Project ReflectionMay 4, 2016
BY CARLA SEIDL
It wasn't hard to find local ingredients to profile in western North Carolina. With fertile environs and a concentration of motivated, earth-engaged folks, this area is a locavore's delight. Each new flavor revealed a different set of topics surrounding local foodways, the food itself becoming a lens on the area's growers and foragers.
The Earth Flavors archive may appear at first a disorderly potluck. But as in nature, the closer you look, the more patterns emerge. Here are some of the ties that bind our vibrant scene of local ingredients and food producers. A few tenets, if you will, of our locavorian terroir.
I. TAPPING INTO OLD WAYS"We do go to the grocery store," says naturalist Doug Elliott of Union Mills, "but not very often, thank goodness." The "thank goodness" part of this statement grabs me. Not long ago, while serving in the Peace Corps in rural West Africa, the chance to go to a supermarket would have been a dream. I get it, though. Nowadays, in this very different cultural context, I too sometimes challenge myself to make it as long as possible between grocery visits. Why? An intentional awareness of sustainability and local edibles, and a philosophy of using what is at hand, as well as the privilege to know that I can go when needed; I can choose from options within that behemoth, banana-and-toilet-paper-dotted repository of cardboard, plastic, soy, wheat, and corn syrup, that lure of colorful competing advertising that'd prove an overwhelming wonderland to many of the world's less economically fortunate.
It's hard to believe, but supermarkets have been around less than a century. And in their early days, says former Trader Joe's president Doug Rauch in a 2015 interview for Business Insider, 5-lb bags of flour for cooking, not ready-to-eat rotisserie chickens, were among the most commonly sold items.
Sometimes, amid flashing screens, it's hard to imagine what our great-grandparents' lives were like. For some, a move to western North Carolina is actually a way to reconnect with what sometimes seems a distant past. Elliott moved to western North Carolina from Maryland, attracted by two of WNC's attributes: biodiversity and cultural integrity. He says of Southern Appalachia: "People who live here have been isolated from the mainstream for a little longer than most people, and so there can be a rich treasure trove of environmental info and info on how people relate to the natural world."
Across cultures, mountain regions have been keepers of folklore and cultural knowledge, as their physical geography — crags and valleys — tend to keep folks isolated from currents of change. Elliott, who's also a professional storyteller, sings a song about traditional local edible creasy greens and points me in the direction of lore about the air, or "fairy" potato. His wife, Yanna Fishman, also takes advantage of this unique cultural environment in her work. A conservation gardener, she raises old heirloom varieties including more than 100 varieties of sweet potato.
The two are not alone in drawing from past ways. Walter Harrill of Imladris Farm grows fruit for jam and raises rabbits on land that was his great grandparents' farm in Fairview. "Over and over and over," he says, "I find that we just keep circling back to the way things were done."
For the millers at Carolina Ground in Asheville, drawing from the wisdom of the past means bucking the impersonal mechanization of industrial grain production by milling their own flour. Across cultures, grinding grain has traditionally been a woman's task, and both millers at Carolina Ground are women — a fact that founder Jennifer Lapidus sees as significant in terms of reconnection to intuition, tactility, and personal connection.
Drawing from the bygone includes knowing how to make use of what's around you. Before the electric global cloud of the Internet, the spheres of our interactions were smaller. We didn't look up recipes on the Internet, we learned them from and shared them with neighbors and family. Some of the best came from ingredients that grew outside our front doors.
When I first started profiling for Earth Flavors, I admit I was thinking mainly of agriculturally produced flavors, not those already available in our natural landscape. Here, area growers and foragers quickly broadened my awareness. When Cedar Johnson of Goldfinch Gardens in Celo introduced me to claytonia, one of her favorite salad greens, for instance, I was intrigued to learn of its history as a wild edible. It turns out West Coast miners turned to this Vitamin-C-rich plant to prevent scurvy during the California Gold Rush, giving it its nickname: miner's lettuce.
Many Americans have lost touch with the relationship between landscape and body, ignoring and discounting the gifts around them. Transfixed by our phones, we Google health ailments and restaurant reviews while stepping over dandelions poking through cracks in the sidewalk. How far removed we've become from the European settlers, who, as Katrina Blair describes in The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, brought dandelion seeds in their pockets to the New World, knowing the plant could help provide the health and sustenance they would need to survive in unknown territory.
