What is it about North Carolina that supports such an active food scene? This week we explored our archives and discovered a tight web of relationship between growers, chefs, and customers that fosters excellent dining and fresh interpretations of southern staples.
North Carolina is celebrated for its beaches and mountains, pottery, bluegrass—and of course bar-b-que. However, the Old North State has also developed a national reputation for excellent—and local—food that encompasses much more than pork.
In 2010, The New York Times profiled Durham, a tobacco town now completely transformed by redevelopment, as one of the country’s most intriguing new restaurant scenes. This January, Kim Severson’s NY Times article, “The North Carolina Way: A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina,” was the topic of many a dinner-table conversation across the Triangle. Severson interviewed several of the state’s leading chefs: Andrea Reusing of Lantern (Chapel Hill); Ashley Christensen of Poole’s, Chuck’s, Beasley’s, and others (Raleigh); and Vivian Howard of the Chef and the Farmer and the PBS series A Chef's Life (Kinston). Together with April McGreger of Farmer’s Daughter Pickles and Preserves (Hillsborough) and Phoebe Lawless of Scratch (Durham), these women—according to Severson—form a “food sisterhood” of female chefs who are succeeding in a mutually supportive environment.
There certainly are many talented women working in food in North Carolina, but what is it about the state that enables their success? