent most of his free time exploring farmers' markets, Sam couldn't wait to get back to his Tennessee backyard.
He returned to Blackberry Farm with his wife, Mary Celeste, to build a home, raise a family, and dream up plans for a business that he always knew he would run. Sam worked in every department, from maintenance to housekeeping to the kitchen. He also spent time in the garden, learning all about seeds and heirloom selections from Master Gardener John Coykendall. Even as his responsibilities grew, he found time to pick fruits and vegetables, many of which he'd experiment with in his own kitchen. When the blackberries were at their peak, he would use them for everything—smoothies, waffles, cobblers, cocktails—often picking them early in the morning or just as the sun went down.
Sam also inherited his mother's gift for entertaining, creating over-the-top menus and experiences for his guests. Whenever he greeted a big crowd of people, which I saw him do several times, he would say, "Welcome to my family's home"—and his plans for that home were always growing. In 13 years as the proprietor, he added dozens of rooms and cottages, built a spa, launched an award-winning brewery, started a kids' camp, and opened a concert venue. Sam wanted everyone to drink his best wine (they have 160,000 bottles in the cellar), eat the best meal they'd ever had, sleep in the world's most comfortable four-poster bed, and, of course, come back for more.
Tragically, Sam's life was cut short in February 2016, when he was killed in a Colorado skiing accident at the age of 39. Mary Celeste was left with five children and a family of over 400 employees to manage. They had built their dream home together, a two-story stone house with clapboard siding, on a hill that looked out over the mountains. Now, Mary Celeste is carrying on Sam's legacy, trying to juggle the day-to-day challenges of being a mom and the proprietor of a 4,200-acre resort that hosts a couple hundred guests around the clock, not to mention weddings, outdoor concerts, and culinary programs.
"This has been a really hard year," she told me recently over a lunch at the farm, "losing him, being a single parent, and balancing doing something you love. But the time being involved at Blackberry in this way has also been so healing because it's kept me focused and forward-thinking and feeling really close to Sam."
Like their father, most of the kids (Cameron, 19; Sam, 14; Rose, 12; Josephine, 8; and Lila, 4) have become avid cooks. They have grown up harvesting morels with their dad, picking squash in the garden, and gathering buckets of blackberries from around the property—which they sometimes sold to the kitchen. The Bealls' son, Sam, can grill vegetables and make omelets and even roasted a lamb for Easter. Rose is more interested in sweets and recently made a lemon curd cake with strawberries on top. It helps to have so many cooks in the family with six mouths to feed and almost always a few guests.
"They all know how to do the basics—peel an onion, chop garlic—and they all contribute toward the big effort," explains Mary Celeste. "There's a lot of teamwork."
The resort is running much the same way with a crew of loyal employees making things happen, many of whom have worked here for 10 or 15 years. They all seem to share Sam's excitement for the arrival of a new season, especially when new fruits and vegetables come into the kitchen. They love the unique things that come only from these hills and speak reverently about the man who helped make the farm such a vibrant place.
"We all laugh about him, we cry about him, and we are keeping his spirit alive—and that's just the closest thing I'll get," says Mary Celeste. "Sam's goal—and my goal—has always been, "How can we carry Blackberry on for generations?" And it's really just our job not to mess it up."