Chris Smith is Marketing and Communications Manager at Sow True Seed, an Asheville company that specializes in local open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. But in addition to supporting food sovereignty and biodiversity through open-pollinated seed, Smith also enjoys connecting with plants for which he doesn't sow seeds. He turns me on to making infused vinegars from a variety of wild spring greens like chickweed and violet. "We spend so much effort and resources into cultivating landscapes," Smith says, "when in reality there's an abundance of uncultivated landscapes that already have great foods in them."
Others interested in recovering past ways of eating reach even further back to rediscover the truly local. Self-described "philosoforager" Alan Muskat, who introduces folks to hundreds of local wild edibles through his company No Taste Like Home, calls agriculture itself destructive and unhealthy. He draws the locavore circle narrowly, making the analogy to a golf course in the middle of a rainforest. If local produce wouldn't thrive here on its own, he says, then it's not really sustainable or good for the planet.
II. CAN-DO ATTITUDEThe folks I interview for Earth Flavors are an initiative bunch. "You can do a lot with little," says Becki Janes of prolific "farmette" Becki's Bounty in Black Mountain, "if you pay attention." Janes loves instilling a can-do attitude into her customers and teaching them how to be more sustainable. "If you've got any bit of sunshine on even a little bit of a patio," she tells folks, "you can grow a tomato."
Across the board, local food producers seem to thrive on a good challenge. When Linda Seligman of Black Mountain found there weren't any goat milk processing plants in the area, she decided to design her own — no models to look at besides a copy of the state rules and regulations. Her company, Round Mountain Creamery, is now the only combined dairy goat farm and grade A goat milk processing plant in the state of North Carolina.
At Meadow Cove Farm in Weaverville, Claudine and Paul Cremer have built a homesteading lifestyle that many would find cumbersome. Trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, they raise guinea fowl, grow shiitake mushrooms and a variety of other crops, and harness solar energy, selling excess power back to the grid. "We're trying to live our own convictions..." says Claudine, explaining that their goal in setting up the farm was to make a personal statement that the whole globe should be heading toward renewable energy sources.
Of course, having a can-do attitude is easier when you're not otherwise disadvantaged. At the low-income Pisgah View Apartments in Asheville, Gardens United co-managers Sir Charles Gardner and Carl Johnson point out that there are plenty of locals who don't share in the feeling of bounty. "We're in a spot that's considered a food desert," says Johnson. "All of the low-income apartments are." "There's a lot of people in these neighborhoods," he continues, "that are limited to what they can do." Yet here, too, there is enterprise and enthusiasm.
Gardner and Johnson not only literally create a food oasis with their community garden, but they involve community members in the food growing process. Speaking specifically of residents with criminal records, Johnson says, "It gives them an outlet to earn money, to gain a sense of pride, and some ownership over what's going on in their neighborhoods." And so the sense of empowerment spreads.
III. FOCUS ON HEALINGCentral to the work of Gardens United is the aim of changing people's diets to improve their health. Diabetes and heart disease disproportionately affect the African-American community, and Carl Johnson and Sir Charles Gardner are trying to heal their neighbors physically, turning them from convenience store junk food to superfoods like sweet potatoes, kale, and Jerusalem artichokes.
Health is a big draw to involvement in local foodways for all of the folks I interview. Nearly all of the local food growers and producers I speak with see their food as healthier than other choices.
For instance, unlike most industrial millers, the millers at Carolina Ground don't separate the nutritious germ and endosperm out of their flour out of concern for shelf life or whiteness. Freshness, I learn there, is and should be a concern for flour, as it is for most of the food we eat.
Claudine Cremer of Meadow Cove Farm pushed my concept of freshness when she explained that even when you go to a morning tailgate market, you're not getting produce as fresh as you would direct from the farm. "You're looking at food that was picked at least 24 hours ago," she says. "Our commitment is always to try to pick and deliver the same day, and get it to the end user as quickly as possible."
Muskat is another freshness champion. "Fresher food is shockingly more nutritious," he says, pointing to research by Jo Robinson in her recent book, Eating on the Wild Side. In his tours, he likes to tell folks that a single leaf of a wild plant like dandelion or violet has ten times the nutrition of standard garden leaves like lettuce. "To me, as a novelty, there's a place for the plants that we've developed," he says of our traditional agricultural garden fare. "But to say it in the extreme...it's not that [wild food] is so good for you, it's that anything else isn't. "
As I was deciding to move to Asheville, I was struck by the difference in feel between the Asheville Regional Airport and New York's Newark. The Asheville planners were right on when they placed rocking chairs in the halls and waiting rooms, token harbingers for the area's new arrivals of the healthier, more relaxed, and conscious atmosphere of this area.
