“Pea shoots, baby!” exclaimed gardener Patryk Battle. In a scene reminiscent of Stalking the Wild Asparagus author and eat-almost-anything enthusiast Eull Gibbons, Battle waved the viney snippet of green under the nose of a male guest at the Appalachian Harvests gala, held Oct. 25 at the Grove Park Inn. The event served up a smorgasbord of tongue-tantalizing dishes created by local chefs using locally grown produce, complemented by WNC wines and beers.
The man took the pea shoot from Battle and crunched into it — his face a study in cautious optimism. “Mmmm,” was all he said.
Around him, hundreds of people filed into the ballroom, many snatching a handful of baby greens from a bowl on Battle’s table of garden vegetables en route to the hot-food tables. “That was supposed to be for display,” objected Battle’s partner, Diane Nettles, laughing.
But anything edible was up for grabs at this event.
Guests streamed past Battle’s display, buying fresh turnips, sampling a hot-tea blend of peppermint and ginseng, grabbing plates and moseying up to table after table of good food. There were curried vegetables compliments of the Laughing Seed Cafe, hearty breads and hummus dip from City Bakery, barley-and-wild-mushroom salad from the folks at the WNC Chef Association, Mediterranean flavors provided by the Golden Horn restaurant, grilled treats presented by the Highland Lake Inn, giant woks full of hot shrimp (to be paired with a salsa cruda) from the Grove Park Inn’s own chefs, antipasti a la Trevi … and plenty more.
Instead of “Hello; how are you?” guests greeted each other with “Where’d you get that?” — before rushing off to sample still more goodies, such as slices of buttery cheese from Yellow Branch, a Robbinsville outfit that’s one of the few licensed farmstead cheese producers in North Carolina (these multitalented folks also make pottery).
“We sell two cheeses to the general public and make one specialty cheese for the Lomo Grill in Waynesville,” explained Yellow Branch potter Karen Mickler. Cheesemaker Bruce De Grott passed out samples to guests as she continued, “We’re adding to our herd of Jersey cows, and we’d like to cater to other restaurants in the area and expand our market.”
Mickler’s comments dovetailed nicely with one of the prime directives of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, a two-year initiative that sponsored dinner event.
“The purpose of [Appalachian Harvests] was to provide the connection between the local growers/producers and the chefs and restaurants,” said ASAP Director Gary Gumz. The event also kicked off a Get Fresh — Buy Appalachian campaign, he continued. Restaurants paid $100 to be part of the event, as well as donating food and the services of their chefs for the night. Local farmers, on the other hand, paid nothing to set up tables representing their operations. And more than 500 guests had a chance to savor the area’s best.
“ASAP’s overall [goal] is to focus attention on the diversity and availability of locally grown and produced food. This is an opportunity to put a ‘face’ on the commodities available in WNC,” Gumz reflected.
At a time when much of our food is produced by big international conglomerates and small farms have become something of an endangered species, ASAP seeks to buck those trends. The nonprofit has both economic and environmental goals: first, encouraging people to buy local and making them aware of the diversity and quality of products available in WNC; next, sustainability (encouraging environmentally friendly practices); and third, promoting organic production methods.
“We’re also targeting area restaurants and food services at schools and universities as potential markets. In the process, we’re helping retain local farmland. There’s no need to serve California vegetables to people visiting or living here,” Gumz declared.
At Warren Wilson College, for example, ASAP — with a little help from students — pushed to get campus food-service provider Sedexho-Mariott Services to offer products from WWC’s own farm in the school’s dining facilities, noted Gumz. “It’s a matter, sometimes, of making the link between policy and local providers,” he observed.
The GPI dinner event was a chance to advance those ambitious goals, while giving guests a taste treat. Local producers got to introduce themselves to potential customers; local restaurants and chefs strutted their stuff; and guests were invited to expand their palates, developing a taste for what the region has to offer — whether it’s Hector’s salsa or the exotic salad greens offered by Battle and other local growers, Gumz emphasized.
“The world has enough iceberg lettuce,” he joked.
To learn more about the project, call Gumz at 649-9452, or check out their Web site (asapconnections.org). ASAP is an initiative of Mountain Partners in Agriculture, in collaboration with the Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation Development Council. It’s supported by funding from the North Carolina Rural Center, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Henry A. Wallace Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy.