Serenbe Style and Soul

with Marie Nygren



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.



March 2015

Magna Cum Lard: Kevin Gillespie Teaches From His New Cookbook ‘Pure Pork Awesomeness’

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When the line-up for the 2015 Chefs Series was finalized late last year, I immediately called my friend Rhonda. Her daughter, Jen, and son-in-law, Nick, love to cook and adore chef/restaurateur Kevin Gillespie—so much so that I gave them a set of knives and Kevin’s first cookbook, Fire in My Belly, when they got married. Jen is one of my daughter Kara’s childhood friends and she grew up coming here, so Rhonda decided Kevin’s class and overnight stay at Serenbe would make a wonderful Hanukkah gift.

Kevin was Kevin: a brilliant mind in a good old Southern boy body. Little known fact: He turned down a scholarship from MIT to study cooking professionally. His class sold out and everyone loved being around him—he makes people feel instantly comfortable about being in the kitchen.

Everything Kevin cooked came from his second cookbook, Pure Pork Awesomeness: Totally Cookable Recipes from Around the World, which will hit shelves March 31. This is a big year for Kevin, who also plans to open his second restaurant, Revival, in early June.

For Sunday dinner, Kevin made black-eyed peas with jowl bacon, fatback fried corn, cabbage with ham hocks, country fried steak, crispy fried catfish and warm banana pudding. And for Monday lunch he did spicy sausage and kale soup, slow-smoked pork loin with bitter greens and a Southern version of croque monsieur with bacon he made from pork shoulder. Don’t want to make your own bacon? Me neither. But this recipe will be just as delicious—and decadent—with store-bought bacon.

Cottage Bacon Croque Monsieur

  • Makes 4 sandwiches
  • 12 thin slices of bacon
  • 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 loaf brioche or challah bread, cut into eight 3/4–inch-thick slices
  • 2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 3 ounces Fiscalini or other super-sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 2 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese

Arrange the bacon in a single layer in a large sauté pan and place over medium heat, working in batches as needed. Cook for 2 minutes, then flip and cook until the edges are crispy, the bacon is pinkish in color, and the fat starts turning translucent, about 2 more minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat the process until all of the bacon is cooked. Remove the pan from the heat, add 2 tablespoons of the butter to melt into the drippings.

Adjust the rack in the oven to the highest setting and preheat the broiler to high.

Brush a baking sheet with the buttery bacon drippings and brush one side of each slice of bread with the drippings. Place the bread, brushed side up, on the baking sheet. Broil until the edges start to brown, about 2 minutes. Remove from the oven, flip the bread, and brush the other side with the buttery bacon drippings. Return to the oven and toast until the edges start to brown, another 2 minutes or so.

Decrease the broiler temperature to low and move the oven rack down one notch.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the remaining 2 teaspoons butter. Stir in the flour and, stirring constantly, cook for 2 minutes. Slowly stir in the half-and-half and bring to a boil; cook for another 2 minutes or until thick. Stir in the cheddar until melted and smooth.

Spread each toast with Dijon and a light sprinkling of pecorino. Build each sandwich with 3 slices cottage bacon and a toast on top. Place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet and spoon a generous amount of sauce over each sandwich, making sure all of the edges are covered completely with sauce so they won’t burn. Evenly sprinkle the remaining pecorino over the tops of the sandwiches and broil until browned and bubbly, about 4 minutes.



March 2015

Alice Crichton and the Story Behind Selborne

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Marie and AliceOver the years, I’ve gone to lots of conferences and met lots of people. We exchange pleasantries and business cards, then go back to our lives. But in 1995 I met a woman named Alice Crichton at a spirituality conference and began a very special friendship that would last the rest of her life.

Alice was born in Indiana and worked as a nurse during World War II. She was stationed at Crom Castle in Northern Ireland, which acted as a hospital during the war. The castle had been owned by the Crichton family since the early 1600s and it was there that she met her husband, Michael.

The castle was also the venue for the spirituality conference I attended almost 20 years ago. When I met Alice, I felt an instant connection to her and after the conference ended, letters flew back and forth from my home in Georgia and hers in England.

In the fall of 1996, Alice and I met in Glastonbury, England and that visit really cemented the relationship. From then on, I’d fly over every six months or so and spend a week with Alice in her little English village called Selborne.

Alice was 40 years older than me, but we were like two girlfriends. We visited crop circles. We went to sacred cathedrals. We even went to Stonehenge, where she told me stories about going there and hanging out long before it was a tourist attraction.

When it was time for dinner, Alice would shut all the drapes in the house—her way of saying the day was over. She’d change, we’d have a cocktail and then sit down to a three-course dinner with sterling silver and china. It was such a wonderfully civilized ritual.

In many ways, Alice was like a spiritual godmother to me. She introduced me to the concept of sacred geometry—a system of design based in patterns, shapes and forms that occur in nature. This was long before we even dreamed of Serenbe, but years later, when Steve first broached the subject of building a town in our backyard, the first thing out of my mouth was that it had to be based on sacred geometry.

