Laurey Masterton walked 500 miles this summer, released a book and landed a TV appearance — all while enduring cancer treatment.
The longtime Asheville resident started a catering business in 1987. Eventually, it grew into Laurey’s, a Biltmore Avenue café serving fresh fare from a deli-case, soups, sandwiches and take-home meals.
But there's more to the business than the food. It's a beloved institution with a wide, sunny dining room, picnic tables and coveted recipes — everyone in town seems to want the instructions for making the kale, sweet potato or tuna salads.
Earlier this summer as her treatment became less intense, Masterton trekked 500 miles through Spain on an ancient pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago. Altogether, she spent five weeks walking.
When she returned to Asheville, The Cooking Channel filmed a short segment at the shop, and Masterton was caught up in the world of production. It was a flashback to her former career as a stage manager in New York City, she says.
And all along, she had been planning her book release. Her second work, The Fresh Honey Cookbook, debuts in Asheville on Thursday, Sept. 19. Masterton will read from the collection of recipes and short bits about the ecology and taste of honey at Malaprop's Bookstore.
Xpress sat down with Masterton in the back of the café she created to talk about her experiences on the Camino de Santiago, her work as a beekeeper and writer, and how she manages to get it all done.
Mountain Xpress: I love getting your email newsletter. Sometimes I think, “Oh, we should just print Laurey's newsletter.” I love to read them — I'm sure a lot of people say this — it makes me see how much you get done.
Laurey Masterton: You say I get a lot done, and I do, but I really spent two years lying down most of the time. Although, at the same time, I wrote that book.
And you kept the café going.
Well, the team did that. But anyway, it's like I chip away, and one week, I might just write one recipe.
It's still really inspiring to see someone who obviously has a lot more problems than I have right now chip away at something. That's really the hardest thing there is, you know, to be patient and steady.
The Camino was very good for discipline also because I was not out in the middle of nowhere. I was on this Camino where people have been walking for thousands of years. It would not have been easy for me to come home.
I really had major problems with my feet, which is kind of what everyone has, but it was really, really good discipline. … The perseverance that it took to keep going was very instructive for me, and even after working and putting this business together over 26 years, still, the Camino was a very powerful experience.
Have you always been a steady, disciplined person, or is that something that you've had to think about?
I think largely I would describe myself as easily distractible and really good at starting things and not necessarily very good at following through with them. It's easy for me to be involved in a whole bunch of things. I feel like now, at this point in my life, things are coming to fruition in a way that makes me realize that all those things I flitted about with are all a key part of doing what I'm doing now.
I'm a good observational student, even if I don't have degrees in all these things.
It's wonderful to hear that being a generalist pays off.
Absolutely. Oh my God. I think a generalist is the very best thing. … At the beginning of my business, I played all the parts. Now, I don't play all the parts at all. … I'm sort of in the role of a teacher now, to help people understand how to corral everybody together.
It's cool that you consider yourself, almost in the same breath, a student and a teacher.
I know a lot about a bunch of different things, some of which I learned in school, and some of which I just keep learning about. It's interesting.
Being on the Camino … I didn't study art history, but you can't avoid it walking through Spain. It was all about this guy who was beheaded for spreading the word about Jesus. I'm not religious at all, but all these people built these magnificent churches because this guy miraculously got his head put back on, and he came back to life. So he did this walk to be thankful for this gift he was given.
I certainly believe in the importance of faith and spirit, just talking about honey and bees and the gift that they give in the world. The day I signed the contract for that book was also the day I found out I was going to have chemotherapy. So it was like, “Here's the gift of this news. You're going to get to concentrate on this thing that's going to heal you because you have something to do for the next two years you're in treatment.”
How interesting, the way things converge. Do you believe in the wisdom of coincidences?
Yeah, actually, I would say it's more than that. I call it … “following the golden thread,” which means if I'm paying attention, the guides appear. When I do pay attention, even though it might not be the first thing in my brain or my consciousness, sometimes the voice is so strong, or the guide is so strong that I just have to do — then it becomes not coincidental, but I do what I was guided to do.
If you want to see the golden thread of your own life, ask for it, and you'll see it. And it's going to come with negative signs too. … To move into this space, I was actually getting ready to quit working on this. I was done with it.
