NANCY FULLER IS A RURAL COLUMBIA COUNTY farm girl who never strayed far from home. She was a farmer, then for 30 years a caterer. She is a self-described obsessive antique collector. Her grandmother (‘Grammy Carl’) taught her about life and how to cook.
Gracious, hospitable, funny, sassy—it’s easy to see why television audiences enjoy watching her. Yet, this 68-year-old credits a life spent in rural Columbia County among farmers and townsfolk with shaping her ethic and values—things she is trying to pass on to her 13 grand children. An only child, married four times, mother of six, television personality—these events and circumstances brought their own challenges and rewards that she’s used to develop a philosophy spiked with humor and a sardonic wit.
Nancy Fuller: I was born 68 years ago and grew up on a farm. I think I was blessed to have that opportunity. It was such a different world than what we’re accustomed to today. You were exposed to so much—the reality of life, as opposed to the cocoon that we are today. My father was an only child and his mother was an only child, and I was an only child—that’s unusual for a farm family.
Grammy Carl made the best chicken and the best coleslaw and the best gravy and the best cookies—she was probably the biggest influence in my life for cooking and values and nurturing. I loved those days when life was so simple, but I vowed not to be like my father, who refused to get out of the ‘50s.
I relished having a big family. My kids ‘picked rock’ at five years old, and they had to weed the walk—we had this long stone walk, and the deal was weed the walk before you went swimming. Christmas, no one got a present until all the chores were done, all the cows fed, milked. Sunday mornings they were whisked off to Sunday school. That was a stressful day because who can find socks for six? But that whole Sunday school program—going to church, raising them in that environment—creates patience, faith, understanding. And that’s just what it’s all about.
When all six children would get off the school bus and come in, and the children from the neighbor’s farm also would come in—there would be maybe 10 kids wanting dinner or wanting something to eat. When you put all those kids (or even just one child) around the table and ask them to look you in the eye and tell you how was their day, what was the best thing about their day, what was the worst thing about their day, what was the most surprising thing that happened to them today—once they’re able to talk to adults and look them in the eye and tell the truth, that creates conversation, that creates confidence. That’s why the dinner table is such a very important component of everyday life, especially for family.
I try to teach my grandchildren kind of the basic values, create integrity, character—the epitome of what you are when you grow up on a farm—but it’s difficult because I’m not milking cows anymore, so they don’t have the opportunity to feed the calves, to be responsible for another living thing. Along with the food and the seasonal eating, that’s what I’m trying to do—getting basic, good character back and doing so around the table.
Fuller’s long tenure in the valley has given her an appreciation for those who live and work here, especially the farmers.
I have a farm in Copake that my dad bought in 1947. That’s where I grew up and that’s what I’ve held on to. I have leased the farm for the last 30 years to Ted Berenger. He is the absolute, consummate farmer. He works 365 days a year, and when he takes a vacation it’s to go to the Chatham Fair to teach children about farming. He milks about 70 head, but he is my age and it’s not easy getting up and down under those cows with bad knees. So he’s selling off his herd. He’ll retire from farming but he’ll stay on the farm. He has a little ice cream shop and sells ice cream and yogurt—he’ll keep that and hopefully be successful.
Barry Chase does a great job with his son Rory and his daughter Sarah at Chaseholm Farm in Pine Plains. Their cheese is amazing.
There’s not many [farms] anymore—we get [milk] from so many places. But there’s so much that comes from that one little cow, so many derivatives of that product, if we can have our own farms in our own counties, we can keep things local. That’s why I do what I do, and why I do television—to tout Chaseholm Farm, and Rory and Sarah and Rosie and Barry and Ronnie [Osofsky] and all the people that are contributing to quality in our Hudson Valley and bringing things to the table.
Fuller’s experience with food, as with real estate and antique collecting, did not come via the traditional route. There was no culinary school or working up the ranks in restaurant kitchens. Her experience is linked with what she knows and does best—working with people, recognizing and capitalizing on opportunities.
