You are what you eat: The many faces of Foodtopia

PHILOSOPHY BUFFET: Asheville's diet choices are as diverse as its population. Pictured, from lower left, are a vegan chocolate-avocado pie at Elements Real Foods; a paleo lunch of grass-fed beef, eggs and avocado; Early Girl Eatery's vegetarian biscuits and gravy and wild lobster mushrooms foraged by Alan Muskat. Photos by Carla Seidl

A woman at Earth Fare spots a vegan friend from yoga class and, hurriedly draping her shawl over the $21 organic, free-range chicken in her cart, quickly makes up a story that she’s buying the chicken for her dog.

Two young cyclists whisk butter and coconut oil into their coffee, hoping it will give them sustained energy and help them lose weight.

Meanwhile, across town, a roomful of folks wait their turn at a food pantry, wondering, “Will there be any meat today?”

Every day, Asheville residents manifest their values, beliefs and priorities through what they choose to eat. And while many delight in our remarkable food scene, others go hungry.

When it comes to food, passions can run high, because so much more gets embedded in our choice of breakfast, lunch or dinner than what’s actually on the plate. And amid all the often contradictory dietary advice, one thing seems certain: Food matters; it shapes and defines us. Here’s a look at some of the many faces of Foodtopia.

Primal paleo

Squatting in perfect primal posture, heels on the floor, Mo Goldstein sets out his lunch of grass-fed beef, avocado, hardboiled eggs, and cucumber-and-watermelon salad. Goldstein is the founder of the Paleo Asheville Facebook group, which boasts 573 “likes.” A massage therapist, trainer and movement coach, Goldstein helps people heal physical ailments that can result from our modern lifestyle.

Essentially, he says, the paleo diet entails eating as much meat and vegetables as you want, plus moderate amounts of fruit and nuts. Rejecting much of what we’ve learned about saturated fat, Goldstein says he consumes over a pound of butter a week.

To him, paleo is more template than diet. “I think the term paleo has become kind of loaded,” notes Goldstein. Instead, he sees it as a lens through which to look at food and health, a way to consider “what our body is genetically designed to do.”

Mo Goldstein's paleo lunch consists of
GRAIN-FREE LUNCH: Mo Goldstein tucks into his paleo lunch of grass-fed beef, avocado, hardboiled eggs and cucumber-watermelon salad. Photo by Carla Seidl

Dr. Daniel Stickler, Goldstein’s co-worker at Synchronicity Wellness, first met him through the Facebook group. Stickler, a former weight-loss surgeon, says paleo seemed to be the diet that worked for most people. Using that as a base, he says he now offers more personalized recommendations. The biggest single point is avoiding grains.

“We existed for 100,000 years without grains in the diet,” says Stickler, and over the centuries, we’ve altered those grains dramatically. Ironically, he considers the organic whole-wheat bread that some health-conscious consumers buy to be “made from one of the most highly modified foods there is.”

Philosophically, though, both men see common ground among a lot of Asheville’s dietary trends. “I know some people say that paleos and vegans are against each other, and I think it’s ridiculous,” says Goldstein. “We fully agree about food quality, sustainability and those kind of things.”

Meanwhile, he says, paleo continues both to grow in popularity and to evolve. Originally, it was mostly about losing fat and getting lean. Now, he says, it’s more about holistic, long-term health and food-supply sustainability.

Plant-based

Frank Contreras says he once owned the best burger joint in Phoenix. These days, he sports a wallet made from recycled bicycle tires and an Asheville Vegan Society T-shirt. After 35 years in the restaurant industry, Contreras spends much of his time trying to promote a vegan — or, as he and others now prefer to call it — plant-based diet and lifestyle.

A single film triggered the switch. Five years ago, Contreras watched “Earthlings,” dubbed by some “the vegan maker”; the next day, he stopped eating meat. “If these animals were going through what they were going through,” he says, “there was something I was going to do about that.”

After more research, Contreras concluded that the dairy and egg industries were also torturous, and he stopped eating animal byproducts as well as animal flesh.

PLANT-BASED SOLIDARITY:  From left, vegans Evan Buckman, Frank Contreras, Cam MacQueen and Razi'El Muntasir gather outside The Block off biltmore, a soon-to-open downtown vegan cafe.
PLANT-BASED SOLIDARITY: From left, vegans Evan Buckman, Frank Contreras, Cam MacQueen and Razi’El Muntasir gather outside The Block off biltmore, a soon-to-open downtown vegan cafe. Photo by Carla Seidl

Compassion was the foremost motivation for Contreras’ turn to veganism; concerns about his health and the planet, he says, were tied for second and third. A lot of folks don’t want to know it, he notes, but in 2010, the United Nations cited animal agriculture as the leading contributor to climate change — more than all forms of transport combined. “Asheville is such a supposedly conscientious environment,” says Contreras, “but I see a lot of people still not getting it.”

