Editor’s note: In 2014, writer, audio documentarian and singer-songwriter Carla Seidl launched the Earth Flavors project to celebrate local foods and food culture while promoting creative, delicious, earth-friendly cooking. Over a two-year period, Seidl interviewed many local growers and foragers about their work. Drawing on her own culinary experience and “bricolage” philosophy — improvising within the limits of whatever’s available — she then wrote 21 “flavor profiles” highlighting local ingredients in Western North Carolina. The fruits of the project are available on her website, earthflavors.net. In the following story, Seidl reflects on the experience and shares some of her findings.
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. Here are some of the patterns that emerged from the Earth Flavors project — a few tenets, if you will, of our own locavorian terroir.
Tapping into old ways
In the 1970s, naturalist Doug Elliott moved to Burnsville from Maryland, attracted by two of WNC’s prime attributes: biodiversity and cultural integrity. He and his wife, Yanna Fishman, now live in Union Mills in Rutherford County. People in the Southern Appalachians, he says, “have been isolated from the mainstream for a little longer than most … and so there can be a rich treasure trove of environmental info and info on how people relate to the natural world.”
Around the globe, mountain regions have been keepers of cultural knowledge. Elliott, who’s also a professional storyteller, sings a song about traditional, local creasy greens and points me in the direction of lore about the “air” (or “fairy”) potato. His wife, a conservation gardener, raises heirloom fruits and vegetables, including more than 100 varieties of sweet potato.
The two are not alone in drawing on the wisdom of the past. On land in Fairview that once belonged to his great-grandparents, Walter Harrill of Imladris Farm grows fruit for jam and raises rabbits. “Over and over and over,” he notes, “I find that we just keep circling back to the way things were done.”
For the millers at Carolina Ground in Asheville, that means bucking the impersonal mechanization of industrial grain production by stone-milling their own flour. Grinding grain has traditionally been a woman’s task, and both millers at Carolina Ground are women — a fact that founder Jennifer Lapidus believes helps them reconnect with intuition, tactility and social intimacy.
Some “earth flavors” point more directly toward history. Cedar Johnson of Goldfinch Gardens in Celo explains that the wild edible claytonia, her favorite winter salad green, prevented scurvy among miners during the California gold rush. Other flavors, like dandelion and lamb’s-quarters, are readily available in our natural landscape. “We put so much effort and resources into cultivating landscapes,” notes Chris Smith of Sow True Seed in Asheville. “In reality, there’s an abundance of uncultivated landscapes that already have great foods in them,” he says, while explaining how to make infused vinegars using wild spring greens.
“You can do a lot with little if you pay attention,” proclaims Becki Janes of Becki’s Bounty, a prolific “farmette” in Black Mountain. She loves teaching her customers how to live more sustainably. “If you’ve got any bit of sunshine on even a little bit of a patio,” she preaches, “you can grow a tomato.”
And when fellow Black Mountain resident Linda Seligman found that there weren’t any goat’s milk processing plants in the area, she decided to design her own — guided only by a copy of the state regulations. Her company, Round Mountain Creamery, is now the only combined dairy goat farm and grade A goat’s milk processing plant in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, over at Meadow Cove Farm in Weaverville, Claudine and Paul Cremer strive to be as self-sufficient as possible. Pursuing a homesteading lifestyle that some might find daunting, they raise guinea fowl, grow shiitake mushrooms and harness solar energy, selling excess power back to the grid. “We’re trying to live our own convictions,” Claudine explains.
Of course, maintaining a can-do attitude is easier when you’re not economically disadvantaged. At the Pisgah View Apartments public housing community in Asheville, many residents aren’t able to share in the area’s local food bounty. “We’re in a spot that’s considered a food desert,” notes Carl Johnson, co-manager of Gardens United. “There’s a lot of people in these neighborhoods that are limited in what they can do.”
Johnson and his colleague, Sir Charles Gardner, have literally created a food oasis with their community garden, but it doesn’t stop there: They also involve community members in growing the food. “It gives them an outlet to earn money,” says Johnson, “to gain a sense of pride and some ownership over what’s going on in their neighborhoods.”
Central to the work of Gardens United is the aim of changing people’s diets to improve their health. Johnson and Gardner are trying to physically heal their neighbors, shifting them from convenience store junk to superfoods like sweet potatoes, kale and Jerusalem artichokes.
Health concerns loomed large in all the Earth Flavors interviews. Claudine Cremer, for example, pushed my concept of freshness when she pointed out that even tailgate market produce may have been picked 24 hours before it reaches consumers.
“Fresher food is shockingly more nutritious,” agrees wild foods educator Alan Muskat, citing research reported in Jo Robinson’s 2014 book, Eating on the Wild Side. Wildness, says Muskat, is also key. A single leaf of a wild plant, he likes to tell participants in his No Taste Like Home guided tours, contains 10 times the nutrition of a comparable portion of standard garden greens.