I’ve been in California and I’ve been in Boston and private school in Williamstown. I was not a student—didn’t like it. I said, ’Well, I’ll see if I can do it,’ and went to Santa Ana College, got a 3.8 and said, ‘That’s good enough, bye-bye.’ I just didn’t like that regimen. I spent a few years worrying about what I was going to do when I got old. Having an interest in food and everything that it meant to me—from Grammy Carl, I guess—that’s where I ventured.
We were big into the cattle industry as farmers. The first time we were selling cattle was when the industry was at its peak. We raised this one particular heifer and sold it to Japan for a lot of money. My friends—who were the premise and brains behind getting mega people like John Lennon to buy herds of cattle and then getting big tax write offs for them—they were doing a big auction at Madison Square Garden. And they were serving tuna fish on Ritz crackers.
I said, ‘Now boys, you cannot ask $50,000 for a vial of semen and give the people a Ritz cracker with tuna fish.’They laughed and they said, ‘What would you like to do about it, Nancy?’ and I said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll just cater your next auction.’
They had a Holstein auction coming up—you know, those black-and-white cows. I hired a staff and put them all in white shirts and black Tuxedo ties and vests, served hors d’oeuvres on sterling silver. And [the business] took off.
I bought a motel and moved everything into that, then I leased the Columbia Golf and Country Club and moved out there. They wanted to get out from the constraints of running a restaurant; I needed a bigger kitchen. Knowing full well that I could cater parties there, I said, ‘Your place looks like an ice cream parlor—you’re going to have to paint it. I’ll bring in my antiques and oriental rugs and give the place a little class.’ And that’s what I did. I sent out fancy little cards and doubled their catering revenue. I did that for 30 years.
Her husband, David Ginsberg, brought with him the large and well-respected food distribution service, Ginsberg’s Foods, and although she’s not directly involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, it dovetails nicely with the other aspects of her life.
We’re going back to hand-cut meat, farm produce, locally grown, as much as we can. We’re moving in the right direction.
Sam Ginsberg opened a butcher shop in 1909 in Hudson that evolved into a grocery store that his son, Morton, took over. David and his brother Ira joined their father after college, and that became Ginsberg’s Foods. In 2006, Ira wanted to sell the business. At that time, we had around 225 employees—we were a big business in a small community. So I bought Ira out. And then I brought my son, John, back—he’s probably been there a dozen years.
Ginsberg’s was like a well-greased wheel, so I didn’t make any changes. I like to put a deal together, create it, brainstorm it, tell you what to do and then go on. That worked out beautifully, because John stepped in and has been brilliant—he’s done a great job.
I was always a big proponent of eating locally and eating seasonally, and I definitely brought a lot more attention to buying local product. But it’s not easy to create what I want to create for the schools and the nursing homes and facilities like that. So I’ve been going right to the manufactures for at least 10 years—asking them to come up with clean products, to get rid of the chemicals. We did it before manufacturing existed, so we certainly can do it now.
Today, we’re bringing in many more local products because now everyone knows that we need to change the way we eat. John—raised on a farm with all those values that I spoke about earlier—he gets it, he understands that.
It’s history repeating itself. I find that interesting and wonderful and amazing—we’re going back to hand-cut meat, farm produce, locally grown, as much as we can. We’re moving in the right direction.
A role in a promo video for a local festival was Fuller’s introduction to the world of entertainment. Her confidence and ease with people made her a natural in front of the cameras and, as she likes to say, the rest is history.
The kids—the video graphers—were telling me ‘Oh you’re so natural, have you done television?’ I just looked at them and I said, ‘Honey, I’m 63 and fat—that’s as natural as it gets.’ So they did a demo. They took it to Food Network. They took it to ABC. They took it to CNN.
