Farmers come to town

In the ongoing contest to get closer to the source of one's food, Asheville restaurateur Laurey Masterton may have achieved a new level of kitchen intimacy.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

Eaters who merely dabble in locavorism are generally content to know where their tomatoes grew. Slightly geekier grocery-goers might seek out information about who did the growing, taking comfort in the photos of local farmers posted alongside their produce in stores like Greenlife.

The more committed, of course, shop at tailgate markets, where they can shake the hands that plucked their tomatoes from the vine. But even at the tailgate market, the shopper-farmer relationship is primarily a commercial one. All the small talk about blight and rainfall is a sideshow for vendors, who are there — first and foremost — to sell.

Not so at Masterton's new series of dinners, hosted monthly at her downtown-Asheville eatery, where the farmers are the feted guests of honor. While the food producers contribute the ingredients to the meal, Masterton and her staff handle the cooking and serving duties, allowing the farmers to enjoy the evening — and interact with fellow diners in a deeply personal way.

"I'm not sure where else you have the opportunity to eat with the people whose food you're eating," Masterton gushed before declaring the buffet line open at last month's dinner.

"This eggplant is … when did you pick that eggplant, Paul?" she continued, motioning to the dish that anchored an hors d'oeuvre table set with cheeses from Spinning Spider and Yellow Branch creameries.

"Wednesday morning?" offered Ballard Branch Farm's Paul Litman, prompting the 30-person crowd to make a sound that fell halfway between a cheer and a sigh.

While farm dinners are a well-established element of the local food scene, few restaurants have tried to replicate the casual ease and pastoral vibe that prevails at those events. Masterton is probably the only chef in Western North Carolina — and perhaps in the Southeast — offering straight-from-the-field meals for the urban set.

Photo by Jonathan Welch

"When I think about the best thing I do, this is it, right here," Masterton reflected. "My dream would be would be to have this dinner on a regular basis with a long waiting list."

Masterton selects three local food producers for each dinner ("I'm starting it with just my buddies," she says) and builds a menu around their products. While she'd prefer to fashion a meal from whatever she found at the market the day before the event, her commonsense sister warned her that some guests might not welcome her whimsy. "She said, 'People want to know what they're going to eat,'" Masterton says.

Last month, the bill of fare included a wax-bean salad showered with a cloudburst of Black Cherry, Cherokee Purple and Sun Volt tomatoes from Ballard Branch, hearth-baked bread from Wake Robin Farm Breads and fat, tail-on shrimp submerged in buttery, coarse grits milled by Blue Hill Farm's Wayne Uffleman from his Hawkins Prolific corn.

"It's like maybe the equivalent of cooking for one's mother-in-law," Masterton told the diners. "I said to Wayne: 'Four to one, right?' He said, 'Yup, you don't want to cook them too long, it ruins them.' Wayne, I hope you like the way I cooked your grits tonight."

The grits were so popular that a number of diners went back for second helpings — and maneuvered the serving spoon around the shrimp.

"I've gotten more into poverty foods, foods people can grow and live on," Uffleman explained during his turn addressing the group. "I've tried to revive that."

Masterton pretty much leaves it up to the farmers to decide how they'll use the time they're allotted to explain their food. While she'll sometimes steer the conversation, farmers usually don't require much prompting to tell the story of how they built their farm or expound on the state of modern agriculture. Many of the guest farmers veer into political talk, condemning restrictive regulations designed for industrial-sized farms and lamenting the high cost of farmland with a fervor that only someone who's stared at a balance sheet could summon.

Uffleman's commentary centered on the changing status of local food, a category that had little cachet when he first started farming an old tobacco field in Madison County.

"We tried to take vegetables to the north Asheville market 30 years ago," he recalled. "Nobody was there. Now it's a circus. I can't tell you how much I love what's going on now. People buy stuff from me and tell me how great I am."

Masterton said her favorite farmer talk was delivered on behalf of East Fork Farm by Steve and Dawn Robertson's young daughters, who explained their farm's operations in exquisite detail. While East Fork's lamb regularly surfaces in Masterton's always local-leaning deli case, the girls' discourse gave even Masterton a new appreciation of the family farm.

"I love people's stories," Masterton says. "That's what it's about. Last month, we had eight guests and eight farmers. And it's like, to heck with the money. This is it."

Laurey's, at 67 Biltmore Ave., plans to host at least two more farm dinners this year, with the next one scheduled for Sept. 17 at 7 p.m. Dinners are priced at $37 per person, with a $10 alcohol surcharge for guests who'd like wine or beer with their meal. To learn more, call 252-1200.

[Hanna Rachel Raskin can be reached at food@mountainx.com.]

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