THE BLOG
03/14/2013 12:03 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2013

Ashley English: A DIY Goddess Preserves Food and Friendships

Ashley English from Dark Rye on Vimeo.

People have always come together to entertain, even when times are tight and finances are slim. From her modest but cozy home in the mountains of North Carolina, Ashley English is providing a model of party-giving and camaraderie for a generation more concerned about authenticity and human connection than about making a big splash. "Did you see that Martha Stewart reissued her classic book Entertaining?" English says. "It's exquisite, page after page of parties that are beyond beautiful, but it's almost like standing behind a velvet rope at Versailles -- it's just all so over the top that you'd leaf through it, then put it back on the shelf and feel further away than ever from being able to pull off something special."

Parties don't have to be a huge deal. They can revolve around anything, English says: "With a good, narrow theme, people get it right away." Establish that, and suddenly you're hosting something special. An "ice-cream social" with creative guests isn't going to yield 15 cartons of store-bought vanilla. "You need someone to bring crushed toffee, someone else to bring stewed peaches, someone else to make waffle cones," English says. "Once you have one or two events, people get lit up for the next one -- they know how to play along."

But English is far more than just a party-giver. She's also an exemplar of modern self-reliant living, the ultimate low-key style goddess of a generation that's relearning how to do it themselves. She's published books on raising chickens, canning and preserving, making pies, keeping bees and establishing a home dairy. "Making environmentally sensible lifestyle choices need not be daunting," she writes on her website. "There are simple, daily gestures individuals can take to benefit themselves, their families, their communities, and the planet."

For many years, English says, these simple values got lost in a culture that valued glamour over neighborliness. But an economic collapse has a way of reigniting the value of thrift and self-reliance. "For a while there, when domesticana had its resurgence in the form of coffee table books, I think we lost our way. Too many of us got intimidated. Homesteading is not an aesthetic or a showcase for bought taste. It's the essence of thrift come to life. All we have to do is relearn our grandparents' tricks and pass them around. We need to take it all back, turn it into a collective, and make it ours again."

All that's needed is a network of friends and neighbors and the ability to tap into the resources around you. Not everyone has to cook or can. You may know people who work with wood, or sew, or play music. Having some willing dishwashers on hand helps, too. In Ashley English's world, everyone contributes to the feast.

"All of us have something to evangelize, something that makes us proud to create or cook or make," she says. "We've got so much to share. The food, really, is just a gathering point to make that happen. When we pull off an incredible night, we feel like we've accessed something that would have otherwise felt closed off to us. It's a triumph every time."

This video from Dark Rye was produced by Kelly Le Castre and edited by Andy Pickard.

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