Serenbe Style and Soul

with Marie Nygren



May 2015

Mama Marie: Serenbe’s Other Mother

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On Mother’s Day, I was treated to a wonderful dinner at Le Fat with two of my three daughters, but I also received a handful of texts from women in the community. Not massive group texts, but personal notes. These women are my friends and neighbors, but in many ways they’ve come to think of me as their other mother.

I’ve noticed the same thing with the new men in my life: Kara’s fiancé, Micah, Garnie’s boyfriend, Matt, and her buddy from college, Michael, have all started calling me Mama Marie.

Since Steve and I basically birthed this community, it makes sense that people would think of us as the parents. And it’s not a role I take lightly. To me, the mother is the one who holds the heart. Who nourishes others on multiple levels. Who creates a space where souls can flourish and everyone can walk their own path.

Because I didn’t birth these children, I can meet them where they are as adults and vice versa. I don’t have a hand in all their pies, but they can come to me with whatever is on their minds and hearts—things they might not feel comfortable sharing with a parent.

As my own girls grow and change, it’s been so lovely taking on this other mother role for the men in their lives and the grown children in this community. As a woman who was raised by strong women, it feels right to walk around with all these young chicks behind me, taking them under my wing when they need a little love.



May 2015

Fact, Fiction, Faction: ‘Insurgent’ Filmed at Serenbe

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Early last year, Garnie got a call from a film scout interested in using Serenbe as the backdrop for a major motion picture. He came, he saw, he loved. So for 8 weeks last summer, Serenbe turned into Amity in Insurgent, the second movie in the Divergent series.

It was all so wonderfully synchronistic: In the movie, Amity is one of five factions in the Divergent world. The inhabitants are peaceful, kind, trusting, self-sufficient and do all the farming for the other factions. I love that Serenbe was chosen to represent where the happy people live.

It took about five weeks to build the set at Serenbe Stables. They used the barn as the backdrop for City Hall and built an unbelievable dome with a tree in the middle that acted as their gathering spot. I so wish we would have known about the dome ahead of time so we could’ve had them build it for the long-term. I desperately wanted to keep it.

They shot here for three weeks, and in that time the population of Serenbe doubled with crew and extras. The director and producer stayed here, as did the stars, Shailene Woodley and Theo James. And once word leaked out about that, there were teenyboppers everywhere.

One of the most fascinating parts of the process to me was the food service. To feed 500 people a day, Hollywood’s No. 1 caterer brought in 18-wheelers that served as refrigerators and kitchens for an entire staff of cooks and service people.

They had beautifully fresh sushi and other delicious food every day. For 500 people. Out of a truck. I had lunch there one day and was blown away.

It was fascinating to be the site of that much fun and chaos—and to have a front-row seat for the money and effort that really goes into the making of a film.

Serenbe was the first 18 minutes of the movie; we went to see it at the Atlanta premiere. It looked incredible and really made us step back, see it from a different perspective and enjoy the beauty.

My mind reeled. It never occurred to me that Serenbe would be used for filming. Never occurred to me that we’d have a theater company or so many of the other cultural elements of this community. It’s left me wondering, damn, what other wonders will appear on our doorstep?



May 2015

May Day and My New Jam, Fennel Marmalade

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This year’s May Day event, our 10th annual celebration of spring, was the best yet. We had live music, farm stands, artists, food trucks, local artisan vendors, children’s activities and, of course, dancing around the may pole. But my favorite part was that people we love and trust were in charge of the vision and implementation. Steve and I were out of town leading up to that weekend, arrived Saturday night and spent Sunday enjoying the festival.

Lexus was a major sponsor of the event and wanted to host a VIP brunch for 100 on May Day morning at the Bosch Experience Center. My oldest daughter, Garnie, asked her boyfriend, Matt Adolfi, if he would be willing to cook and he jumped right in. Matt is a chef, but not just any chef. He is the chef de cuisine at Bacchanalia, which means he has skills and a tremendous amount of talent.