Nonetheless, Asheville is a great place to be vegan, he maintains. Besides the many grocery store options, there are plenty of vegan-friendly restaurants: vegetarian fixtures like the Laughing Seed and Rosetta’s Kitchen and completely vegan eateries like Plant, Bean Vegan Cuisine, Elements Real Food and the recently reopened Firestorm Cafe.

Longtime vegan Cam MacQueen agrees. “I feel like there’s just a tsunami of veganism coming this way,” she says, citing The Asheville Vegan Society’s 900-plus members.

MacQueen, who’s about to open The Block off biltmore, an “eco-vegan solidarity bar” and community gathering space, sums up veganism this way: “It’s about peace to all beings. It’s about a compassionate way of living. It’s about helping preserve the planet, and the notion that we’re all interconnected.”

But hearing Goldstein’s assertion that paleo and vegan diets are philosophically similar, both MacQueen and Contreras laugh in disbelief. “That’s the furthest thing from reality,” says Contreras. “We can talk about humane farming practices,” MacQueen concedes, but “the animals are still slaughtered for their flesh. We can’t get away from that piece of it, no matter how we want to package that and make it sound better.”

MacQueen does acknowledge the abundance of confusing dietary information, but she likes to point folks to research by biochemist T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn at the Cleveland Cinic, whose findings about the connection between a plant-based diet and health were showcased in the 2011 documentary film “Forks Over Knives.” With 100 years of combined experience in the field, notes MacQueen, “I’m going to listen to those guys. I think they’re the experts.”

Good ol’ vegetarian

When Julie and John Stehling opened the Early Girl Eatery in 2001, one of the first dishes at their “farm-to-table, Southern comfort food” restaurant was a cream-and-herb biscuit and gravy aimed at the city’s large vegetarian population. “We’re like the hippie South,” Julie says about Asheville. “So, definitely, more vegetarian and vegan items will be popular here that won’t play as well in other towns.”

Vegetarians, too, avoid eating animal flesh, but they do consume some animal byproducts. Pescetarians, who also consider themselves vegetarian, abstain from all flesh except fish, and flexitarians eat meat only occasionally.

DOWN-HOME VEGGIES: Vegetarian biscuits and gravy cater to vegetarians with Southern tastes at the Early Girl Eatery.
DOWN-HOME VEGGIES: Vegetarian biscuits and gravy cater to vegetarians with Southern tastes at the Early Girl Eatery. Photo by Carla Seidl

Sage Turner, finance and project manager for the French Broad Food Co-op, shifted from veganism to vegetarianism 14 years ago when she became pregnant and started craving proteins like cheese and eggs. Turner says she went vegan out of compassion for animals; that same ethical impulse explains why she’s still vegetarian. A former textiles major, Turner says that having worked with fiber animals, she couldn’t “take care of them, and shear them, and reap the rewards of their fur, and then turn around and eat them. It just didn’t seem balanced.”

Turner considers factory dairy farming “grotesque” and “way out of line with what’s normal.” But in terms of animal byproducts such as milk, she believes that if it’s done the right way, “You can have a little bit without really harming the life of the animal or their kids.”

Going glutenless

It’s hard not to notice the growing number of gluten-free products in local grocery stores and on restaurant menus. In 2011, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness named Asheville a “gluten-free, celiac-free destination,” and the website findmeglutenfree.com lists 65 “gluten-free friendly” food establishments within 3 miles of Asheville.

For the uninitiated, gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Celiac disease, which affects about 1 percent of the population, is an immune reaction to eating this protein. There are also those who don’t have celiac disease but say they feel better when avoiding gluten — a phenomenon known as “nonceliac gluten sensitivity.”

Local yoga teacher Camber Giberson, who has celiac disease, says, “I sort of understand why people who don’t have a specific gluten sensitivity are going gluten-free. But if I didn’t have this disease, I think I’d still be eating pasta.”

Lola LaFey is one of the growing number of folks in Asheville and across the country who follow a gluten-free diet out of general health concerns. “The way our grains are mostly manufactured, I feel like it’s healthier to cut the gluten out. It feels like it glues up your insides,” says LaFey, a cashier at the French Broad Co-op. After making the shift, she says, she noticed “a little bit lighter and freer feeling — not something that overt.”

Two recent best-selling books have largely fueled the gluten-free movement: Wheat Belly by cardiologist William Davis and Grain Brain by neurologist David Perlmutter. There is some debate, though, over whether this is a fad or a judicious reaction to a serious health concern.

Professor Timothy Caulfield of the University of Alberta, for example, is a staunch critic of what is sometimes called “the war on wheat.” For many people who don’t have celiac disease, going gluten-free is mostly a form of self-expression, the public-health specialist believes. In a February interview on the Canadian investigative news series “The Fifth Estate,” Caulfield poked fun at those folks, saying, “I drive my Prius; I recycle; I’m gluten-free.”