Food Network picked it up. They were looking for personality. I went down for an interview and the young man said, ‘You know, we get a lot of videos through here but we don’t get many people who match the video. You match the video. ’They wanted [to call the show] Farmhouse in the Kitchen, or something like that, and I said, ‘That’s a little mundane—it’s Farmhouse Rules.’ They said no and I said, ‘I have a cook book that my grandmother created, probably in the 1930s or ‘40s. Recipes were called rules. That’s where it came from.’ That’s how Farmhouse Rules was born.
I feel so strongly that we’re going in the right direction. My audience is so spread out—I know young kids five years old that watch me before they watch a cartoon. There’s something to be said for that.
I think the most memorable show was the day I got in a biplane and flew over the Hudson River and brought a picnic to the Aerodrome in Rhinebeck. In another episode, David surprised me with a balloon ride. I just did a motorcycle show—I rode a Harley three-wheeler with a friend to raise money for hospice.
The irony of me having a show on television is that I never watch television. It just doesn’t interest me.
But Farmhouse Rules, which has aired since 2013, spawned a cookbook and landed Fuller a seat as a judge on one of Food Network’s top-rated amateur chef competitions—the Baking Championship series. In the expansive kitchen of her restored/reconstructed 1766 Georgian-style farmhouse, she was just finishing up a makeup and hair session in preparation for a flight to Los Angeles to tape the latest segment.
I’ll go to LA and film the Holiday Baking Championship in June, then I’ll film spring in August. It’s very down-to-earth. We don’t see the people working, We are not told that we have to pick somebody or not pick somebody—we don’t see anything but what’s put in front of us. It is so legitimate and authentic. I think anytime you’re natural it just shows. And it’s a big prize—$50,000. It changes somebody’s life.
The recipes [in the book] are 100 percent tested. The easiest thing in the world is to buy a piece of fish and buy some fresh tarragon and a little butter—bake it, broil it, grill it, do whatever you want with it—then pour that butter on it and it’s done in two seconds. Everything’s better with butter!
The corn chowder is excellent—it’s a good reminder for people to shuck [summer] corn and freeze it so they have it for the winter. I’ve been doing that for 45 years—every year I freeze enough for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s a tradition.
Above all, Nancy Fuller is her own woman, and she approaches her life and her businesses as she does any situation—on her own terms, but with respect and a nod to those who came before.
You know what? For me, life is happiness and good energy and doing things—that’s what’s going to keep you alive.
I think I leap before I really think. But not really. I’m not that frivolous that I don’t check things out a little bit. I’m blessed, I have a lot of energy. This week I just closed on a condo in Delray, Florida. The place came on the market at 8 in the morning and I went at 10 and at 10:30 I bought it. I thought when it’s so cold and my arthritis in my knees doesn’t like it—an investment, I bought it cheap. Poor David said, ‘Nancy, I guess I understand after all this time you’re just not going to settle down and sit in a rocking chair.’ It’s just not in my genes.
I’m definitely an old soul. I hang on to stuff. Grammy Carl’s cupboard. The lamps are old milk carriers, Mexican. The rack I’ve had forever—that was a shoe rack. My garlic masher is an old Mason tool. Just my stuff, my grandmother’s stuff, my great grandmother’s stuff—tools that have withstood the test of time. That, too, is what I’m about—having respect for those who came before us and gave us what we have and made us who we are today.
I’m happy in my own skin. One of the fans of the show wrote in and said, ‘I would think after all these episodes on TV she could afford to get rid of her moles.’ People say, ‘Oh Nancy, you’re not gonna live very long because you’re so fat,’ ‘Oh Nancy, you need to take statins,’ and ‘Oh Nancy…’
You know what? For me, life is happiness and good energy and doing things—that’s what’s going to keep you alive. I beat myself every day for being this heavy because, you know, there’s no bathing suit that’s gonna look good! I skied for years, then I gained 100 pounds. I don’t ski anymore, but I cook and I swim, and pretty soon maybe I’ll walk. We’ll see.
Farmhouse Rules airs Sundays at 11:30AM on Food Network.