A desire to heal our fragile and compromised ecosystems is central to Paul Gallimore’s work at the Long Branch Environmental Education Center in Leicester. For over 35 years, he’s been backcrossing hybrids in an effort to restore the American chestnut tree as a keystone species in this bioregion.
Concern for both our physical bodies and the planet leads many local farmers, including Wendy and Graham Brugh of Dry Ridge Farm in Mars Hill, to raise their animals using no hormones, steroids or feed antibiotics.
Brook Sheffield of L.O.T.U.S. Urban Farm and Garden Supply in West Asheville believes aquaponics can help address climate change and food insecurity. The multilevel system employs filtration and bacterial processes to raise aquatic animals and grow plants like living lettuce while using about 90 percent less water than conventional methods.
And back at Imladris Farm, Harrill shows me a soil amendment called biochar, which he produces from burning raspberry canes in the absence of oxygen. The resulting charcoal remains stable in the soil for up to 3,000 years. By acting as a sponge for nutrients, it lessens the need for fertilizer, thereby reducing water pollution.
Beyond the physical and environmental issues, however, “I think people are hungry for heart and authenticity. … That’s part of what we’re delivering,” says Lapidus. In the same room, miller Kim Thompson takes the time to handwrite quotes about bread on bags of Carolina Ground flour.
That kind of personal touch helps explain why Goldfinch Gardens, nearly all of whose customers live within a 5-mile radius of the farm, doesn’t feel the need to go through the hassle of official organic certification: Folks can come by and observe the growing practices for themselves.
Daring to be different
To the uninitiated, the aquaponics system at L.O.T.U.S. looks like something out of a science fiction movie. “I’ll be the first to admit that this is not the most natural looking thing,” Sheffield concedes. “But looks can be very deceiving. If you hang around the food and the fish long enough, this might feel more natural than a lot of other things you’re doing … like driving your car, riding around in airplanes and hopping on the World Wide Web.” Or even, for that matter, buying conventionally grown supermarket produce.
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 mean you shouldn’t try. Ager sees the apples as a way to help his farm become an even better model of sustainable agricultural practices. And if customers don’t want pesticides, he says firmly, they’re just going to have to deal with sooty blotch and flyspeck on their apples.
But WNC’s distinctive culture is actually a good fit with the idea of buying and consuming what’s produced locally, argues Jeff Frisbee of Addison Farms Vineyard in Leicester. “We’re fiercely and historically an independent lot,” he points out. “I think that’s one of the reasons the locavore movement has been so successful in this area.”
Shifting consumer consciousness
These local growers and food suppliers aren’t content with merely making changes in their own lives: They’re out to influence the larger society. “An educated public will make demands, and the industry will meet them,” Sow True Seed founder Carol Koury maintains. “It is very threatening to the industry for people to know where their food comes from.” And putting those principles on the line, her company actually encourages customers to save their own seed by including an empty seed packet with every order.
Claudine and Paul Cremer are also thinking big, envisioning a shift among consumers from shopping at grocery stores to patronizing local farms like theirs in the name of greater sustainability. “Everybody’s got a local grocery store that they go to,” Paul points out. “So you could, potentially, have us as the local farm that you go to.”
And at that level, shifting consciousness may involve rethinking the whole idea of profit. Flat Rock Village Bakery, for example, boasts only a small indoor seating area and no bread slicer — because, I’m told, there’s just no room. Still, manager and co-owner David Workman says he’s happy with the operation’s scale and feel and isn’t looking to expand. Meanwhile, Johnson of Gardens United says he loves passing on his knowledge to his 9-year-old daughter. “One of the most profitable things that a person can get into,” he maintains, “is learning how to grow their own food.”
Grounded in gratitude
But whether they’re foragers, farmers or countercultural guides, all the people profiled in Earth Flavors display a gratitude that stems from their profound sense of connection with something greater than themselves. Foraging, says Muskat, teaches us that we live in a Garden of Eden: We don’t need to struggle so much to meet our needs. For him, foraging is a way of “coming home,” and he tries to use wild foods education to help others feel more at home in their own lives as well.
Glenda Ploeger of Cane Creek Asparagus & Co. in Fairview has been efficiently filling weekly CSA boxes with produce for 15 years, but she knows that all her skill and experience can take her only so far. “One of the biggest gambles out there,” she says, “is trying to grow a vegetable.” Because there are so many variables involved in farming, all the dedication and hard work in the world can’t eliminate the risks.
“How do you deal with those risks?” I ask.
“I suppose,” she responds, after pondering the question, “a lot of prayer.”
Ager takes a similar view, saying, “There’s the great mystery: That’s really the humbling thing. 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, these dedicated people seem to say, and gratitude may follow. Like my informants, I, too, am deeply thankful — for the forces and coincidences that brought me to this part of the country; for the time and knowledge local growers, foragers and educators have shared with me. And, of course, for the opportunity to partake of so many of the area’s offerings. May the Earth’s diverse flavors continue to nourish and enrich us as we, in turn, discover, consider, appreciate and protect them.