Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Bosky Acres Benefit Dinner

There’s a farm I know down in Waxhaw, hidden behind a screen of woody brush along a gravel road. Bosky Acres comes by its name honestly.  Behind that screen stands a solid cement-block building, perched on a slope above the huge arch of a large, open-air barn.  In its airy shadow mill several dozen active, friendly ewes, kids and yearlings.

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These are “the girls,” Michele Lamb’s herd of dairy goats, a mixed batch of Nubians and Saanens.  Floppy ears and mottled coats abound.  Twice a day, about nine months of the year, Michele, her family and her small band of helpers bring each mama doe to the milking room atop the slope, extracting up to 30 gallons a day during the most productive months.  Then Michele steps into the adjacent, sanitized cheese room and whips up batch after batch of fresh chèvre and feta cheeses.  Via farmers markets and restaurants, the four-ounce containers find homes in kitchens all around Charlotte.

This is all well and good, but Michele’s passion for cheese has outgrown her facilities.  She wants to age cheese, to create nutty goudas and mold ripened goodness.  Several years ago, she and her husband Matt started the Cave Project, bringing in and installing an 8’x10’ cement room, half buried in the hillside beside their modest home.

Problem is, the project got stalled, for a number of reasons, and then the money ran out.  A chef friend, Joe Bonaparte, wanted to help Michele the way chefs always do—by feeding people.  Thus evolved the benefit dinner held last Saturday evening at nearby Pecan Lane Farm.

Along with Bonaparte, five local chefs stepped up, volunteering their time and talent to create a five-course meal served in a charming horse barn paneled with wood sourced from the property.  Before the 60 guests arrived, hosts Steve and Geny Case had decorated the dining area, recruited about 20 volunteers, and set a gorgeous table.

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At the end of the cozy barn-aisle-cum-dining-room, large chalkboards displayed the evening’s menu.

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Down a long grassy slope, in a small brick house tucked into the woods, the chefs began to gather, and the first steps of that night’s dance began: Organized Chaos.

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Soon, Joe brought the first food up to the plating area outside the barn, sending out five different appetizers as the guests mingled nearby.

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In the attached pasture on the other side of the building, the stars of the show held court.  Matt and Michele brought two of their yearling does to meet Bosky Acres’ fans.

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Matt and Fawn had a special thing going…

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Eventually the guests had tasted their way through the array of hors d’œuvres and were encouraged to take their seats for the first served course.  As the sun fell behind the trees, the first plates hit the tables, and chef Paul Verica moved through the room, pouring the soup tableside.  Rich sweet potato flavor surrounded an island of duck confit and caramelized goat cheese.

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This was followed by chef Matt Krenz’ beautiful beet salad.  Michele’s tangy goat cheese played in every dish that evening.

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A small army of chefs and helpers gathered to plate each course.  Next up was Jeremy Bevins’ lamb sugo over goat cheese gnocchi…which I didn’t get a photo of.  Perhaps I should mention that I wasn’t dining that evening, but volunteering as server?  Not only did I miss getting a shot of this dish, but I missed getting tastes of any of the dishes pictured thus far.  Judging from the guests’ comments and clean plates, everything was delicious.

The fourth course—Terra Ciotta’s duo of two pork cuts, one with goat cheese gratin and fennel slaw, the other with grits and kale—took an even larger army to plate.  

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Fortunately for me, by the time this landed in front of the guests, they were sated enough that we servers got a little breather while they tried to find room in their bellies.  Between the camera and my fork, I opted for the fork, so no photo of this one either.  Besides, as you can tell, it was now too dark to get pretty pictures of food.

Except I had to make an attempt for the next and final course, Ashley Boyd’s piped goat cheesecake with hibiscus, ginger, apple and chocolate.

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I have to say, this picture doesn’t do it justice.  Because it tasted just as good as it looked, and it tasted a whole lot better than this photo lets on.

As the guests lingered over their last glass of wine, the chefs and their assistants gathered around the fire pit, warming chilled hands and feet next to the hot coals, re-living each course, swapping jokes—and insults, probably. 

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After this crew returned reluctantly to the kitchen to start the cleanup, guests and servers took their place before bidding each other and their hosts goodnight.  Eventually, the tables were cleared, dish and glass racks stacked, and the kitchen put back in order.