You used to be up the block, right?
I was right next door, right in what's part of the wine market. I was done. Done, done, done with this.
I was not happy and exhausted and defeated and all this stuff. I said, “I don't want to do this anymore.” … I thought, “I can just quit and be done and have nothing, or I can figure out how to make it good.” So I found a seminar, a place that I could go and learn about writing a vision, a clear vision of, “Let's say I do want to make it work. How am I going to do that, and what is it going to look like?” Because you can't make it work if you don't know what you're headed for.
All of it fell into place, but it didn't fall into place until the vision was written down on a piece of paper. … It took six months to actually write the vision on a piece of paper. It took six months of actively thinking and talking about it, processing it. But then I got the vision written, and the reality came. And now I'm here, and it's been eight years or something.
I suppose we should talk about your book since that's what I'm here for. When did you start keeping bees?
Let's say five years [ago]. I don't really know. But I know that it's very hard. Most beekeepers have had big losses of their bees, including me. I'm just trying to be open to what they have to show me about how to help them stay alive, so I can help spread the word about how to save the bees. … Colony collapse disorder, it's a real thing.
The book is 12 chapters which each feature a different honey varietal, which is a single-source honey, like orange-blossom honey or something like that. The recipes feature either a honey varietal or a main ingredient that is seasonal in that month that would not exist without honey bees as pollinators. It's got a few different levels to it.
Also, in each chapter, it's got a thing that I call a curiosity, which is some little fun-filled fact about the various kinds of bees and what they do and how they do it, how they actually make honey. … Understanding how to taste honey and how to appreciate real honey versus fake honey, that kind of stuff. I'm very pleased with the book. It's a lot more than just a cookbook.
Originally, it was called “Every Third Bite, cooking with honey and other things that wouldn't exist without bees.” But that was too cumbersome for the publishers.
Who do you hope will use your book?
I'm happy to have people cook out of it. I think that's important, but I hope it's a book that people will read and learn about bees and be drawn to do something instead of just saying, “Oh my God, the bees are in trouble.” Yes, the bees are in trouble, and here's what you can do. That's what I hope.
You can flip out, and you can stomp around and protest. That's not my style. My style is to say, “OK, don't use pesticides.” Don't have a garden? “OK, buy things that are made without pesticides because pesticides hurt bees.” Don't eat vegetables? “OK, buy real honey, hopefully from a beekeeper who doesn't use pesticides.”
I think it would surprise people to find that all honey is not actually honey. What are some things people should look for when they're buying honey?
They should look on the label, and it should say, “Contents: honey,” and that's it. And they should never buy honey at a discount store because it could very well be imported and adulterated.
It's just like anything: Know your farmer; know your beekeeper, hopefully.
If you pay attention to honey and just look at it, tip it around and see how long it takes to move. Then, if you pick up a bottle, and it's just incredibly liquidy, get suspicious. And smell the honey, and it should smell beautiful.
Avocado is my favorite. I just love it. It tastes like molasses or cane syrup or sorghum.
Have you always loved honey?
No. I learned about it because I catered a party for The Honeybee Project. That was the first time I was guided to understand that there are so many foods that wouldn't exist without honeybees. I thought, well, as a responsible citizen of the world, as a responsible cook, wanting to take care of the earth in my own way, I really need to learn more about this. And the way to learn it is to go to bee school and start having bees at my home.
How many hives do you have?
I have two right now. I've had more, but two is enough.
I have to ask you if you've been stung. I think people would want to know.
I have. I'm getting better at it. I'm still not crazy about it. But I also know that there are lots of healing properties in bee venom. They tend to sting where a person has a problem.
Beekeepers tend not to have arthritis because the bees sting them at the point of the arthritis, and the bee venom has healing properties about it, and then those people don't have arthritis anymore.
So do you have advice for people who want to accomplish something like this book that requires a certain amount of steadiness?
Well, for one thing, I'd signed a contract and received some money for it, so that was a good incentive. Wanting to do that, wanting to accomplish things is the beginning. You're not going to do it if you don't want to.
I've had coaches, and I've worked really hard to find a way to define what I wanted to do and then accomplish those things.
I always met my goals once I chose them.