If only the people who find holiday family gatherings angst-filled could see Lisa King’s table.
They would see her 10 children, ages 30 to 13, a group that swells to 25 or so with spouses, significant others, grandchildren and other relatives. The food forms a bountiful highway stretching end to end, most of it produced by the Kings themselves. Pumpkins baked to a bronze finish that contain Lisa’s chunky, nutty wild rice stuffing. A 22-pound turkey done to impossibly even moistness, with a couple of wingmen, a.k.a. roasted chickens. And enough pies to make you sorry the Separate Dessert Stomach isn’t real.
What is genuine: the Kings’ mutual respect. There’s just enough sarcasm and horseplay to keep the scene from going all John-Boy Walton sweet. This is a family that operates more than 200 acres of its Freedom Farms in Butler County, Pa., close enough to Steel City to hear the “yinz” (akin to “y’all”) and dropped infinitives of Pittsburghese. The male Kings work together. They hunt and ski together. And they kiss their mom at every parting.
“We’re far from perfect,” says the King matriarch. “But very loving. It’s a mother’s greatest gift.”
Cable television viewers who stop in at the Great American Country channel have come to know them as the “Farm Kings,” of course. The network touts the show, whose third season starts in December, as an irresistible mix of food, family and country lifestyle. The fact that the Kings are a handsome lot, whose men are prone to working shirtless at farmers markets and in the fields, is gravy.
From oldest to youngest: Joe heads Freedom Farms, its bakery, cafe, markets and community-supported agriculture program. Elizabeth, the only daughter, works directly for her mom. Tim and Peter are business partners with Joe. Daniel got their pig operation underway and considers Virginia’s Polyface Farm activist farmer-author Joel Salatin his mentor. Luke is a pre-med senior at Gannon University in Erie, Pa. Sam has just chosen farming over college; younger brothers John and Paul fit their chores in around high school sports practice. Ben, the youngest, has Down syndrome and pitches in as well; Lisa says he prefers to carry “empty baskets rather than full ones.”
The TV crew that shoots “Farm Kings” does not have to manufacture story lines, action or drama. The family signed on, provided their daily work took precedence. They seem unaffected by sound booms and cameras, and think of the show as a second job. The Kings agreed to put the money earned directly into running Freedom Farms; Joe won’t disclose the sum, but he will say that “Farm Kings” merchandise has brought in about $100,000.
“None of us are getting rich at this,” says Joe, 30. “I don’t know how ‘Duck Dynasty’ does it. But we like the idea of showing people what it takes to be a successful small farmer in America.”
Private lives are off-limits, which also sets “Farm Kings” apart from much of family reality TV. Elizabeth, 29, is engaged to be married next spring. She has yet to decide whether to publicly share the day.
“Farm Kings” awareness has jumped since the reality show’s first 13-episode season aired in 2012. Great American Country channel executives say it’s their top show in terms of what they call “multiple activity,” or viewership plus social media mentions. “When we first became aware of the King family, in 2011, we thought, ‘what a great American story,’ ” says Sarah Trahern, senior vice president and general manager for Great American Country.
No wonder. It encompasses triumph over adversity, steadfast loyalty and family values without political agenda. The backstory starts with Lisa, 53, the 10th of 12 children born “humble” to loving parents in Carrick, a south Pittsburgh neighborhood. Her Czechoslovak father, his brother and sisters all taught Lisa how to cook.
As a girl, she told someone she would be a farmer’s wife someday. When she met Joseph King at his farmers market stand in 1982, “I thought he was so mean to customers, I wondered how he sold anything at all,” she laughs. “I was a people person. He was not.” Nonetheless, she married him at age 22. Their first three kids arrived at 13-month intervals.
“I enjoyed everything about having them,” she says. “Greatest thing on Earth. . . . Three days after I had each one, I’d strap them to me and go right back to work.” The Kings couldn’t afford to buy baby food, so Lisa would chop up home-grown vegetables she’d frozen.
She found that farm life suited her, even if her husband’s demeanor did not. There were chores and challenges, and she was resourceful and tireless. Once, when Joseph got angry and fired all the contract workers at harvest time, Lisa called her mom friends and asked them to come and pick in the fields, so the crops would not go to waste. Her older children remember working at farmers markets as early as age 6. She cultivated a flower garden that spread to four acres, and she began selling to brides.