Though I faced nearly an hour’s drive home through the dark chilly night, I was content knowing that our local food community is strong.  How lucky we are to have so many people willing to help a farmer—to buy tickets, volunteer their expertise or lend their time.  And, if nothing else, the promise of sampling Michele’s first aged cheeses next spring keeps this local foodie inspired to continue helping.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What I learned about apples


Lesson 1: There’s not much nightlife around Elkin NC.

Terra and I made a weekend getaway out of a Sunday afternoon event organized by the Piedmont Culinary Guild.  Through its parent organization, Slow Food Charlotte, the Guild members had connected with Lee Calhoun, a retired professor of agronomy and an star in the underground world of southern heritage apples.

Around the time he retired, Calhoun got interested in apples.  Old apples.  Old southern apples.  Wanting to include a few in the small orchard he was planning at his new home in Pittsboro, he followed a trail opened by a conversation with an elderly neighbor and leading through several states.  When all was said and done, he had tracked down over 350 varieties, grafting and planting them in a carefully maintained orchard of espaliered trees.  He had also published a book describing them all, appropriately titled Old Southern Apples.  Originally published in 1995, the newest edition in 2011 includes 50 additional apple varieties that had been rediscovered in the interim.

Enter the NC Historic Site of Horne Creek Farm, near Pilot mountain, in the foothills just below the VA state line.  The farm was looking for period-authentic apple varieties to add to its crops, and Calhoun was looking for someone to preserve and continue his work.  In 1997, their collaboration resulted in the planting of 800 trees on the site, two examples of each variety.

In 2014, Lee Calhoun spoke at a regional meeting of Slow Food, and the PCG members on hand were inspired to establish a connection between his historic orchard and chefs in Charlotte who support local agriculture.  A group of about 20 chefs, volunteers, writers and foodies signed up to make the two-hour drive north to pick apples for a special benefit dinner.

Lesson 2: The Yadkin Valley runs east-west, not north-south.


Since we hadn’t traveled at all during the summer, Terra and I felt it was high time for a mini-vacation.  We are not really familiar with the geography of our adopted state, but quickly ascertained that the orchard lay in the Yadkin Valley, a local cradle of hopefully up-and-coming viticulture.  Why not go up early, spend a few days, and see what else we could find in the small towns of the foothills?

Antique stores.  Lots and lots of antique stores.  Terra collected several heavy pounds of cast iron kitchenware, but I started to get fussy as she pondered a pot rack made from a chunky cart wheel.  Changing focus, we discovered the only really decent restaurant in town was a Thai place.  We ate there twice in two days.

On the other hand, nearby McRitchie winery and ciderworks, tucked just off Route 21 on a slight rise above a vine-studded slope, offered a cozy, pleasant tasting experience.  We met the owner, talked big-city traffic and tattoos, and left with a light buzz and a heavy box of drinks.

The next day, we explored Stone Mountain State Park, about 5 miles further down the road.  After running into a departing couple whose husband announced there were over 300 stairs to the bottom of the waterfall, we opted to go only partway down.  We did explore a second trail, and had a peaceful walk in the woods, helping to work off the fried food we’d ingested the night before at a semi-decent restaurant that was not Thai.

Lesson 3: If it’s not your own country, every country road looks the same.


Sunday morning we had a 40-minute drive from Elkin along deserted back roads that wound through forested slopes and rolling open fields, where we met up with the rest of our party, fresh from Charlotte. 

800 trees take up a surprisingly small place, when they are planted in orderly rows, half of them espaliered on wire trellises like the vines we’d seen at McRitchie’s.  Near a tiny shed, we gathered around Calhoun, site manager Lisa Turney, and resident horticulturalist Jason Bowen.  After a brief introduction by Turney, Calhoun expounded on the history and science of growing apple trees in North Carolina.

Lesson 4: Every fertilized apple seed is a hybrid.


While the original trees planted in North America grew from seeds sown on the shores of Virginia, today all known varieties of apple trees are grafted.  The blushing spring flowers can only be pollinated by a different type than the mother tree, so while the flesh of the resulting fruit is true to the tree which bears it, the seeds inside comprise the genetics of another variety.  In order to maintain a distinct line of apples, grafts must be made with twigs from the desired trees and separate root stocks.

