Forty-five degrees and raining aren’t exactly the ideal conditions for dining alfresco.
But you might have never known it by observing the diners who turned out for the inaugural Full Moon Market Supper at the West Asheville Tailgate Market. Perhaps it was because we were — all 50 of us — squashed together under a plastic-wrapped shelter that would be better sized to protecting an Airstream trailer. Our collective body heat, we determined, was key to keeping us relatively thawed out.
"Sorry it's a little cramped," organizer/hot-dog maker Jeremy Hardcastle would later quip. "We picked not the best night for a picnic."
The local spring flowers — yarrow, chamomile and fennel greenery — cheerfully bunched and scattered about the tables helped to remind us that it was, indeed, mid-May, even if the weather felt like early March. Adding additional warmth were the rootsy, jug-band sounds of Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks, who were playing so close to the dinner table that they could have leaned over and plucked a piece of Hardcastle's andouille sausage from one of the communal platters.
"I can't believe that we thought we could fit all of those people in that shelter — but it worked!" laughs Natalie Pollard, now that it’s all said and done. Pollard is the new manager of the West Asheville Tailgate Market and one of the coordinators (with Hardcastle) behind the suppers. "That was total family-style. Hopefully we can space people out a little bit when the weather gets warmer," she says.
But all of that jostling and crowding — and the occasional spilled drink — put the "family" in "family-style." The space necessitated getting extra cozy with your neighbor — or accidentally throwing an elbow to the side of her head while helping to pass the carnitas.
Not that the flask of bourbon I smuggled in to stay warm had anything to do with that. Full disclosure: I was later admonished for bringing booze. This dinner is an alcohol-free event, as it takes place in a church parking lot. As a former Catholic schoolgirl, I have to admit it wasn't the first time I'd found myself in similar trouble. Regardless, do not follow my example.
Bourbon or no, the atmosphere of the WATM is perfect for this sort of casual, slightly scrappy and deliciously charming event. The market has a modern, down-home feel to it, West Asheville-style, that's just a bit more grassroots than the rest. "It's smaller and more neighborhood-oriented," says Pollard. "The other markets get a bigger draw from tourists and visitors. I don't really think many people visit the WATM on their trip to Asheville. It's unique and has a different demographic — it's more bare bones."
There's something inherently comforting, warm and joyful about passing platters of food around tables set up in the middle of a farmers market. It certainly doesn’t hurt matters when said food is cooked by The Admiral's Drew Maykuth, just over yonder working elbow-to-elbow with Suzy Phillips in Spartacus, Phillips’ souped-up food truck and home of GCQ Lebanese Street Food.
It’s a little tough to be peeved by the elements when the charcuterie platters are so heavily laden with Hardcastle's meats, Three Graces Dairy artisan cheeses and piles of rainbow-colored radishes that they’re a bit hard to lift. Add the fact that 95 percent of the food eaten at that communal table was grown or produced by local farmers — some of whom happened to be sitting at that table sharing a pitcher of mint sun tea — and, cold weather or no, it's a magic combination.
Did I mention that it was cold?
"Everyone was like, 'Are we really doing this?'" says Pollard. "And I said, 'Farmers have to still go out in the rain and harvest their food and bring it to us.’ I had already asked them to harvest all of this stuff. They don't just say, 'Oh well, it's raining.' They pulled through on their end so I felt like we had to. It was part of the spirit of it."
And when someone puts it that way, it's easy to feel like a bit of a jerk complaining about the weather when your only obligation is to eat incredible food for a meager sum — just $20 for four courses and all of the sun tea you can drink.
For that matter, not only did the farmers pull through with the produce, some even helped to serve the food. A few even remained for the cleanup. "Being a part of that was cool," says Pollard. "Most of them had serving experience in the past. They were reliving their heydays. It was sweet."
By the time the cheese boards were whisked away and bowls of bright green salad leaves tossed with herb vinaigrette, rose petals and other colorful edible spring flowers appeared, the cold was all but forgotten. Hickory Nut Gap carnitas, creamy Anson Mills farro and field peas followed, along with a jar of nettles pesto. Platters of locally made tempeh were passed around the table for the vegetarians. "Only in Asheville would something like this work so well," I said to the person next to me, who responded by grabbing my thigh rather suddenly after tasting the farro. "Why? Why is it so creamy?!" she nearly shouted, in the grip of some sort of food-induced reverie (I also might have passed her my flask a few times).
The meal was capped off by a dessert of berries and Grand Marnier, accompanied by a tangy, whipped goat cheese sweetened with local honey. It's a ridiculous amount of food and entertainment, given the price. And with every penny earned going straight back to the WATM, it’s easy to feel charitable while being spoiled.
After purchasing a few necessary supplies, Pollard says that the first event pulled in enough money for the market organizers to break even, though she expects to turn a profit next time with a little luck. "There should be a 30-percent profit that we can put toward the market, ideally," she says. Pollard, Maykuth, Hardcastle and everyone else volunteer their assistance. That includes local King of Pops ice pop vendor, Gabriella Oviedo, who offers free child care for the littlest attendees.
What's evident — from the style of the dinner to the source for the food to the large pool of volunteers — is that these events are more about community than profit.
"The collaborative effort of all of us working together on something like this was really fun," says Pollard. "Even if we broke even every time, I think it would still be great. It's fun, it's a great experience and it's a really interesting thing for people to see what they can really do with the local produce. It's also doing a lot for raising awareness for the market itself."
For additional events, at least for the time being, Pollard says that Maykuth will continue to be the official Full Moon Supper chef. "Jeremy and Drew were so stoked about it," Pollard says. "They were kind of glowing. I really like how genuinely excited they are about this."
Evidently, the guests of the first dinner are equally excited, even though I've never seen a group of people abandon a table so quickly once the last bite was consumed. All of the feedback has been positive, Pollard reports.
"I got a couple of e-mails from guests that said despite the cold, it was a wonderful evening and such a great way to celebrate local food and our farmers."
Interested in attending a Market Supper? Good luck. For now, you'll have to rely on word of mouth, the WATM Facebook page and fliers — which add to the spontaneous feel and charm of the dinners. The next event will be sometime in July, so keep your eyes peeled.
Xpress photographer Jonathan Welch helped document the dinner. Visit mountainx.com/dining to view the slideshow and hear the music played at the supper.
— Send your food news to Mackensy Lunsford at email@example.com.