The food was amazingly impressive: Matt was up three nights in a row until 5:30 a.m. prepping for his menu, which included eggs benedict with quail eggs, fresh lobster rolls, homemade sweet rolls with caramelized pecans, rhubarb granola parfaits and homemade fennel sausage on buttermilk biscuits with fennel marmalade. His friend Daniel Chance, who will be executive chef of Dub’s Fish Camp in the new Ponce City Market, lent a helping hand on Saturday. And every bit of it was exquisite.

Matt is a great guy and he makes my daughter happy—that’s all I care about. But if he was trying to impress me with all that wonderful food, he certainly accomplished his mission.

Fennel Marmalade

  • Like most natural-born chefs, Matt often relies on his gut instead of recipes to create a delicious dish. Use this as a guideline for your own version and serve with freshly baked buttermilk biscuits.
  • Sliced fennel
  • Small amount of sliced onion
  • Equal parts sugar and Champagne vinegar
  • Dash of Pernod

Combine all ingredients in a food processor until completely mixed. Put in a pot and reduce on medium heat until thick and the sugar starts to bubble. Place in a jar or covered bowl in the refrigerator until ready to use.



May 2015

Recipes for Success: Why I Love Lee Bailey’s Cookbooks

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DSC_0420Every Sunday, The New York Times book section does an author Q&A called “By the Book” and one of the stock questions asks: If you could require the President to read one book, what would it be?

The President—and everyone else, as far as I am concerned—should have a copy of The Way I Cook by Lee Bailey. Almost every conversation I’ve ever had about cookbooks goes like this: I mention Lee Bailey and the person to whom I’m speaking says, “Who?”

In the early 70s, Bailey had a tableware boutique in New York that started in Henri Bendel and later moved to Saks Fifth Avenue. Whenever Steve and I would visit, I’d always make it a point to go. It was just magical.

Bailey wasn’t a professional cook—he taught design at the collegiate level for many years before opening his shop—but he was a passionate one. He loved to serve delicious food in a gorgeous setting.

Back in 1983, cookbooks were usually broken down by section—appetizers, entrees, desserts—and not much in the way of photos. But Bailey changed that with Country Weekends, the first of 18 books he wrote during his lifetime.

His eye for presentation was masterful. The photos were incredible and he gave entire menus—a style that still influences cookbook authors today. Chef/restaurateur Anne Quatrano and I bonded over our love of Lee Bailey’s cookbooks and she modeled her own, Summerland, after them.

I was blown away by Bailey’s simple and accessible style. It wasn’t Escoffier—everyone could make his recipes and I never found a bad one in the book. They were beautifully presented, but also very real. I remember a coconut flan that broke, but he published the picture anyway because he wanted readers to know that everything didn’t have to be perfect when entertaining at home.

He wrote one on desserts, one on flowers and three little books on onion, tomatoes and corn. One on Southern menus. One in Napa Valley. But the one I love the most is The Way I Cook, a 1,100-recipe compilation of the best of his books with very few photos at all.

This recipe speaks to me because it features okra and tomatoes, two of my favorite vegetables. Here in the South, okra is either fried, stewed or gumbo-ed, but Bailey takes a unique approach by steaming it. Just goes to show that there’s always a new way to approach an ingredient.

Steamed Okra with Tomato Vinaigrette

  • Serves 6
  • 1 pound okra, tops and tips trimmed
  • Tomato Vinaigrette
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 cup tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 2/3 cup dry white wine
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped gherkins
  • 3 tablespoons small capers (or large, chopped), drained

Steam okra for 5 minutes, or until just fork tender. Allow to cool. Do not refrigerate.

Heat the oil and add the shallots; cook until wilted. Add tomatoes and simmer for approximately 5 minutes. Add vinegar, garlic, wine, salt and pepper. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until reduced to a thick sauce. Correct seasoning. Add gherkins and capers and serve warm over the okra.