Growing the root stocks is an entire industry of its own.  While the top half of the nascent apple tree is easily harvested from shoots off the mother, the roots are grown from the stumps of trees that have been unceremoniously cut down and covered with mulch.  These send out side shoots, which are harvested for their lower halves only.  The roots determine the size of the tree, and stocks exist to grant you versions sized like shoes, from 6’ espalier varieties to full-size 30’ shademakers.

Lesson 5: There are eaters, and there are keepers.


When we arrived in mid-September, half of the varieties had already fruited for the year.  The earliest apples mature in June, and different trees continue reaching ripeness all the way through October.  Most of the summer apples are bred to be consumed quickly, within a week or two of harvest.  Thin skinned and brightly flavored, they are the varieties best suited for out-of-hand eating.  Most are unfamiliar to the aisles of the grocery-store: Aunt Rachel, Hollow Log, Cotton Sweet.

Keepers are the late-season apples, with thicker skins that also tend toward bitterness.  According to Calhoun, you’re better off just peeling these, whether you’re cooking or eating them.  These are the apples developed for long storage, and I wasn’t surprised to hear familiar names like Winesap and Stayman, along with the evocative July-August-Go-No-Further.

Lesson 6: Apples don’t just grow on trees.


It’s the “just” in this lesson that’s important.  In spite of emerging within a southern climate, even these heirloom varieties require spraying against diseases and predators.  I’ll admit that when Bowen got into the details of 60- and 90-day pre-harvest intervals, my brain hit overload.  I did glean that spraying is determined by the time of blooming, fruiting and harvest, so that managing multiple applications to 800 trees on 400 different schedules is challengingly complex. 

If more consumers were aware of these details, I bet we’d get a lot more excited about apples.

After Bowen’s brief explanation of apple care, he turned to the orchard and began leading us from tree to tree.  Apparently part of the job involves having a map of the orchard implanted into one’s brain, because he hardly ever had to check the tags before announcing the name of the apple and describing everything from its flavor and texture to its best uses and vulnerability to disease.

Slow Food and PCG members gathered eagerly around each tree, reaching up to twist ripe fruit off the branches, extending bright orange picking baskets overhead, or jumping out of the way as falling apples pounded the ground at their feet.  It didn’t take long for us to realize that in spite of the gorgeous red or pink globes decorating each tree, much of the fruit was unusable.  Either it was not yet ripe, or the side turned turned away from us hid big dark spots of rot.  There was a lot of joking about how happy the deer would be with all the discarded fruit we left on the ground, and Turney assured us local hunters would be coming soon to buy them as bait.

Still, we were there to gather ingredients for a six-course dinner celebration of all things apple.  As some of the trees yielded only a few pounds of fruit, uneasiness bloomed about whether there would be enough.

Lesson 7: Apples are reliable.


Over on the visitors’ side of the farm site, there sits a small orchard of larger Virginia Beauties and some other unknown varieties, and we were invited to make up the difference there.  Not only did we fill a large bag for the dinner, but between that and the last gleanings of the main orchard, volunteers were able to purchase additional apples for their own use.  Everyone seemed happy with the day’s take.

Terra and I stayed with just a few other guests to tour the actual farmstead site.  Gazing out a window in the formal parlor of the Hauser family’s house, I recognized the simple wooden mullions holding the glass in place.  They were nearly identical to the ones in my childhood home, up in northeast Ohio.  With a shock I realized the two were built only 26 years apart, and I continued the tour with a sense of gratitude that my home had higher ceilings and had been renovated to create larger rooms (not to mention electricity and indoor plumbing).  Still, I empathized with the boys who were sent up to bed on the unheated second floor, since the only fireplace that was regularly lit was in the main living area.

At least they had two or three to a bed to keep warm.  I only had the dog.  

Lesson 8: Apples are worth celebrating.

