Side-of-the-road produce stands rank high among the tempting dangers of curvaceous mountain highways. Seemingly benign, they’ll suddenly jump out at you as you top the rise or round the bend. Their mostly homemade signs — which strike the eye in swift, staggered barrages — are usually stuck right in front of the establishments, cramming the decision to stop into a narrow, jumbled window of time.
“Peaches!” “Apples!” “Sourwood Honey!”
While seeking out the best of local produce stands, I employed a roving-eyed-hunter’s mentality and found that, occasionally, a reckless swerve-and-brake tactic may be necessary to get you off the highway before it’s too late. Perhaps the swiftness of the decision — the sheer, lustful whimsy of it — makes the bounty from such places all the sweeter.
What follows are glimpses into a few of the finest roadside produce stands I discovered in a day’s drive, combing highways and back roads for the freshest of this year’s harvest.
On a bending slope on Highway 9, one mile north of Lake Lure, I heeled the brake and kicked up a dust storm as I pulled up to a tiny tabletop outfit, which advertised, in the common slant-scrawl of the makeshift market, tomatoes, pumpkins, peppers and peaches. J.L. Burgess Produce Stand, the sign said — a hand-scrawled masterpiece that could easily hang in a folk-art gallery. As for J.L.’s wares, the peaches were as luscious, fuzzy and messy as anything offered in the so-called peach state. Where does he get his stuff? “Back there, back thataway,” he offered, pointing. “I’m leasing about 17 acres. And I buy some from friends around here, too.”
J.L. also offered plenty of pumpkins for sale — although they were less orange, less round, and less, well, jack-o-lantern-like, than the ones I’ve seen in pumpkin patches. “Well, that’s because these are for eating,” he explained. Among them were a couple of huge, football-shaped things called zucchini pumpkins (which brings my running count of squash-pumpkin variations to about 50 bazillion.) I asked what they were good for. “Well, these would be for eating, too,” he said dryly. (J.L. doesn’t glow with charm, but it’s there, nonetheless.)
Might I take his picture? No. He turned around to a bush beside his barn and, while explaining why he was declining the photograph, began making water then and there. In the passing of cars, I lost some of his explanation, but did catch that he had been photographed often of late. I was welcome to shoot his produce, though, which I did.
I continued southward on Highway 9, straight into Lake Lure, an ivy-clad, cliff-decked town surrounding a jewel of a lake. This place wins my praise for juicing the most possible tourist hoop-de-doo, while deserving every bit of it. The Lake Lure Produce Market, just in town on the left (northbound) is a fine venue, run by J.L. Burgess’ brother (who wasn’t in when I stopped by). The vegetable selection is excellent, the worst tomato there being several rungs above the supermarket’s best. The prices aren’t as good as J.L.’s, but then, this is a very different kind of produce stand.
See, in the roadside-produce racket, two molds of enterprises are to be found. There are the outfits put together quickly at the onset of the harvest season, J.L.’s being one of them. Then there are operations like the Lake Lure Produce Market — year-round places that generally offer the same sort of fare: lots of good cider, syrups, various flavors of honey, molasses, peaches and apples galore.
Hendersonville boasts at least one oft-used spot that caters to the year-round crowd: Smiley’s Produce, located on Highway 25, less than a mile north of the I-26 junction, is housed in Smiley’s Flea Market and Antique Mall. Despite the flea-market overtones, though, Smiley’s Produce is no kitsch factory. This is a no-nonsense outfit that puts the goods on the table, and no excess effort is exerted to line up the veggies too squarely or stack the fruit in pretty pyramids. The vegetables vary by season and day, but everything here is tip-top.
Produce-stand vegetables are more inclined to individuality and variation than their grocery-store counterparts. They might not be as pretty in a cookie-cutter way, but they generally offer better taste, across the board. The tomatoes, for instance, might have a pallid flat spot, or a dark scuff, or might not be as round as run-of-the-mill supermarket tomatoes, but they’ll be redder and sweeter. These are tomato-sandwich tomatoes, pure and simple.
All the fruit at Smiley’s looks appetizin — and, of course, this being Henderson County, the apples are dreamy and plentiful.
Apples are everywhere in the Henderson-to-Polk County area. In the winter months, the skeletal prongs of bare apple-tree limbs line the rural roads near Hendersonville, Fletcher and Edneyville. Saluda, on the northwestern edge of Polk County, offers two apple-based operations right at the I-26 Saluda exit.
Lee Atkins Apple Mill, a massive operation, features what seem to be zillions of apples and apple-derived food products. All are grown at the Atkins orchard, off Highway 176, about 1.5 miles southeast of Saluda. The actual mill, in the back of the building, features a cannery and processing equipment for juices, ciders and syrups. I’d recommend picking up a bottle of apple-ginger or apple-cinnamon syrup for Sunday’s waffles. Both are fantastic.
I tried to photograph the apple-processing hardware, but the young woman clerking that day was not exactly cooperative. She wore a cell phone clipped to her blue jeans, and one of those headsets reminiscent of air-traffic controllers and telephone operators. She kept breaking into conversation with someone, somewhere. Finally, she started talking to me.
“You can’t take pictures in here,” she said. “I can’t just let you go around taking pictures around here.”
I was beginning to miss my old buddy, J.L. Burgess.
Across the street, I found a more inviting atmosphere at the — lo and behold —Atkins Produce Stand. The place belongs to Lee’s brother, Tom. It’s a big outfit, but it’s earthy. The back door stood open, revealing a large, empty field that stretched to the horizon. Everything offered at the Apple Mill was available here, but without any unnecessary frills.
I’d heard about the prodigious Edneyville apple orchards, and when I asked a colleague about them, he waxed ecstatic. “Just yesterday, I had the best apple of my life [at an Edneyville orchard]! I was stone sober, too,” he enthused, adding, “OK, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but it was the best I’d had in about 10 years.”
He directed me to Mountain Fresh Orchards, just outside Edneyville, run by John Price. The apple selection was superb — all of them grown by John’s brother, Red. His ciders were running a little short, though. By way of explanation, John took me in the back and showed me an old-fashioned cider press, crafted from wood and iron, and explained that one part of the apple business around here is in dire straits — the juice part.
It seems that the juice business, which has historically bankrolled the local apple industry, is fast becoming dominated by foreign competitors. “Gerber and Seneca used to be our biggest buyers,” he related. “Now they’re buying imported apples from China, in concentrate form, and we’ve got apples out there rotting on the ground — can’t even afford to pay somebody to pick ’em up. … It’s killed our business in the last two years.”
John gave me samples of a few apple varieties I’d never tried: Mutsu, Red Rome, Perma-Golds — the latter of which were like Granny Smiths without the jaw-clenching aftershock, and all the more endearing for it. And the cider he did have on hand was fantastic, pressed in an electric press that he’d borrowed from a guy up the street.
As I was leaving Mountain Fresh Orchards, a white Buick, trying to pull in, slowed down a little too quickly. She didn’t make it, and after a burst of tire screech was rear-ended by a little red Honda. Luckily, it was just a fender bender.
At the supermarket later that night, as I watched the perpetual, man-made storm of mist break over the vegetables under the sallow incandescence of the produce section, I asked a stocker — a teenage kid — where their apples were grown. He looked around and said, “Um, do you want me to ask the manager?”
I said that was all right. Never mind.