People have long come to the mountains of western North Carolina for health reasons. Some speak of energy vortices, others of healing negative ions in these mountains and waterfalls. Or more generally, they refer to the therapeutic mountain air. Whatever the case, the concentration of counselors and therapists in the Asheville area speaks to an innate connection between this area and well-being. To a heightened consciousness of energy, an underlying intention to connect with our natural surroundings and have both our bodies and our environment flourish.
Wendy and Graham Brugh of Dry Ridge farm in Mars Hill are part of a movement of local farmers who raise their animals using no hormones, steroids, or feed antibiotics — a choice they see as better for both our physical bodies and our planet. Sow True Seed founder Carol Koury started her seed company in part because she realized that with control of the seed industry congealed in the hands of a few very large companies — mostly chemical and pharmaceutical companies — it was getting harder to find healthy food, untainted by preservatives and genetic modification. Koury notes a lack of large studies on possible health effects, "both of actually eating genetically modified foods and the effects of all those poisons that get sprayed on them and into the ground." This is part of why keeping control of one's own seed is key. "Knowing exactly who grew your food, including yourself," she says, "is probably the healthiest and wisest way to get food if you can."
Other examples of local environmental consciousness abound. Paul Gallimore, for one, of Long Branch Environmental Education Center in Leicester is extremely concerned about the fragile and compromised state of our ecosystem. For over 35 years, he has been working to restore the chestnut as a keystone species for this bioregion through the use of backcrossed hybrids.
At Wild Mountain Bees in Weaverville, I learn that Asheville is the inaugural Bee City USA, a movement that strives to create food security by reducing chemical usage and creating sustainable habitats for pollinators.
Brook Sheffield of L.O.T.U.S. Urban Farm and Garden Supply in Asheville introduces me to aquaponics, a system that enables plants like living lettuce to be grown using about 90 percent less water than other farming methods. The 2,000 gallons of water in the L.O.T.U.S. system is never taken out — through filtration and bacterial processes, it just continues to cycle through and be cleaned and reused. Sheffield sees aquaponics as a solution to climate change and food security.
At Imladris Farm, Walter Harrill eagerly shows me eco- and sustainability-friendly features like drip irrigation and a soil amendment called biochar. Instead of cutting and burning their raspberry canes to prevent spreading of virus from the canes after the growing season as most farmers do, the Harrills burn the canes in the absence of oxygen, producing a charcoal that can be stable in the soil for up to 3,000 years, acting as a sponge for nutrients and holding them through the winter. This greatly reduces the need for fertilizers come springtime and lessens nitrogen pollution into waterways.
I soon realize that the healing embedded in our local foodways transcends the physical and environmental. In the words of Carolina Ground founder Jennifer Lapidus, "I think people are hungry for heart and for authenticity. I think that's part of what we're delivering."
The shift toward growing and appreciating local flavors parallels a larger shift toward wholeness. Sarah Wickers of Sow True Seed shares the story of a cotton sack arriving at their office tied with cotton twine and sporting a piece of brown paper that read: "Glenwood Greaseys. Greasey Cut Short Bean Seeds. Product of Cannery Springs Farm, a Century farm in the village of Glenwood, County McDowell, NC, USA." She describes how everyone in the office gathered round and dug their hands into the seeds. "It was beautiful," she says. "There was something about it that we all were drawn to."
The appeal may be the same as the one that keeps the community contra dance tradition alive and thriving in this area. The same tactile rush and sense of personal connection that leads Carolina Ground's Kim Thompson to take the time to write quotes about bread, by hand, with a Sharpie marker, on bags of stone milled flour.
Intimacy is attractive. And it's connected to why farms like Goldfinch Gardens, nearly all of whose customers live within a five-mile radius of the farm, don't feel the need to go through the hassle of official organic certification — folks can come by and see their growing practices first hand. When it's personal, the connection is more immediate, more gratifying.
Wild foods educator Alan Muskat speaks about a change in lifestyle, toward community and oneness with nature, that is so much bigger than the actual change in diet that goes along with eating wild foods. He himself has experienced this transformation. "I am healthier," he says, "and still have long way to go to shift the scarcity consciousness of 'I need to hoard for myself and not share with others.'"