As I write this, PCG and Slow Food Charlotte continue to publicize the upcoming apple dinner, and chefs fine-tune their ideas for each course.  The fruits we gathered will be baked, stuffed, sauced, souped, smoked, dried…in short, they will illustrate the extraordinary usefulness of this ubiquitous edible.  And add to the list of foods that make North Carolina a virtual ark of agriculture.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Farm Visit


Leah Wagner stands behind the small island in her kitchen, displaying a colander full of imperfect potatoes.  Over her shoulder, a square window frames the pastoral image of her two children pitching hay in a nearby field.  A large plastic bowl on the island holds shelled peas; on the kitchen table sit small containers of ripe tomatoes.  In the basement beneath our feet, a dozen newly-hatched guinea hens huddle in a plastic tub under heat lamps.

Pointing out the divots and dark marks on the potato in her hand, the energetic wife and mother explains, "Our family eats the ugly produce.  We sell the pretty stuff.”

I’ve come to Carlea Farms to see how Leah and her family—husband Carl, son Chet, 20, and daughter Jennie, 17—use the food they grow.  In the open yet cozy kitchen of their modest brick home, Leah is preparing one of their regular meals, a fall casserole.  Well, sort of, seeing as it’s July.

"If it's not in season, we don't eat it," Leah explains as she places the quartered potatoes in a pan of water and drops Carlea-raised pork sausage into a pan on the stove. Normally made with sweet potatoes and October beans, a request to make the dish in summer has her substituting yukon golds and purple hulled peas. A hearty combination of meat, starch and fiber, the nourishing meal is a favorite of Chet's, a rising junior at NC State. After every visit home, the robust, cheerful student invariably brings some back to school with him.

"He eats it almost every night," Leah says, explaining that unlike most college students, her son won't live off of pizza and fast food. Jennie is much the same.  Describing one dinner when she tried to sneak in grocery-store ingredients, Leah says, “She took one bite, and said ‘These aren’t our potatoes.’”  Almost no store-bought produce enters this kitchen since the family started growing their own food, all of it according to organic principles.

Although the land we’re standing on has been in his family for six generations, it was only after Carl’s retirement as an instructor at Central Piedmont Community College in 2007 that Carlea Farms really took off.  His wife, who still holds a full-time job as an engineer at NCDOT, is no less a partner in the business.  “We always had a garden.  I knew he wanted to expand it, but I didn’t know he was gonna go crazy,” she says in mock exasperation.

While she puts together her casserole and the two children throw hay bales onto a tractor-hauled trailer, Carl is gone, retrieving this year’s flock of Thanksgiving turkeys.  So dinner in the oven, Leah leads the way outside for a visit to the other livestock already in residence.  Just past a high-tunnel greenhouse sheltering tomatoes, the pigs arise from their shaded wallow inside a small square pasture fenced by electrified netting, eager to see what treats have arrived.  Leah tosses a couple dozen small tomatoes on the ground, and the bright red orbs disappear immediately into the pigs’ dusty snouts.  Leah points out where their corral was situated last week, and then indicates the field next to us, currently waist-high in cover crops, that will be their home soon.


Once the pigs enjoy themselves mowing down the grasses and flowers used to protect the otherwise fallow field, the chickens will follow.  “Not only do they clean up what the pigs have missed,” Leah explains, “but they eat the grubs in [the pigs’] manure,” serving as natural, effective pest control.  Pigs, chickens and crops all rotate through the fields, each providing a key element in the natural management of the land.

Our  visit to the the chickens, also kept on grass in movable runs, is interrupted by Carl’s arrival with the turkey poults.  Pulling up to the brooder, a chicken-wire version of a Conestoga wagon, he extracts from his truck a single cardboard box holding 50 tiny birds.  About six inches high and two feet square, it is pierced on the tops and sides with round holes that erupt irregularly with orange beaks and downy yellow faces, like a cartoon version of whack-a-mole. 


Carl climbs up into the brooder, and I guard the door while he introduces each tiny turkey to the concept of drinking.  As much as he grumbles about the difficulty of managing the “stupid” birds, he handles the chicks gently, even talking to them fondly as he dips their beaks into the water.

In the meantime, Chet and Jennie have finished unloading their trailer of hay, and the tired young man is especially eager to tuck into his favorite dinner.  After releasing Carl from the turkey brooder and serving ourselves glasses of cold, sweet well water, we gather around the dark wood dinner table.  Served in sturdy white bowls, the warm, filling casserole exudes the freshness of potatoes and beans that were pulled from the ground within view of our plates. 