April 2015

Love on the Rocks: The Labyrinth at Serenbe

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Serenbe Labyrinth copy

About 13 years ago, I met a woman who facilitated the building of labyrinths at a spirituality conference. As soon as I got home, I told Steve I wanted one. And of course, he knew just the place.

At the time, we were living in a seven-room bed and breakfast that is now the Inn at Serenbe. Steve cleared a patch of land nearby and I put together a letter inviting more than 40 family members and friends from all over the world to help us create the labyrinth. My only request: They had to bring a rock and a story to go with it.

When I think back about it, it seems like an unusual request. But lo and behold, everyone brought something special. I was shocked at the time and effort some people put into it:

Steve’s cousin from Colorado went to the family church that Steve’s Swedish ancestors built, crawled over fences and got rocks from the foundation.

My best friend Connie’s husband brought a rock his son gave him years before. He traveled often and his son gave him that rock to remind him of home.

John Ferrell, the man to whom I sold Mary Mac’s, brought a rock that had been part of his home in North Carolina.

Everyone arrived on a Thursday. We welcomed everyone over dinner and set the intention to create the labyrinth together. Afterwards I gave everyone candles—one of my favorite parts of my Catholic upbringing—and we walked across the bridge Steve had built to a clearing with piles of rocks all around.

When we all came to the center, the women who facilitated led us in a blessing of the land and for the work we were about to do. The center of a labyrinth is the most sacred space—when you’re there, it’s said that you’re in conversation with the divine energy. I told everyone they were welcome to leave their candles or take them back to their rooms.

The next morning, we broke up into five groups to make the four quadrants and rosette in the middle, much like the one at Chartres Cathedral in France. By lunchtime we’d laid out most of the rocks and spent the next few days finessing—changing a rock here and there and sharing the stories behind our rocks.

We set up an encampment by the trees near the lake—a cloth for shade and table with refreshments. When we started to share stories on Friday afternoon, a swarm of bees appeared and we had to get up and move. They kept following us until we went to the center of the rosette, then they left us alone.

That’s where we shared our stories. And there were a lot of them, but it was important to listen as everyone shared their spirit. Once they shared, they could place their rock wherever they wanted.

After lunch on Saturday, Connie and my sister Barbara asked to see more of the land where we planned to build the Serenbe community. Steve and our land planner, Phil Tabb, took them on a hike. When they came back, Barbara said, “Can I see the map?” She pointed to a lot and said, “I want this one.” And that started the sale of houses at Serenbe.

The candles that we’d left at the labyrinth that first night were still burning. They weren’t seven-day candles, but every time we’d go up, they’d be flickering with flame. Before everyone left on Sunday, we gathered at the labyrinth again, sang and I asked several of the women to read either a book of poetry or the Bible—whatever page wanted to be read. Again we blessed the space, returned to the house to have lunch—because meals are important to Nygrens—and everyone went on their way.

I went back up by myself that night and was amazed to see the candles still burning. Also that night, the cows decided to break out of the pasture and congregate in the center of the labyrinth. And not one of the candles went out.

The next night I went up and the last candle had extinguished on its own. The cows got out not once but twice and went to the labyrinth, leaving every rock in place. I guess they wanted to bless it in their own private ceremony.

I still think of it as one of Serenbe’s most magical weekends.

People still bring rocks to our labyrinth. A minister at a local church brought some from the Berlin wall. I bring rocks back from trips and take them up there. And Serenbe Playhouse just did their first spring play in the center of it. It was Man of La Mancha and the tagline was, “sometimes to find your heart, you have to lose your mind.”



April 2015

Chocolate Fondue And Other Awesome Things That Happen When the Women of Serenbe Come Together for a Great Cause

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DSC_0024Years ago, when Serenbe was much smaller, I had a conversation about black-tie events with a resident and a young woman who rented a place here. The woman said she’d never been to one and the idea of a community-wide black-tie progressive dinner was born.