IV. DARING TO BE DIFFERENTOver at L.O.T.U.S, the attraction and intimacy are less immediately apparent; at first glance, the aquaponics system appears something out of a science fiction novel. "I'll be the first to admit that this is not the most natural looking thing," Sheffield says. "But looks can be very deceiving." He thinks aquaponics systems are more natural than your conventionally grown supermarket produce. "If you hang around the food and the fish long enough," he notes, "this might feel more natural than a lot of other things that you're doing in your daily life, like driving your car, and riding around in airplanes, and hopping on the World Wide Web."
A different perspective can reveal tremendous potential. As Sheffield says of aquaponics, "It might seem like this tiny little idea, but I think it's really the biggest idea out there."
For Jamie Ager of Hickory Nut Gap Farm in Fairview, the fact that no one is successfully growing and selling organic apples in this humid region doesn't stop him from trying. Ager sees organic apples as a way to help Hickory Nut Gap become a more well-rounded model of sustainable agriculture practices. And customers, he says, are just going to have to deal with sooty blotch and flyspeck on their apples, if they don't want pesticides. "I don't want to change the world with it," he says, "but why not try?"
Jeff Frisbee of Addison Farms Vineyard in Fairview thinks buying and consuming what's produced locally is an important part of Western North Carolina culture. This is an important selling point for his wines. "We're fiercely and historically an independent lot..." he says. "I think that's one of the reasons the locavore movement has been so successful in this area."
V. SHIFTING CONSUMER CONSCIOUSNESSIt's not enough for local growers and food suppliers to make changes in their own lives; they're out to make change in the larger society as well by spreading their knowledge to others. Part of Sow True Seed's mission, for instance, is "honoring people and planet" by educating and empowering others. "An educated public will make demands and the industry will meet them," argues founder Carol Koury. "It is very threatening to the industry for people to know where their food comes from. " Clearly not just out to make a buck, the company includes an empty seed packet with every order in which they encourage customers to save their own seed.
At Meadow Cove Farm, Claudine and Paul Cremer envision a shift in consumer consciousness from shopping at grocery stores to shopping at local farms like theirs. "Everybody's got a local grocery store that they go to," says Paul. "So you could, potentially, have us as the local farm that you go to. And once you know what's coming in...you could come and pick out what you wanted." Reconsidering where they buy food, say the Cremers, would be one way people could live more sustainably.
Shifting consciousness can involve reimagining profit. At Flat Rock Village Bakery in Flat Rock, there's only a small indoor seating area, and no bread slicer, because, I'm told, there's no room. Still, manager and co-owner David Workman is happy with the scale and feel of the bakery and says he's not looking to expand. "The locals are into the experience they're going to have here," he explains. He says he hears a lot of positive feedback from customers who appreciate the uniquely traditional technique and local sourcing of the bakery's offerings.
At Gardens United, Carl Johnson says one of the things he loves most about his work is passing on his knowledge to his nine-year-old daughter. He uses the word profit in a nontraditional manner: "I think that's one of the most profitable things that a person can get into," he says, "is learning how to grow their own food...."
VI. PHILOSOPHY OF THANKSMy Earth Flavors guides and teachers are refreshingly grateful. For Alan Muskat, foraging teaches us that we live in a Garden of Eden; we don't need to struggle so much to get what we need. Muskat has used foraging as a metaphorical return home in his own life, and he tries to help others feel more at home in this life, too, through wild foods education. "It's a choice we've made, we make every day," he argues, "to take what's freely given as a gift, or to struggle to do it ourselves, to replace it with what we think is better."
Among local farmers, too, there's a recognition and appreciation of being part of something larger and not having everything under control.
Glenda Ploeger of Cane Creek Asparagus & Company in Fairview gives off an air of efficiency and has 15 years of experience filling weekly CSA boxes with produce, but she knows she can't methodize everything. "One of the biggest gambles out there," she says, "is trying to grow a vegetable." Even with plenty of dedication and hard work, there are so many variables with farming, so many risks. "How do you deal with those risks?" I ask. "I suppose," she says, pondering, "a lot of prayer."
Jamie Ager thinks similarly. He sees learning and the success of any new farming technique as largely the result of trial and error. "There's the great mystery," he says. "That's really the humbling thing, is there's so much more going on out here than we can understand completely, and it's neat to pay attention to all that."
Pay attention, and thankfulness may follow. Like my informants, I, too, am deeply thankful. Thankful for the forces and coincidences that brought me to this part of the country, for the time and knowledge shared with me by area growers, foragers, and educators, and for the ability to partake of so many of the flavors around me. May the flavors Earth provides continue to nourish, enrich, evolve, and be found.