While a salt shaker sits near at hand, the best seasoning for this meal is knowing that Carlea Farms has a secure future.  Both of the Wagner’s children intend to return to this land after receiving degrees in agricultural sciences, making it their own.  The farm will certainly change under their care, probably sprouting herds of cows, but it will certainly remain true to their parents’ vision of stewardship of the land and living seasonally.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Farm to You

I don’t care about “organic” food.  I don’t look for “vegetarian diet” on my egg cartons.  Those are empty phrases invented to dull the sensitivities of consumers seeking superficial reassurance.  The only food buzz words I care about are “sustainable” and “local,” and the only place I know I can reliably find them is at my farmers markets. 

The effort to support local providers, processors and vendors is a fight against Americans’ purposeful ignorance about our food.  Factory farms and high-volume processors have gotten enough bad press that most consumers are afraid to learn much about the plants and animals that feed them.  It’s understandable to seek comfort by looking no further than the word “organic” stamped over the picture of a smiling cow on a clean, bright package.  The bigger business farming has become and the more inscrutable giant food corporations have grown, the more separation has developed between consumers and the dirt.  We are no longer comfortable seeing dirt on our potatoes or heads on our chickens.  What used to be—what still are—the facts of life are now rejected with the equivalent of “Ew, gross.”

No matter how you do it, making food is hard, dirty, often dangerous work, and in most steps of the process, it doesn’t pay very well.  Whatever your food source, someone has to break a sweat to turn the soil, clean the barns and pick the squash.  Someone has dirty their hands washing vegetables, cleaning carcasses, sorting, packaging and delivering the end product.  Whether it’s a carrot or a calf, it’s not going into our stores or restaurants until it has been transformed into a pristine package belying its earthy origins.

Yet, the more you understand how plants and animals get to the American plate, the more important local food sources become.  For me, supporting local farming means I have to drive further than the nearest grocery store, pay a little extra and still have to wash dirt from my potatoes.  I say I’m doing it to support my local farmers, but the end truth is that I’m helping myself.

The benefits to me are inherent in the small business model.  As independent owners, the vendors at my market make decisions for the health of their flocks and fields, rather than that of their shareholders’ portfolios.  They can give more attention to each acre of corn or litter of piglets than can managers of thousand-acre corporate farms. The vegetables they bring to market are harvested only a day before I buy them.   

This means more than happy pigs and crispier lettuce.  This means healthier food in my fridge.  The fresh lettuce I buy at market has more nutrients than plastic-wrapped grocery-store greens that have been in transit for two weeks.  The meat I buy comes from animals that don’t require antibiotics to survive crowded feed lots, and they lived on varied diets resulting in more nutrients in their flesh.  Also, all the farmers I know either kill their own animals, or transport their own livestock to slaughter, rather than paying an intermediary to ship them hundreds of miles. Even if I didn’t care about better treatment for the animals, I do appreciate having fewer potentially health-damaging stress hormones in my pork chops.

The treatment of the humans on farms can also affect my health.  Small-scale production means less risk of an underpaid worker squatting in a field to relieve himself because the nearest bathroom is two acres away and he can’t afford to lose the production time.  This obviously mass-produced poster shows the chances are better than we’d like to imagine.

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My local farmers simply cannot afford to treat their workers like equipment.  As smaller businesses with fewer employees, they must give them more responsibility than workers on corporate holdings with assembly-line tasks.  With those additional responsibilities come additional training, and I have heard over and over from farmers that trained workers are a nearly irreplaceable resource.  They will do anything feasible to keep those valued employees in place, including paying them a livable wage.  A rising tide raises all boats.

So that’s what I get by sacrificing my Saturday mornings to put a few extra dollars into the hands that raise my food: Healthier food.  Safer food.  Better-off neighbors.  Better-off me.

When I choose whether or not to eat locally, I have the power to support my neighbors or to drive them out of business.  Given the alternatives, it’s not a hard choice to make.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Farm Dinner to Benefit Matthews Community Market

“Our jaws hit the floor.”  That’s how Pauline Woods, manager of Matthews Community Farmers Market, describes the reaction of the market board in February, when they saw the reaction to her online plea for support.  A heavy snow had damaged or destroyed almost all the tents at the market, and $4,000 was needed to replace and install new ones.  Time was a concern, as the main market season was to start in only six weeks.