During that process, we brought in Phil Tabb, a land planner with experience in sacred geometry. He showed us a slideshow on the many ways that design plays out in different places all over the world. At one point he flashed up a slide of a house. I gasped and said, “Stop! Where did you get that picture?” Phil said, “Oh, this is one of my favorite villages in England.” And I said, “Are you kidding me? That’s Selborne!” It was four houses down from Alice’s place. Of all the thousands of villages he could’ve studied in England, Phil studied Selborne.

It all came full circle and felt like such a sign, so we named Serenbe’s first neighborhood Selborne. It was my way of honoring Alice and the memories we made in England.

Though she came to visit me once, Alice died on January 2, 2000—four years before we broke ground on Selborne. She was determined to see in the new millennium and make sure the world would be okay. When she knew it was, she let go.



March 2015

Nadine Bratti: How a cup of coffee turned into a career

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Nadine Bratti web

Two years ago, I was pouring coffee one morning at the Farmhouse when I came to a table of ladies visiting for a girls’ weekend. As I filled their mugs, they asked lots of questions about what it was like to live here. And I told them what I tell everyone: I love it here, I raised my children here and wouldn’t live anywhere else.

I get questions like that a lot. Visitors want to know if Serenbe is really as good as it looks. For most people, it’s a place to visit—a beautiful break from their lives. But some people come, go home and can’t get Serenbe out of their mind. They cross the invisible line between I wonder what it’s like to live there to I can see myself living there. And Nadine Bratti is one of them.

Nadine was born and raised in upstate New York and lived in Manhattan for 17 years before moving to Atlanta in 2008. She has two children, Ella and Axel. After that morning of coffee and conversation at the Farmhouse, she “spent every free weekend I had in Serenbe, getting to know the community,” she says. “I watched my children fall in love with the animals, the people and the lifestyle along with me.” She began building their home a year and a half later and moved to Serenbe in June.

Nadine also has a background in wine. Her mother is from the France’s Loire Valley and Nadine grew up working in her restaurants. She worked for a fine wine distributor in NYC and noticed the lack of a wine shop during her visit. She asked if the community would support a wine shop and I couldn’t believe the coincidence: The management behind our only market had just decided to leave. After a gorgeous redesign by Smith Hanes—the studio that did the Blue-Eyed Daisy, the Farmhouse and my own townhouse—she opened The General Store on September 11th, a week and a half after she moved into her townhouse.

Opening a store and moving into a new home in tandem would drive most to the edge of sanity, but Nadine is always pleasant and seems unflappable. She assimilated instantly and jumped in feet first. Her gourmet grocery has brought an amazing quality of product to this community and residents can actually walk to the grocery store instead of driving 12 miles for milk. From charcuterie and cheese to grocery staples, sweets, wine and beer, her offerings “emphasize small, quality selections made by people versus machines,” she says.

She also offers the most amazing sandwiches in her grab-and-go section, all of which she says “are inspired by Serenbe and other places you travel to and remember what those places ‘tasted like.’” Favorites include the Serenbrie, The Serenbe Belle and the Tuscan Chicken Sandwich, the recipe for which she was gracious enough to share with me.


Tuscan Chicken Sandwich

Courtesy of Nadine Bratti, The General Store

  • 2 pieces ciabatta bread
  • 1 chicken breast, roasted
  • 1 slice provolone cheese
  • Lettuce
  • Tomato
  • Winter pesto*
  • Lemon aioli (recipe follows)

*The winter pesto, made with kale and Swiss chard, comes from Storico Fresco, whose pasta and sugos I carry. If you can’t find this, a regular, basil-based pesto works just fine.

Lemon aioli

  • 1 garlic clove, pressed
  • ¼ teaspoon (or more) coarse kosher salt
  • ½ cup good quality mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • Salt

Mash garlic and ¼ teaspoon salt in a small bowl until paste forms. Whisk in mayonnaise, olive oil, lemon juice and lemon zest. Season to taste with coarse salt and pepper. Cover and chill.



February 2015

Comfort Food Chronicles: Jasmine Rice and Kale

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When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do was visit Aunt Merle with my mother. Merle was mother’s favorite sister and didn’t have any children, so my mother named me after her. The last five generations of my family have had a Merle Marie, though I’ll probably be the last.

When we’d visit, Aunt Merle always made us sticky rice. She’d cook that Comet rice in her Revere Wear on the stovetop: 2 cups water, 1 cup rice, 1 teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. My mother made her rice a different way but I loved Aunt Merle’s the most.

Over the years, I’ve made a few modifications: I now use jasmine rice and a rice cooker, which makes it perfectly every time. I also top it with kale I sauté in onions and olive oil. And if I’m really feeling over the top, I’ll do a fried egg with a runny yolk as well.

This is my comfort food. It’s one of the few foods I can always imagine eating, no matter what. Especially on those days when I have so much going on and I’m all wound up, all I can think of is a bowl of jasmine rice.

kale and rice copy

Kale with Onions

Serves 2-4

I tend to like my kale bright green and a bit al dente. So the cooking time is at your discretion.