Like the ubiquitous bumper sticker “Namaste, y’all,” which pithily expresses Asheville’s unique blend of Southern tradition and conscious living, how many local dietary choices represent, at least to some extent, a desire to belong, to latch onto a particular community identity?

In the raw

Katharine Clark, a registered nurse, says there’s a reason wheat is called the staff of life. At the Hippocrates Health Institute, she points out, wheatgrass is considered the foundation of healing; the plant is also one of the food crops requiring the least water.

Clark, the organizer of the 822-member Asheville Real Food Meetup group, has been a health coach for 30 years. Raw foods, she says, are one of the biggest dietary trends in Asheville right now.

When food is heated to over 118 degrees Fahrenheit, beneficial enzymes are destroyed, says Clark, who’s studied with some of the movement’s leading advocates. Ingesting cooked food has also been shown to trigger leukocytosis, an increase in white blood cells, which are part of the body’s defense against invaders. Drs. Francis Pottenger Jr., Weston Price and Edward Howell, says Clark, all linked cooked food to chronic and degenerative diseases.

At Elements Real Food on South Liberty Street, co-owner Jenni Squires sets down slices of two raw vegan pies: a blueberry, coconut, cashew and date “cheesecake” with blueberry vanilla frosting and blueberry sauce, and an avocado-and-raw-cacao pie with vanilla and beet juice frosting. Both are remarkably rich and satisfying. The recently opened café, which began as the food truck Roaming in the Raw, specializes in juices, smoothies, nut milks and raw vegan food.

Clark says she ate completely raw for nine years and experienced extraordinary health benefits, but professional pressures led her to start consuming some cooked food. “We all know the way to do business is, ‘I’ll have what you’re having,’” Clark explains, adding that she now eats about 80 percent raw and 20 percent cooked food.

Clark became a raw-fooder for spiritual reasons. “Even if you’re an agnostic,” she says, “it still makes sense to me to respect and to care for our environment and ourselves in the best way we can.” Beyond that, she continues, “I think our fundamental belief that we can improve on nature, because we’re separate from nature — it’s the ultimate sin!”

Locally wild

Alan Muskat, aka “The Mushroom Man,” is a fixture on the Asheville food scene. After selling wild edibles to local restaurants for many years, Muskat, who believes in the power of whole, living food, now teaches children and adults how to identify and harvest such plants themselves.

Asheville, he says, is a fantastic place for foraging, because “Biologically, we have the greatest diversity found anywhere in the world.”

For Muskat, it’s not cooking per se that’s bad, but rather agriculture in general. “To me, as a novelty, there’s a place for the plants that we’ve developed. But to say it in the extreme, it’s not that wild food is so good for you: It’s that anything else isn’t.”

As evidence, Muskat cites Jo Robinson’s recent book Eating on the Wild Side, which describes a dramatic loss of nutrition in the agriculturally bred and produced foods we eat today.

Muskat says he’s glad to see the farm-to-table movement embrace wild edibles, but he challenges locavores to go further in their thinking. “When people choose to go local, it seems obviously better, but when you look a little more closely, it can be worse.” Just because something is grown here, he notes, doesn’t mean it would naturally do so. Muskat likens it to building a golf course in the middle of a rain forest. If you lived in the area, it would be local to go golfing there, but it wouldn’t be sustainable or good for the environment.

Southern comfort

Amid abundant criticism of modern food practices and systems, there are plenty of Ashevilleans who focus on celebrating and preserving our food heritage.

Elizabeth Sims, past president of the Southern Foodways Alliance, worked at Biltmore Estate for 18 years and has written two cookbooks for the Tupelo Honey Cafe. She names a number of Asheville-based chefs — John Fleer of Rhubarb, William Dissen of The Market Place, Jason Sellers at Plant and Stehling of the Early Girl and King Daddy’s Chicken & Waffle — as culinary artists who understand and highlight regional traditions.

Stehling describes traditional Appalachian cuisine as frugal. “Plenty was not a word used very often in those days,” he says. “They made use of everything, and that’s kind of what we do.” A lot of Stehling’s dishes feature Southern staples such as beans, corn, squash, sweet potatoes, collard greens and pork (which fits well with the paleo trend). The offerings at King Daddy’s include seasoned pork cracklings and fried chicken livers. “We’ll order from Hickory Nut Gap Farm and different purveyors, buy cuts of meat that aren’t going to the higher-end restaurants,” says Stehling. “Everyone wants the loins and strips and fillets, but there are a lot of other cuts to go around, so we try to focus on that.”

