Living Off the Land

By Julia Sayers  |  Photography by Ojas Gokhale

Blogger Trace Barnett returned to his Alabama roots and created a kind of utopia where he grows and makes everything he needs.

It’s early in the morning on a chilly autumn day and Trace Barnett has already fed his chickens, watered his garden, and taken his dog for a walk. He slides a cast iron pan of homemade biscuits into the oven and pulls up a stool at one of the long wooden farmhouse tables in his kitchen.

“These tables were left here from the fabric store this building used to be,” Barnett says, gesturing to the restored barn he lives in.

Barnett’s family has lived in Brilliant, a small town in northwest Alabama, since 1828. His childhood consists of stories of trapping quail, visiting flea markets, learning about native plants while foraging, and cooking and crafting with his grandmother.

“I was a child with the demeanor and knowledge of an 80-year-old man,” Barnett says with a laugh.

Those childhood experiences unknowingly shaped Barnett into who he is today. After attending the University of Alabama, Barnett had dreams of bigger cities and new experiences. He moved to East Hampton, N.Y., in 2014, where he became enthralled with the glamour and society. It was there that he launched his blog, “The Bitter Socialite,” where he shares tips for hosting parties, entertaining, cooking, gardening, and more.

But there was something tugging at him, something he couldn’t ignore: a desire to be back in the place where his heart belonged.

“I was longing for the sights, smells, and tastes of home,” Barnett says. “There was a restlessness in me that kept me awake at night.”

So, in 2016, he packed up his car and moved back home to the little town in Alabama with one caution light and about 900 people.

Barnett decided to restore a 1920s barn on his family’s property to be his home. It’s now filled with antique finds and heirloom treasures passed down through generations. There’s a table dedicated to fossils, arrowheads, and petrified wood; china displayed in a myriad of ways; a giant antique dollhouse filled with miniatures; and art in a well-curated blend of styles covering every square inch of the walls.

An artist himself, Barnett talks about his debut art exhibit at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center in Decatur, Ala. It’s called “White Trash,” and is a collection of paintings he has created using found objects — sometimes literal trash — and white paint.

But art isn’t Barnett’s only talent — he’s also a natural in front of the camera. He regularly appears on TV shows in Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta, where he demos recipes, decor, gardening, and more. In 2017, he was a competitor on “Food Network Star” and again in 2018 on “Comeback Kitchen.” His charismatic personality and distinct northern Alabama accent charms over the airwaves.

Also a gardener who lives off his land, Barnett points out features of his pollinator garden, which started as a small fenced-in area behind his home. It’s now expanded into his backyard with raised beds and a vegetable area in the field behind his house.

“I always plant turnip greens and collards because they’re one of the first pollinators in the spring for bees,” Barnett says.

Barnett grows most of the food he eats, including okra, corn, greens, tomatoes, beans, peppers, squash, melons, and more. He collects fresh eggs daily from his 40 chickens in the coop behind his house.

He added two beehives to his garden in 2019 but is not harvesting honey this year. The honey he does get is bold and peppery, because the bees pollinate from his pepper plants.

“I mainly keep bees for the environment,” he explains.

Among the more unusual plants in his garden are loofah vines, which twist around the fences. The long, squash-like vegetables dry in his garage. Ever environmentally conscious, Barnett uses the sponges for cleaning and dishes.

And as if being an artist, gardener, and beekeeper weren’t enough, Barnett has written a cookbook, “Tracing Roots.” The book focuses on a modern approach to living off the land, with tips on growing your own food, raising chickens, and keeping bees, as well as recipes organized by growing season. His signature dish, Collard Green Gratin, is featured in the book.

Barnett has adapted a lifestyle similar to the one his grandparents showed him when he was just a boy. With the rolling Alabama hills outside his window and a bounty of garden-fresh Southern vegetables, it’s easy to see why this place has kept Barnett and his family captivated for so many generations.

Collard Green Gratin

Serves 6-8

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 onion, chopped

2 slices bacon, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 large bunch collard greens

2 cups beef stock

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 cups heavy cream

2 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped thyme

1 tablespoon pepper

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons granulated garlic

1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

1 cup parmesan cheese, grated

1 cup white cheddar cheese, grated

1 cup bread crumbs

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large pot over medium-high heat, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and sauté onion and bacon for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add in garlic; cook until onions are translucent and garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from heat.

Thoroughly wash collard greens and pat dry. Prep the leaves by holding the stem in one hand and grabbing the leafy flesh with the other hand to pull away from stem; discard stems. Cut or tear collards and place in pot with bacon and onion mixture. Allow collards to wilt slightly from heat. Slowly add beef stock; sprinkle with sugar. Cover pot and simmer until liquid has reduced and greens are tender. Remove from heat.

In a medium bowl, whisk together heavy cream and next seven ingredients, breaking apart any lumps. Set aside.

Grease a casserole dish, and add just enough collard greens to cover the bottom. Pour 2-3 tablespoons of cream mixture over collards. Sprinkle with Parmesan and white cheddar cheeses. Repeat process for additional layers until all collards have been used.

In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Spoon over top of casserole and sprinkle with more cheese; cover. Transfer to oven and cook for 25-30 minutes. Remove foil and cook an additional 10-12 minutes until bubbly and golden brown.

Tip: If you want less spice, reduce the amount of red pepper.

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