Within days, the total donations zoomed beyond $4,000 and kept going.  In all, supporters donated $12,000, and by opening day on April 19th, not only did the grounds boast bigger, better tents, but the entire site had been re-graded and graveled.  It looked fresh and strong, but the additional improvements came at a price—almost all the market’s operating funds were depleted.  Fortunately many area chefs, who use the market to source local ingredients for their restaurants, had offered to step up to their stoves in solidarity.  “Paul Verica [of Heritage Food & Drink in Waxhaw] texted me the same day with one word: ‘dinner?’,” said Woods.  “But we needed money faster than we could put together a dinner.”

No matter.  Once the market was open and humming, arrangements were made and a farm dinner was announced in early May.  Jaws dropped again when tickets started selling online within half an hour of the announcement.  In the end, it took less than five days for the 100 seats to sell out, at $150 a pop.  Amazing?  Perhaps, but when you consider that the dinner was to be prepared by six of Charlotte’s most most innovative chefs, and held at beautiful Newtown Farms, the appeal is obvious.

Miss Chef and I were lucky—or clever—enough to purchase tickets within the first couple of days, so we were among the lucky ones.  She got a bit of sneak peek of the menu, as she drove out to the farm in Waxhaw the day before to assist with prep.  But come Saturday evening, she and I arrived as guests at the farm, about 20 miles east of town.

White tents had been erected on green lawns, with a small orchestra playing to one side.  We sipped sparkling rosé and shared warm greetings with friends we knew from years of early-morning markets, now all dressed in cool evening casual.  Down a nearby expanse of green, one long table was already laid for dinner.

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While we mingled under the tents, we enjoyed a selection of appetizers prepared by Chef Joe Bonaparte, including barbequed pork on scracklings—deep-fried cracklings—pickled North Carolina shrimp, and kholrabi vichyssoise.   Eventually we moved down that great expanse of table to find our seats, and menus tucked into elegant cloth napkins.

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The white-shirted servers moved discreetly down the table, pouring wine, and it wasn’t until Miss Chef said her name that I realized my glass had just been filled by Mindy Robinson, owner of Tega Hills Farm.  Most of the servers were market volunteers, vendors and their children.  For nonprofessionals, they did an excellent job throughout the evening.

We didn’t have to wait long at all for the arrival of our first course, by Bruce Moffet of Moffet Restaurant Group, including Barrington’s and Stagioni.  His creamy onion soup featured  extraordinarily delicate crab topped by deliciously light friend onions.

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I have to confess that crab is one of my least favorite seafoods, but this was so fresh and clean-tasting that I had no problem cleaning my plate.  Or bowl, rather.

Next was a raw fish dish sent out by our friend and favorite, Luca Annunziata of Passion8 Bistro in Fort Mill.

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I was stunned by the simple beauty of this plating, and the delicate taste of the fish matched its clean design.  Everything on the plate was sourced from North Carolina, including the caviar garnish. 

I settled more comfortably into my seat, amazed at the view of all the people gathered together in celebration of this market that has become so important to our lives.  In the background, smoke drifted up from the grill, captured for a moment by the sinking sun before dissipating into the cool evening air.  At one point I remarked to our dining companions, “I feel like I’m on a California vineyard, at some Saveur dinner.”  This, he replied, was a Carolina equivalent, and I quickly agreed.

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Soon the next course, by Joe Kindred of Roosters Wood-Fire Kitchen, brought my attention firmly back to the table.

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A rich chicken breast, from a Red Bro variety raised on the very farm where we sat, was nestled between a confit leg and a squash blossom stuffed with the liver.  A graceful coriander flower lent just a touch of lightness to the plating, as its lemony flavor did the same for the rich flavors of the dish.

Tim Groody of Fork! was not about to be outdone, sending out an equally rich dish of Ossabaw pork, also raised on Newtown Farm.

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The accompanying vegetable slaw was pitch perfect, highlighting the flavors of hyperlocal, seasonal ingredients.

After these last two heavy plates, I have to admit we were grateful to know that we had only one more course to fit into our filled bellies.  Still, I knew from the beginning that it would be worth making room for a dessert by Paul Verica.