  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 large bunch kale, strip leaves from stems and chop. Should have 8 cups
  • Kosher salt

In a Dutch oven or medium size pot with lid, add onions and oil. Cook over medium heat until golden. Then add kale and 1/4 cup of water. Cover and let steam for 5 minutes. Add salt and toss to incorporate onions.

Cook until desired tenderness.


Serve over jasmine rice.



February 2015

Linton Hopkins: A Man with A Can and a Plan

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As the founding partner of the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, past president of the Southern Foodways Alliance and board member of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, Linton Hopkins believes deeply in preservation—of culture, tradition and food.

That’s why the man who practices and preaches the gospel of seasonality in his home and many Atlanta restaurants—including Restaurant Eugene, Holeman & Finch and The Café at Linton’s in the Atlanta Botanical Garden—stood in my kitchen during his visit to the Chefs Series a few week ago and made a soup with canned tomatoes.

Like me, Linton believes tomatoes are only for summer. But in soup season, when fresh tomatoes are little more than a memory, he reaches for a can opener and 28 ounces of San Marzanos.

But of course it was much more than that. Linton is high energy, incredibly passionate about food and a charming teacher. So the participants and I got a fascinating lesson in DOP, or a special certification that guarantees that the tomatoes are the San Marzano variety.

He wanted everyone to learn how to break down a duck, so he brought a duck for everyone and we had duck breast with persimmon bacon chutney and rutabaga gratin. We made cashew cheese, a shaved root vegetable salad and tarte tatin. But my favorite was that tomato soup—so simple, so delicious—topped with basil pesto and olive bread croutons. So many ways to have a great meal when fresh produce is in its slowest season.

Linton Hopkins’ Tomato Soup

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ½ cup sliced yellow onion
  • 4 cups San Marzano canned tomatoes
  • ½ bay leaf
  • 1 each thyme sprig
  • 2 teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup water
  1. Sweat the onions and garlic slowly in oil and butter over medium heat for 10 minutes.
  2. Add the tomato, bay leaf, thyme and salt.
  3. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat until tomatoes soften.
  4. Add water and cook another 10 minutes.
  5. Remove thyme and bay leaf and puree in batches.
  6. To plate: pour tomato soup into bowl and top with basil pesto and olive bread croutons.



January 2015


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marie in garden with pudge

Years ago, our family dog was a standard poodle named Scarlett. When she was 9, our housekeeper, Pearl, said, “Scarlett seems to be gaining a little weight. You don’t think she’s pregnant, do you?”

Of course not, we said. She’s infertile; never even been in heat. But she surprised us all by having a tryst with a chow and giving birth to six puppies, two of whom survived, in December 1999. We gave one away and one of the housekeepers from the Inn took the other.

Shortly after that, Scarlett was hit by a car and died two weeks later. The day after she died, the housekeeper brought the puppy back, saying he was too much for her. And he spent the next 15 years by my side.

He was a fat little thing when he was born—so much so that one of Garnie’s friends said he looked like a little pudgeball. So we called him Pudge, though he grew to be a tall, thin dog. I called him a Poo-Chow: He had a poodle body and brain, but his tongue and tail were all chow.

Pudge was an old soul. Never acted like a puppy; never tore up a pair of shoes. People would bring him toys and he’d look at them like, what are these? You don’t think I’m a dog, do you? People would bring him dog biscuits and he’d just look at them sadly, hoping they’d soon figure out all he really wanted was bacon.

Pudge barely tolerated other dogs—he preferred to think he was the only one—but he loved adults. When we lived at the Inn, he’d go on hikes with guests or sit outside their door if he sensed they needed companionship. Then, when we moved into the community, he became my dog. When Steve and I would come home, he’d barely acknowledge Steve before running full-speed to greet me. I’ve had dogs all my life but never had the kind of connection that I did with Pudge.

People always said that, if they saw Pudge, they knew I was nearby. When I worked at the Inn, he’d go with me and stay on the back porch until I was ready to go, enjoying many scraps from the dishwashers while he waited. Pudge also enjoyed letting himself out for a walk around the neighborhood. Visitors would call to tell me they’d “found” my dog—I’d tell them he was fine and sure enough he’d walk himself home. Garnie would say, “Mom, there are leash laws at Serenbe!” But I’d say, “This is Pudge. These were his woods before they were anyone else’s.”

Late last week, Pudge let me know it was time for him to go. He was old, had a heart condition and his back legs couldn’t hold him anymore. So I put on some music, pulled out my mother’s star-shaped candlestick holders and lit some candles to help my faithful little star transition from this world to the next.

Continuing a Nygren family tradition, he died on a rainy day. Rain always plays a part in the most significant moments in our life, including the day Steve and I got married (outside), the birth of our first child and the day we found the farm that is now Serenbe. Pudge will always be a part of Serenbe, where he had an amazing life with someone who absolutely adored him.