We did those until five years ago, when Serenbe Playhouse started hosting an annual gala fundraiser. One of the big auction items every year was an in-home catered dinner for 30 with entertainment from the Playhouse actors. Then one day it dawned on me that all the businesses at Serenbe except one is run by a woman and a Women of Serenbe package would be a highly sought after experience that would bring in lots of money for our beloved Playhouse. And has it ever.

DSC_0067The first Women of Serenbe experience was a low-key event with a native American theme. Serenbe resident and notable stylist Jill Sharp did the décor, The Hil chef Hilary White and I did the food—no forks, hands only—and Garnie did the drinks. We had a drummer and the whole bit.

Last year, we took the Bacchanalian feast theme and ran with it. We added set designer and Serenbe resident Kristin Genet to the mix plus Serenbe Farms farm manager Ashley Rodgers and Serenbe resident and Many Fold Farms proprietor Rebecca Williams, who provided the venue.

To say it was over the top doesn’t do it justice. Kristin helped each of us create our own headdress—mine was more than two feet tall—and she handmade amazing invitations that she hand delivered. She got cow bones from a nearby farmer and used them in the most incredible set design, along with branches, feathers and other found objects.

The package was bought by Tom Reed, the mayor of Chattahoochee Hills, and his wife, Karen. They invited 40 of their friends, all of whom were led in by the light of tiki torches. We had stations where people could adorn themselves with temporary gold and silver tattoos, try on necklaces made out of bones and fit themselves for headdresses made out of hydrangeas.

Guests sampled oysters, cheeses and charcuterie then moved into the barn, where they sat at a long farm table lit with twinkling lights and dined on roasted baby pig—head on, apple in the mouth—and vegetables from Serenbe Farms.


After dinner, we brought them back out for dessert. I like to break up a large party like that so guests aren’t sitting at the table the whole time. I was in charge of dessert and set up a fondue station with DSC_0681copious amounts of dried and fresh fruits, cookies, breads and nuts. I made a dark chocolate fondue with almond liqueur, cayenne and cream in a Lodge cast iron Dutch oven. The entire evening, from start to finish, was an exquisitely beautiful feast for the senses.

This Saturday night, Serenbe Playhouse hosts its 6th annual gala, “La Pasión … In the Street That Never Sleeps.” It’s an Argentinian-themed night full of music, dancing and more. And of course the Women of Serenbe package will be back for another great year, this time with the theme of Cowgirls and their Sidekicks. And we’ve even brought a male into the equation: chef/restaurateur and Serenbe resident Kevin Gillespie will be guest cheffing at the chuckwagon dinner.

Visit for more information on La Pasión and upcoming shows.

Chocolate Fondue (with just a hint of fire)

  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 12-ounce package Ghirardelli semi sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 tablespoon brandy
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
  • Pinch kosher salt

Bring cream and honey to simmer in heavy saucepan. Add chocolate and stir until melted. Remove from heat. Stir in brandy, cayenne and salt.

Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.

Pour into a bowl or a fondue pot. Surround with sliced fruit, cubes of angel food cake and/ or Biscoff cookies.



April 2015

Loyal to the Last Drop: Gerry Klaskala’s First Visit to the Southern Chefs Series

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Gerry Klaskala and I locked down the dates of his first visit to the Southern Chefs Series last fall. As his March date approached, the chef/owner of Aria, Canoe and the consulting chef for Atlas at the St. Regis peppered me with questions, excited to nail down the details and get prepped for his class.

A few days before, Gerry called to say that one of his most loyal diners at Aria—a woman who was almost 90 years old—had died and her funeral was scheduled for Monday, the second part of his class. He apologized profusely, said he would still do the Sunday night dinner, but his chef de cuisine, Brandon, would take over the next day. “But if you tell me I absolutely need to be there,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

That’s Gerry in a nutshell, and it says a lot about who he is as a chef, a restaurateur and a person. He’s not into the Next Hot Thing; he’s into the Next Right Thing. In the fickle world of food, he’s loyal to those who’ve been loyal to him.