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This goat-cheese cheesecake sure tasted like a panna cotta to me…a delicious, silky panna cotta with tasty notes of strawberry, mint and balsamic to play with.

The best moment was yet to come.  After the last bit of cheesecake had been swirled around our plates, a spontaneous ripple of applause moved up the table, from one end to the other, until all the guests were joined in an impromptu expression of appreciation and admiration for the chefs’ talented efforts.

There followed a few words of thanks from the market president and manager, and then we rose from the table and recommenced mingling.  We spent almost an hour chatting by the deserted service tent, while  behind us the now-empty table was efficiently cleared, broken down and carted away.

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It was a gorgeous summer evening, closing down the month of May and welcoming the promise of June.  On nights like this, I can think only of the good things in life, and be grateful that it has brought me here.

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Friday, May 30, 2014

Food Wonking

Wednesday night I attended a forum hosted by the Charlotte Mecklenburg Food Policy Council.  Although it was titled “Growing Local Food Entrepreneurs,” I wasn’t entirely sure whether it would benefit or really interest me in any way.  But I write about food, I feel like an entrepreneur, and there were going to be free samples, so what was there to lose?

The number of people that gathered at 7th Street Market at 5:00 was impressive, but it didn’t take very long to notice a sad sameness in the crowd.  Overwhelmingly white, reasonably affluent, mostly young.  The host, presenter and panel members also fit this demographic.  Fashionable sandals and business cards were everywhere.

To begin, we were treated to a presentation with lots of facts from a government-funded assessment of our food system: 286 farms in Mecklenburg County, most of them small family farms; $763 million spent on fruit and vegetables by residents of the 14-county assessment region, $100 million of that food grown locally; the average worker’s annual income is $27,500, the average farm worker’s is $22,000, and the average food preparation worker’s is $20,000.

I found all these numbers fascinating, but as the presentation moved from “findings” to “opportunities,” I kept waiting to hear something that truly fit the next buzzword, “action plan.”  When all was said and done, the only real action I heard suggested was “intentional network development.”  Basically, get like-minded people together to…talk to each other.

Wasn’t that what we were already doing?

After the presentation, there was a more informative panel discussion featuring three small business owners and the manager of one of our local farmers markets.  But I still felt a disconnect between this discussion about maneuvering through local permitting processes and all the information that had been revealed earlier.  Granted, the focus of this gathering was indeed to support the development of local food businesses, but it seemed like the overarching goal was supposed to be getting healthy food to people who don’t have access to it.

And that, at least in our community, is the real disconnect.  The individual enthusiasm I observe for healthy, sustainable food grown locally is funneled into local businesses like raw food restaurants, artisan bakers and specialty cheese producers.  Is locally fermented kombucha really the best answer we have for Charlotte’s rising obesity rates and stubborn food deserts?

Let me clarify a few things here—I am not knocking any of the businesses to which I’ve alluded above, nor do I think that encouraging local food entrepreneurs is a useless undertaking.  I’m just expressing my frustration that, with all the eager, head-nodding concern and enthusiasm I’ve witnessed in numerous similar gatherings, combined with the rapid increase in demand for locally produced foods, we seem no closer to taking strong action to spread this nutritional wealth down the socio-economic ladder.

Perhaps my frustration stems from the fact that I had spent two days previous to this forum volunteering with Friendship Gardens.  In fact, I arrived there directly from meeting with a group of gardening senior citizens, under the auspices of the Backyard Friendship Gardens program.  This initiative invites home gardeners to plant and donate extra harvest to Friendship Trays, our local meals on wheels program.  Being relatively new, the Backyard program’s biggest obstacle right now is figuring out the most effective way to get that produce from all over the city into the donation station close to Uptown. 

Do you sense a theme here?  We have 286 farms in Charlotte, and numerous food deserts.  We have churches, schools and individuals willing to farm in their own backyards and give the food away.  Yet, we cannot seem to get the food from the ground where it’s grown to the people who need it.

In short, our biggest food problem is transportation.