Traditionally, of course, comfort food was served at home, not in restaurants, and Kathey Avery and JeWana Grier-McEachin are closely monitoring the area’s home-cooked soul food. Both women work for the Asheville Buncombe Institute of Parity Achievement, Avery as a nurse and Grier-McEachin as executive director. They also host the “Body and Soul” radio show on WRES-FM.

In the African-American community, notes Avery, if someone’s known as “a good cook,” it could mean fried chicken, a cake with 20 eggs, biscuits with lots of lard, fatback in the green beans and collards. “It really tastes good, but it’s probably going to kill you,” she says. “I’ve gone to places that have had six kinds of starch at one sitting: biscuits, cornbread, mac ’n’ cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy. There may not be a green vegetable in sight, except maybe some green beans in the fatback.”

To combat that mindset, ABIPA staff goes door to door and partners with local churches, teaching people about a healthy diet. “You think people have the same information,” says Avery, “and then you find out sometimes they just don’t know.” As a result, “People are dying in their 50s and early 60s, and that just makes me really sad.”

A lot of those dietary practices trace back to slavery, Avery explains. “They had the scraps from the table and had to season that stuff to make it taste good. They did a lot of sugar, a lot of lard and a lot of salt. Well, fast-forward, and that’s your lifestyle.” At the same time, she continues, “Southern cooking and soul food go hand in hand: They have a lot of the same history, same reasoning. … But it also makes you have a lot of diabetes and heart disease.”

To encourage healthier habits and help community members live longer, ABIPA sponsors weekly pop-up markets, giving away fresh produce to those in need and advising them on how to use unfamiliar foods.

Changing a culture isn’t easy, but they’re seeing some positive results. Church spreads now offer baked as well as fried chicken, water instead of soda, even fruit and salads with kale. At home, folks are using turkey necks and liquid smoke in their collard greens instead of ham hocks. “I’ve been real impressed all the way around,” says Avery.

Hungry people

Mellie Hawthorne (not her real name) is a middle-aged white woman who’s HIV-positive. Homeless for nine years, she now lives in a mixed-use, experimental apartment complex downtown.

Every week, Hawthorne gets a box of food from Loving Food Resources, a pantry serving people with HIV or AIDS and those in home hospice care.

Even though there are numerous food pantries in Asheville, notes Hawthorne, “There are a lot of hungry people. And it’s kind of hidden, because people who are hungry aren’t always thin.”

When she lived on the street, Hawthorne would panhandle for morning coffee and use any leftover change to get a boat of fries for lunch. Prosperous young people, she says, would buy plates of food at restaurants and leave them out on the street for folks like her to find. And after moving to a family care home, Hawthorne says she was fed large portions of poor-quality food. “I really wasn’t getting the right kind of nutrition at all,” she recalls. “That’s why I’m overweight now.”

Even with disability payments and food stamps, notes Hawthorne, getting groceries can be hard if you don’t have a car. City bus drivers, she says, have refused to let her on with her groceries, because the bags would take up an extra seat.

City transit system spokesperson LaShawn Meadows says, “As long as they’re able to have the groceries on their lap, they can bring them on the bus.” Due to concerns about safety and overcrowding, however, passengers aren’t allowed to put items on the floor or on another seat. A committee, says Meadows, is considering making an exception to this rule for groceries.

Hawthorne, meanwhile, relies on a Loving Food Resources volunteer to transport her weekly box.

Back to basics

Clearly, not everyone here experiences Asheville as Foodtopia.

Depending on where you live, say the women at ABIPA, this city can seem like either a food oasis or a food desert. Public housing residents with limited transportation, they say, often have no place to buy groceries, though there’s always at least one service station nearby selling junk food.

And amid the dizzying array of diets and self-help books, Grier-McEachin maintains, “It goes back to the beginning: fruits and vegetables, nuts and grains, and everything else in moderation.”

Simplification, she believes, is key. “When you make things complicated, the people that are really in need of the advice or the support get disenfranchised, because there are so many things to choose from.”

Asheville’s food scene, however, is anything but simple, and that has its advantages, too.

“I think we’re experiencing a boom time with cuisine,” says Sims. “I mean, we’ve got everything from Indian street food to French food to Korean. … The food trucks have brought an added layer of really creative interest.”

Some of that diversity, notes Goldstein, is health-related. “Asheville is one of those communities, like Boulder or Austin, that tends to attract people who are very invested in their own health and happiness,” he says. “I think anytime you take on any diet that’s out of standard, it’s people who are trying to make a positive change.”

But beyond that, says Sims, it comes down to making informed decisions about what we eat. “I think it will always be important that we honor our food — know where it comes from and how it’s prepared, and that it’s good for us.”

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About Carla Seidl
Carla Seidl is a writer, independent radio producer, and singer-songwriter based in Asheville, North Carolina. Read and listen to more of her work at carlaseidl.com. Follow me @carlaseidl

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2 thoughts on “You are what you eat: The many faces of Foodtopia

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