He was incredibly gracious with the guests, who immediately picked up on his enthusiasm and desire to be part of the circle, instead of center stage. He brought beautiful oysters and served them with cucumber champagne mignonette as a snack and plied the guests with homemade limoncello and one of his favorite brandies.

Together they made grilled lamb and asparagus with roasted fingerlings and carrots and Florida strawberries with mint and lemon curd in a crisped puff pastry, but my favorite was the creamless celery root soup—one of his signature dishes at Aria. Simple and exquisite, it was a delicious demonstration of how quality ingredients aren’t a luxury, they’re a necessity.

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Creamless Celery Root Soup with Black Truffles and Parmigiano-Reggiano

  • 3 ounces butter, unsalted
  • 2 each large celery root, peeled and diced
  • 1 leek, white part only, diced and washed
  • 1 quart light chicken stock
  • ¼ cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated
  • 1 ounce black truffles, microplane grated
  • Kosher salt

Place a heavy bottom soup pot over low heat and add 2 ounces of the butter. When the butter begins to foam, add celery root and a little salt. Cook slowly for 4 minutes, add leeks and continue to cook slowly for another 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Do not allow the celery root or the leeks to brown.

Add chicken stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook slowly for 40 minutes.

Carefully puree the soup in a blender until very smooth. Add the remaining 1 ounce of cold butter, all the parmesan and continue to puree until very smooth. Season to taste.

Return soup to a clean pot and heat. Add truffles and serve into warmed soup bowls.


Next up: Nathalie Dupree returns to the Southern Chefs Series May 17-18. To register, call the Inn at Serenbe at 770.463.2610.



April 2015

Welcome to Weddingville

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Since the first wedding 16 years ago, Serenbe has been the venue for approximately 400 blessed events. Around these parts—and especially around this time of year—we affectionately call it Weddingville.

But long before there was an Inn, a pavilion or nature trails that make beautiful backdrops for bridal photos, there was a little girl named Kara who dreamed of getting married in her own backyard. And this September, friends and family will eat, drink and dance at my middle daughter’s reception, less than 1,000 feet from her childhood bedroom window.

People have asked if I’m helping Kara plan, but to me, helping her means making sure she gets what she wants, not what I want.

Years ago, long before the Serenbe community came to be, we added on to the main house so each of our daughters could have her own bedroom. We made sure they were all the same footprint and each girl got to meet with designer Stan Topol to discuss the look they wanted.

That’s how Steve and I raised them: This is your life, how do you want it to look? And when Kara calls asking for advice or feedback, I tell her the same thing: This is your wedding. How do you want it to look?

048dcaacac2a11e293a322000a1f92e9_7I had my wedding, or should I say circus? Steve and I had 1,200 people. We invited 1,400! Kara doesn’t want that many—and if I had to do it over again I wouldn’t either—but what she liked about our wedding is that we spread it out over a few days, so she’s planning to do something similar.

Having lots of flower children is important to her—she plans to have more than 20—but one of the biggest parts of Kara’s vision is having a long aisle. That’s not an option in the usual places we offer to brides, so she came to us and asked, “Is there any place no one’s ever used before that can just be mine?”

Steve didn’t say anything, but he immediately knew the place. That man knows every inch of this property—it’s his playground. So we all got in the car and when he showed it to us, we were all like, of course. It’s perfect.

And so it begins. Stay tuned for more updates of the first Nygren wedding in Weddingville.



April 2015

Ford Fry’s Fish Fry

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Back in September at the Southern Chef’s Potluck—a benefit for Wholesome Wave—Serenbe resident Grace Aldridge bid on a fish fry and oyster roast for 30 people with chef Ford Fry in my backyard. IMG_2741

Steve and I were in Morocco at the time, but from what I hear, three other chefs from Fry’s restaurant group had a few cocktails, started feeling especially participatory and offered to join in.