I am not a policy wonk.  The further issues of funding, education, jurisdiction of government agencies, additional social factors are beyond my ken.  All I know is that there are citizens out there whose only food options are wrapped in plastic and labeled with unpronounceable ingredient lists, and there is a growing pool of farmers growing healthy, whole food practically next door.  What is it going to take to bring them together?

Monday, May 19, 2014

Not for the Faint of Heart

Let’s be honest…this is where it starts.


This is the back end of a small horse trailer where a pig spent its last night.  It was separated from its herd, driven to a distant part of the farm, and left overnight.  The next morning it was given some stale bread—a favorite pig treat—and shot in the head before it could finish.  Twelve hours later its blood still stained the trailer and the ground where it had fallen and begun to bleed out.

In the meantime, not twenty feet away, a crowd of people were having a party, and the pig was the guest of honor.


While we waited for the roasted pig to be unveiled and broken down, I pointed out to some of my companions the oddness of this juxtaposition.  Even the most well-informed farm-supporting members of the group told me “You’re not supposed to think about that now.”

I beg to differ.  I think that’s exactly what we need to be thinking about.  Maybe not in such melodramatic terms, but to be an honest eater of meat, we need to accept that our meals require death. 

There’s nothing wrong with death; even though it frightens us, it is a natural part of existence.  In our modern society, though, we have wrapped ourselves in the luxury of being separated from death.  Wars take place far away and on tv, and we can avoid the details without too much effort.  Farm animals are slaughtered behind locked gates and closed doors.  In spite of rising concerns about the conditions and methods on the killing floor, “processing facilities” resist transparency, and the public seems just as happy about that.  The only transparency most Americans want is in the plastic film covering their neatly excised proteins in the grocery store.

As deaths go, this pig had a good one.  The reason it was transported to the killing area the night before was to allow it time to adjust to its surroundings, so it could be approached without sending it into a panic.  Granted, this was in part to minimize the stress hormones that would flood its system and alter the taste of its flesh, but it also allowed it to enjoy its last meal.  The pig was treated respectfully, standing in an open trailer with breakfast, and not kicked and shoved down a shit-smeared chute toward a concrete building filled with the smells and sounds of routine death.  The killing shot was delivered expertly, a nearly instantaneous transition from alive to dead.  Finally, when the pig was hung to bleed out, there were no doubts that it was dead, no chance of a live animal squealing out its last minutes on the hooks.

Does this offend, shock or disgust you?  Would you rather turn your eyes from the blood and try to avoid forming a mental image of this pig’s last minutes?  Then you are being dishonest about the meat you put in your mouth, whether it came from a pig, chicken, cow, rabbit or camel.  I am not trying to convince you to become a vegetarian, I am writing to urge you to make your food choices more considered and deliberate.

This was a lucky pig.  It was not packed in side-by-side on a hard concrete pad for its entire short life, given steroids to make it grow faster, antibiotics to make up for an unnatural diet, and its tail cut off to prevent cannibalization by other stressed pigs.  That is the fate of the millions of pigs raised on the factory farms that allow your local grocer to advertise “Sale!  Pork loin roast $3.97/lb, this week only!”  Subtext: “Eat all you want, we’ll grow more, no matter the effects on pig, economy or environment.”

No,that was not the fate of this pig.  This pig roamed a forest on the South Carolina coast, rooting for grubs, small animals and nuts dropped by the overarching live oak trees.  This pig grew up next to its mother, part of a pack, pushing its strong pliable snout through the dirt the way it was meant to, running for the dinner bell with nothing but food on its mind.

Yes, this pig was raised by humans specifically to be killed young and eaten.  On the other hand, it was also given the space and opportunity to explore its world and live free of fear.  And that is why I had no problem with gathering around in celebration and stuffing its rich flesh into my mouth while gazing at the damp patch of blood that marked its final moments of life.  Its purpose was to provide food, and the worst disrespect we might have shown was if we had treated it poorly, caused it fear, or slaughtered more than was needed and thrown the meat away.

Cultures around the world offer up prayers on the occasion of a meal, some of them thanking the spirit of the animal for providing sustenance.  I’m not a believer of the Great Porker in the sky, but after this pig was carried from the pit to the table where it would be broken down, I did step up to it, gaze down at its shiny, caramelized snout, and say out loud, “Thank you, pig.” 

And I meant it.