Tailgate markets are designed to showcase local foods, grown by local farmers on local land. So why does the most popular product at many Western North Carolina tailgate markets hail from 452 miles away?
Freshly caught seafood is so beloved by mountain shoppers that many area markets have tweaked their rules to allow coastal peddlers to sell their tuna, tilefish and speckled trout. Far from raising the ire of committed locavores, the exemption's been embraced by the dozens of eaters who weekly wait in line to claim their share of the bounty.
"People get so excited about fish," says Caravan Seafood's David Eckard, a regular vendor at the French Broad Tailgate Market. This year, he has added six more area markets to his sales route. "They don't get excited about chicken like that."
For the last eight years, Eckard has been shuttling seafood from Kitty Hawk to Asheville, a service which has proved so profitable that he's unruffled by the 11-hour cross-state drive he has to make every Tuesday evening.
"I tell my siblings, 'If you think people get excited about seafood around here, you should see it there,'" Eckard says. "It's just been unbelievable."
Seafood's history in the mountains is strangely murky, with no real scholarship yet done on the subject. A taste for oceanic delicacies likely reached the region long before the foodstuffs themselves arrived: The Scots-Irish immigrants who settled the Blue Ridge were surely familiar with oysters and salmon, while the low-country planters who followed them here in the 19th century, fleeing pesky mosquitoes and insufferable heat, were probably accustomed to feasting on crabs and shrimp.
But their edible affections went unrequited until inventors perfected the refrigerated rail car, which allowed for the safe shipment of perishables. Until the 1880s, the only way to keep food from spoiling before reaching its destination was to transport it while still alive. Such a system was better suited to four-legged, air-breathing mammals like beef cattle than underwater creatures like wriggly 25-pound mahi-mahis.
Still, even cows don't make ideal train travelers, which is why the development of an artificially cooled car that kept processed food fresh — no matter what the weather — was considered revolutionary. The refrigerator car reshaped eating habits across the country, according to food historian Mark Sohn, author of Appalachian Home Cooking (University Press of Kentucky, 2005).
"That opened up food sources," says Sohn, who teaches at Pikeville College in Kentucky. "People here love oysters. All through the winter, our markets always have oysters. They put it in dressing, they put it in casserole, they dip and fry them like fish."
Refrigerated cars almost certainly carried the seafood stocked by Asheville's first fish vendors, both of whom operated stands at the City Market as early as 1910. According to a 1931 report in the Asheville Citizen, Wylie Gentry of Madison County offered "a complete line of sea foods," while Joseph Witz, a trained tailor who sold seafood in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jacksonville, Fla., and Muncie, Ind., before relocating to Asheville, placed "orders in all of the trading sea shore centers where such foods are taken."
Eckard suspects his predecessors, like him, may have catered primarily to transplants and tourists.
"Even now, native people up there don't eat a lot of fish," he says. "It's not an integral part of native people's diets."
For Asheville residents who grew up eating seafood, though, there seems to be no substitute. True seafood lovers — think of Amy Beard, the native Mainer who opened The Lobster Trap, and the migrants from Mexico's coastal states who flock to the seafood stands at Smiley's Flea Market in Fletcher — can't be sated by mountain trout.
"There's something instinctual about our attraction to seafood," Eckard says. "We've just evolved in sync with it."
Eckard started selling seafood 29 years ago, buying his product off local docks. He made occasional trips to Asheville, sometimes carting with him a selection of medicinal herbs that didn't grow in the mountains. When he got lucky, he'd sell enough herbs to buy gas for the journey home. Then he mentioned his seafood business to someone at the French Broad Food Co-op.
"She got very excited," Eckard recalls. "More excited than about the herbs."
Eckard told friends on the coast that he'd stumbled upon a niche:
"I said, 'I think there might be a market up there,'" he says. "When you get that far inland, even the groceries have a hard time getting fresh seafood. There's probably about a five- to seven-day lag time.
"After the third day, it's really hard to call fish fresh," he adds.
So Eckard devised a toilsome system that requires him to buy his fish and seafood on Tuesday afternoons, return to his store to cut and package it and then head west by 7 p.m. in a van he's retrofitted to serve as a rolling nursing home for his mother, who has late-stage Alzheimer's.
"I drive all night," he says. "I might sleep an hour."
Eckhard spends a few hours at market, and then drives back home.
"One of my guys asked me why more people don't do this," he says. "I said, 'No one else works like this.' No one's going to drive for hours, work their butts off and drive back.
"But it's a pretty good living for me," he continues. "With the seafood down here, you get used to working really long hours. When the fish are running, you don't stop working. You get used to working like that."
Eckard concedes that seafood eaters — even the most expert among them — probably couldn't distinguish between day-old seafood and two-day-old seafood. But his schedule is a matter of personal pride.
"My passion is providing the very freshest fish possible," he says. "I've had offers to set up a store, but you can't do it. The whole premise of what I do is I get the fish and get them up here quickly,"
And it's fish that shoppers are buying. While shrimp account for 80 percent of Eckard's sales at his Kitty Hawk shop, Asheville residents want fish — and soft-shell crab.
"I had no idea people here even knew what they were," Eckard says. "Then when we first brought them, this woman read our sign and yelled out that we had soft-shell crab. People came running. It's our biggest seller."
Eckard's application to join the City Market was denied — "They raised a stink because some of the meat people thought their sales would drop" — but he says fellow vendors usually appreciate his presence, acknowledging his stand is a draw for eaters who might not otherwise shop at the market.
"Wednesday night is fish night for a lot of folks in Asheville," he laughs.
Xpress food editor Hanna Rachel Raskin can be contacted at email@example.com.