Lisa and Joseph’s divorce took five long years. Mother and children left the old farm. The pain it caused is not something Lisa likes to dwell on, any more than she likes to acknowledge the disfiguring arthritis in her hands that she treats homeopathically: “It’s just another thing you have to live with,” she says.
She was left with little more than the support and muscle of all her children. But that was key, along with bank loans to establish a new generation of King farmers, on neglected King farmland and new.
“My mom is a pusher, a creative force,” says Elizabeth. The sole King daughter left home for college and culinary school in her 20s. Now she lives in a nearby town and helps her mother tend to the flower business, rebuilt at Lisa’s house and manifest in more than 21 / 2 acres of happy blooms, vines and trellises in the back yard.
Lisa’s kitchen window faces the flowers. As she stands at the sink and looks out, often in stockinged feet, her frame as lean as a cyclist’s and her blond hair in mild disarray, you can bet that an ongoing list of projects is running through her head. Everybody’s busy elsewhere doing what must done, yet she knows how to wrangle her guys into moving spindly trees or digging a pond. They might negotiate; they don’t refuse her.
Her cooking is at local-legend status. By popular demand, the Freedom Farms Market 10 minutes away in Butler sells her tomato-basil pie, soups and relishes, all of which she makes herself. Fans of the show have driven from as far as Texas to catch a glimpse of her cooking in the small kitchen space at the back of the store. During weeks of filming, she makes daily meals for the TV crew of 13 to 17, as well as whoever’s on hand. One of her favorite recipe sources is the market’s customers. They’ll tell her about a favorite dish, and she won’t stop thinking about it until she tries it herself, usually with a pragmatic twist.
“She’s an inspiration to everyone she meets,” says Lisa’s older brother John Pisarcik.
“She is too stubborn to fail,” says Tim King, 28.
Lisa recently published a small, spiral-bound cookbook called “Recipes From Lisa’s Kitchen,” which she says was far tougher than having all her kids because she never measures when she cooks.
Kitchen tools are sparse. Pots and pans, not as huge as you’d expect. “I don’t even have a measuring cup in the kitchen right now,” she says. Turns out, it’s being used as a cap on her rototiller.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, though, she says, “it’s not about me. It becomes a family operation, kinda nice. Elizabeth makes awesome things. Someone will do the veggies. Ben loves to set the table.” Ask her for holiday strategies, and the Lisa King philosophy comes forth.
“I’d tell them what I tell every bride who comes to pick their wedding bouquets here: It’s just another day. It will come and it will go. Americans make [Thanksgiving] too much of a show.
“The mashed potatoes stay in the same big bowl they were mashed in. I respect the environment too much to use plastic containers. Besides, I have hungry boys. There are no leftovers! If there’s enough of something, I’ll store it in a bakeable container.”
Lisa says it’s more important to make the house smell good. And to laugh a lot. “That’s what we do. We have our arguments, but then it’s over. Nothing’s thicker than blood.”
The way she roasts the Thanksgiving bird — raised at Freedom Farms, naturally — appeals to Lisa’s practical nature. She learned about it five years ago (from the man who sold them the bakery) and has been using the technique for ham and roasts, as well. No brining, no stuffing, no air-drying, no herbs, no oil or butter.
She seasons with salt “in the hollow.” Pours a cup of salted water into a roasting pan, then adds the turkey, breast side down and untrussed, to the pan. Then she seals the pan with plastic wrap, tucking the ends under the pan’s rim. Next, a layer of aluminum foil that completely encloses the wrap all around. At 350 degrees, a 22-pounder is done in about four hours.
Lisa loses no sleep over the forfeit of crisped turkey skin. Light meat and dark are juicy throughout. The turkey is easy to carve, and there’s no waste. (If you’re wondering about safety issues, read this sidebbar.)
“In the end,” Lisa King says, “there are three things that matter at our Thanksgiving table. We are thankful for our health. We know there are families spending the holiday in the hospital, tending to their kids who are battling for their lives.
“We appreciate the fact that we are all together, but that some families can’t be, because they have relatives who have sacrificed their lives for our country.
“And that what’s before us on the table is what we have grown and raised.”
Maybe there’s a touch of John-Boy in the King family, after all.
runs Nov. 27 (Season 1), 9 a.m.-7 p.m. and Nov. 28 (Season 2), 7 a.m.-8 p.m., on the Great American Country channel. The new season premieres Thursday, Dec. 19 at 9 p.m.