FullSizeRender (2)Grace won the auction item, which she bought to celebrate her 10-year anniversary with her husband, Doug. They got married at Serenbe, so it was fitting that she invited family and friends to another celebration here a decade later. Many of them hadn’t been back since the wedding and got to see how much we’ve grown.

It rained for days leading up to the event a few weeks ago, but as soon as I FullSizeRender (1)started putting together a back-up plan, the forecast said we’d get a break. The sun came out just as my garage turned into cooking central full of deep fat fryers, where Ford and three other chefs made Nashville hot chicken, roasted oysters and a beautiful low country boil for good people and a great cause.


The 6th annual Southern Chefs Potluck will be held September 13 from 3-6 p.m. at the Inn at Serenbe. Tickets will be on sale in the near future at Wholesome Wave.



March 2015

Dumplings for Dinner: Kara’s Favorite Spinach Gnocchi

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IMG_0593If you love cookbooks as much as me, you probably have one you’ve held onto for years but have only used to make one recipe. That’s how I feel about The Complete Vegetarian Cuisine by Rose Eliot, a cookbook I’ve had for more than two decades. I look at it and think, why do I keep this if I only use it for one recipe? And, since I love that recipe so much, why don’t I try more of them?

And then I make the spinach gnocchi, put the book back on the shelf and go through the same thing again the next time.

I tried the spinach gnocchi years ago and it was such a hit it became something of a special occasion dinner when the girls were young. Kara, my middle daughter, loves all things Italian and asked me to make it a few months back. It was a busy time—oh hell, they’re all busy times around here—and for some reason, I’d built it up in my mind that they took a long time to make. So I told her I couldn’t pull those off and made something else.

Kara moved to Seattle because her fiancé lives there and came home recently to be in yet another wedding. She’s the first of our daughters to be engaged, but the last of her friends to be married and has been to so many weddings over the past year and a half.

It’s been a long time since it’s been just the five of us for dinner, so I asked Kara IMG_0596if she had any special requests. She said, “Oh, just lasagna or something like that,” but I was feeling energetic and decided to take on the gnocchi as a surprise.

As a bonus, I invited one of my favorite neighborhood munchkins, 10-year-old Kate, over to help roll and pinch. Kate is a lovely, exuberant 30 year old in a 10 year old’s body. She reminds me so much of Garnie at that age.

It was so simple that I wondered why I ever thought it was difficult. These are northern Italian dumplings—they don’t include potatoes and don’t have that light, pillowy taste. But they are still so delicious … especially when covered in browned butter and Parmesan.

Spinach Gnocchi

Serves 4

  • 1 ½ pounds fresh spinach cooked, drained and chopped, or 1 pound frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • ½ pound mozzarella, grated, or other skim-milk soft white cheese
  • 1 ½ cups flour
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Freshly grated nutmeg
  • Extra flour for coating
  • A little butter
  • Grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

1. Drain the spinach, then puree it in a blender or food processor. Put the puree into a saucepan and dry it over the heat for a minute. Remove from the heat.

2. In a bowl, mix together the mozzarella cheese, flour, Parmesan cheese, eggs, and spinach. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. If the mixture is very soft, put it into the refrigerator to firm up for about 30 minutes.

3. Roll heaped teaspoons of the mixture in a little flour. (All this can be done in advance.)

4. To cook the gnocchi, first heat the oven to low, to keep the gnocchi warm as they’re ready. Half-fill a large saucepan with lightly salted water and bring just to a boil.

5. Drop 6-8 gnocchi into the water and let them simmer very gently for about 5-10 minutes, until the float to the surface.

6. Make sure the water does not get beyond a bare simmer, and remove the gnocchi as soon as they are ready, or they may fall apart.

7. Drain the gnocchi well, then put them into a warmed serving dish, dot with a little butter and keep them warm while you cook another batch.

8. When all the gnocchi are done, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.