Asheville-based author Nan K. Chase is one of many area gardeners, homesteaders, and sustainability experts who will be presenting at the Mother Earth News Fair coming to Western North Carolina Agricultural Center on April 11 and 12, 2015. Chase is the author of Drink the Harvest, Eat Your Yard!, and Asheville: A History.
Mountain Xpress: What will you cover in your workshops at the Mother Earth News Fair and how does that tie into your life in Asheville?
Chase: I am doing two workshops, both of which I did last year twice for the Mother Earth News fairs (in Pennsylvania and Kansas). One is “Can Do Easy Canning,” and the other is “Delightful Garden Wines.” I feel passionately about both topics, and both are also covered in my book, with Asheville author DeNeice Guest, called Drink the Harvest.
The first is an introduction to the world of canning (fruits, pickles, and other high acid foods) and my aim is to de-mystify canning, to encourage people who may have lost out on the old-fashioned home economics classes of yore to give it a try. Canning is a way to capture the food and beverage potential of a bumper crop of just about anything; canning is simple, safe, and economical, and provides shelf-stable products that can last 1-2 years. Imagine having a larder filled with goodness — low sugar, low salt, high flavor and nutrition — that eliminates the need to run to the grocery store all the time, and especially in the dead of winter.
The second is an introduction to making wines, meads, and hard ciders out of all sorts of garden produce. Not just grapes! I have in process wines, meads, and ciders from blackberries, strawberry-rhubarb mix, crabapples (delicious), pumpkin (my own recipe), even kudzu blossoms (Asheville local). Anything in the garden can become wine, and it’s thrilling to get the hang of the process and then just go for it. These wines are delicate in flavor, and a real treat for gardeners and cooks with a sense of humor. Apple wine, prickly pear cactus wine, mint wine, tomato wine, potato wine, even birch sap wine. And I’m waiting for one of the cider houses here to ask about my 100 crabapple hard cider. Off the charts good.
For 25 years my husband and I lived in Boone, N.C., and had large gardens. Now we have downsized, and live in a house near downtown…with a 9/100th acre lot. So I grow all I can in that space and buy the rest at the WNC farmers market, or harvest from vacant lots, or get from friends. For example, I don’t bother to try growing cucumbers for pickles myself, but I can grow the garlic and the spices myself and have a hybrid product. Asheville has the most wonderful climate: cold enough for fruit production, hot enough for growing herbs. By combining all the goodness from this area I can create unique products that are just my own.
I try to garden as intensively as possible, with fruit, vegetables, fruiting vines, and herbs all interplanted with beautiful flowers. Roses, for example do double or triple duty: beauty, petals for wines and syrups, hips for teas, etc.
Your presentations focus on “putting away” products from the garden, why do you think it is important for people to focus on those skills?
The putting away or putting up practices go way, way back in history. My co-author DeNeice Guest and I really want to give people permission to get back into the kitchen and try some of those timeless skills. It’s so satisfying to can, to see the jars full of color and flavor lined up on the shelf. And, as I mentioned, by canning your own (or dehydrating, or fermenting) one controls the contents. Jams and jellies are fine, but are so sugar intensive. So I like exploring the lower sugar alternatives like pure fruit juices. I like to make one huge batch of tomato sauce each summer: local farmers provide the tomatoes, and I add all sorts of herbs and spices from my garden. There’s a whole winter worth of lasagne right on the shelf.
I love the idea of bringing production back into the home. Imagine how much energy is embedded in orange juice, for instance. The oranges may be grown in South America, refrigerated, shipped to the U.S., factory produced, then refrigerated in tanks, then bottled, then trucked to the supermarket, then refrigerated again, and then the customer drives to the store, etc. etc. Instead, why not get one’s vitamin C from tomatoes grown locally?
In terms of the homesteading and resilience themes which are common to Mother Earth News Fair, do you have any suggestions for people looking to get started? What should they tackle first in terms of starting their homestead?
In Drink the Harvest I go into a reasonable timeline: fruit trees and fruiting vines may take five years to start producing, so by all means plant those, and while they grow to maturity do other things: plant herbs, which can be used immediately — that day — and which will become more productive year after year; and also plant vegetables that can mature in a matter of weeks or months.
If people try to do everything at once the result can be a feeling of being spread too thin. So I recommend that people not feeling that they have to be total purists. Farmers are our friends; they are professionals. So they are great resources if you simply “can’t do it all.”
And always, grow more of what grows best. If one crop never reaches good quality, don’t beat yourself over the head trying to make it work. If something grows well, grow more and more of it, and learn how to be creative with that crop. I have two very compact Callaway crabapple trees — they fit in 9/100th of an acre — and every year they bear more. Last year they gave me 90 pounds of fruit, which I pressed into three gallons of incredibly delicious cider. Some I can (child friendly) and some I ferment. And I’m planting more crabapple trees. But I am tomato challenged.
What are you looking forward to most with the Mother Earth News Fair? Are there speakers that you are particularly excited about seeing?
I had the honor of speaking at two Mother Earth News Fairs last year (and visited the Asheville one). What knocks me out are the people attending. They are such a mix of folks: local farmers, Amish folk, city hippies, young and old, and all so respectful of each other. And so intensely interested in making their lives more satisfying through self-sufficiency. I ended up applauding them!
At the moment I haven’t looked at the whole schedule for Asheville. I really enjoy visiting the vendors and seeing the variety of new products and processes on display.
Who do you think should attend Mother Earth News Fair and why?
Everyone and anyone! Anyone who is the least bit interested in learning new skills will be amply rewarded. The speakers are experts in their fields, and eager to share their knowledge. I like how there are classes for every skill level, from beginners to real pros. There is even information about logging and slaughtering livestock, not just about growing things.
Is there any advice or words of wisdom that you might be able to share with those attending the fair?
The best thing is to attend both days. There is so much to see and do that it could be overwhelming to try and cram it into one day. Take it easy, stay in the shade, and build in some time to take a break to sit and relax.