Perched in a rocking chair on the porch that overlooks the expanse of her 350 acres in Estill County, Ky., Barbara Napier refers to the setting as “where the mountains kiss the Bluegrass.” For the last 17 years, Napier has shared her land, her home, her kitchen, and her dinner table with travelers and guests from around the world. The bed-and-breakfast at Snug Hollow Farm boasts a large farmhouse, rustic cabins, trails, a large organic garden, and a true taste of timeless Appalachian culture – all the product of Napier’s work, vision, and appetite for hospitality.
Renowned for her gourmet vegetarian cuisine, Napier serves up a one-of-a-kind immersive experience for her guests. Gently rocking back and forth in her chair, enjoying a picture-perfect Kentucky September day, Napier ruminates on the farm, her approach to cooking, and the value of civil dinners among strangers.
How did this place come to be? What was behind your dream for Snug Hollow Farm?
I knew I had to share this place with people. I’ve always cooked for people and I’ve always entertained. People loved to come here. They would call and say, “Can we just come over?” I had a big table and I would feed them and spend time with them. At the time, I was working in a job, at a desk in a cubicle. I’d leave at 8:00 in the morning and get home at dark. I began to think to myself, “Why live here if you can’t actually ever be here? That’s not really living here.”
I knew I needed to make a living and I read about the concept of a bed-and-breakfast, which was new to me. I thought, “This is perfect. I’ve got this big house and all this beautiful land – I can support myself by sharing it with others.” So when it opened, guests started coming and have continued to visit Snug Hollow ever since.
What does hospitality mean to you? What do you hope someone gets out of their experience here?
It means that I have something to offer. This farm has something to offer. It’s not as if I created something. This land takes care of me and I think everyone who stays here can connect with it in some way. It reminds them of their grandmother’s house. It reminds them of their childhood. It reminds them of things they had forgotten about themselves.
Many people aren’t used to a place that gets really dark at night, like it does here. And just listen – do you hear all these noises? The sounds of bugs and birds and creatures and creation? This is something you see in movies about the South, but people don’t get to experience it unless they come to a place like this. I think it’s the experience and the connection with the land here. It’s absolutely a feast for the senses. I think I offer that and people, more often than not, they get it. They go away with part of it.
Your menu is completely organic and vegetarian. How would you describe the menu? What types of dishes are typical fare for Snug Hollow?
People love real food. I am from Eastern Kentucky, so we have real food. Some nights we might have what I call “Ken-Tuscan bean soup,” and it’s delicious. We’ll serve cornbread and kale with caramelized onions and just things that I consider to be real food. The Kentucky food is very important here. We also might have eggplant Parmesan and garlic mashed potatoes and our homemade rosemary bread, but it’s real food. We don’t do the tofu and seaweed act.
We like to surprise people with unfamiliar dishes and ingredients. When they come down to breakfast and have biscuits and gravy, fried potatoes, eggs, oatmeal, and coffee and they’re saying, “I thought this was vegetarian?” I guess they assume you can’t do any of that, but it’s fun. Our staff really enjoys surprising everybody with this wonderful food, things like apple dumplings and apple stack cakes and butterscotch pies.
The food has always been very well received. Years ago, everyone at the table would want to know the recipe for whatever was being served. At night, I would sit in there and write it all out. One day I thought, “I need to write a cookbook. This is insane.” Our “Hot Food & Warm Memories” cookbook came out of that thought. It’s all vegetarian, but everybody eats chocolate pie and macaroni and cheese and lasagna. It just shows you how you can still eat well as a vegetarian.
What distinguishes Kentucky food, particularly Appalachian Kentucky food, from other regions?
Well, several things, but one of the things, and this is maybe just a Southern thing in general, but food is so important in our culture. If you’re celebrating a wedding, it’s all about the food: the cake, the dinner, the hors d’oeuvres. If you’re celebrating a birthday, it’s a birthday dinner. We eat in our churches. We eat everywhere. We eat in our meetings. If there’s a funeral, that meal that comes after is the most important part of the ritual. Food is just so ingrained in our culture. We value our food. We grow it. We still can our food. A lot of people in Kentucky can. It’s not a thing of the past – it’s something that’s still going on right now.
I think when people arrive, they see the way we serve the food. We don’t serve family-style. You sit down and we serve it to you, so on your plate will be what we consider our dinner offering. And there may be items that someone may not normally eat or with which they’re unfamiliar, things like eggplant. But it’s always gone by the end of the meal. It’s a new way of considering food.
Is there any particular dish or meal that you just especially enjoy introducing to guests – something that stands out?
Yes, I do enjoy making my vegetarian gravy and biscuits because first of all, just the shock value that guests sit down and see the gravy and assume that it has meat in it, which it doesn’t. Then I’ll show them how we make it. I think that’s fun. I really enjoy introducing the real food. We do a pasta but we use our butternut squash, our kale, and our Swiss chard to make this lovely dish that people may never even think to eat and they end up eating second and third portions.
I enjoy thinking about what I’m going to serve and how it’s going to affect people. This is what I’m all about, it’s my thing. Cooking for people is my love and my time in my kitchen is a calling. What better way to show love?
All the guests who stay at Snug Hollow, people from all across the country and even the globe, eat together. What are these meals like?
Well, as Parker Palmer says, “If you want to have world peace, go have more potluck suppers,” and that is a statement in which I truly believe. You bring people together of different cultures. In this day and age, rarely do people come face to face with a stranger. We think that’s not the best way to do life. The most fun, interesting thing you can do is to be civil. To sit at the table and meet people who you maybe wouldn’t pick out of a lineup and start talking about things. You have these civil conversations and then they can become so interesting, sometimes so heartfelt. They pass on information and then we can hear another person’s real opinion from a real person and you get a little softer around the edges about it. It’s just important.
Your guests get to discover Kentucky when they stay here – it seems that you’re also getting to experience all the places from where they’re coming.
I am. Where else in the world can you just sit here on these 350 acres and have the world come right to your door? Of course, I get to ask many questions and learn so much and we exchange our thoughts. As many, many interesting cultures as there are and different ways of growing up, the main thing and the amazing thing is that we cannot believe all of our similarities.
What are some of these universal, human things that emerge during these meals?
People want to go back. They like to reflect on their childhood. One gentleman walked in the door recently and saw my old wood cookstove and said, “Oh, my – this reminds me of my grandma’s house!” He just stood for a minute and his wife said, “For goodness sakes, Michael, you’re from Los Angeles.” He said, “Okay, it’s not my grandma’s house, but it’s what my grandma’s house should have been.”
What comes to the surface is that most people are empathetic. Most people want to help when someone is hurting or in need. They don’t always know how to ask for help when they need it, and sometimes they don’t get an opportunity to give it. Most people are very, very kind. They just might not have had an opportunity to practice that kindness, or at least they haven’t recognized those opportunities. You pick up on this in conversations around the table and in interactions out in this nature. People are genuinely interested in other people. I think our similarities lie in our hunger to really know one another. It’s a fact.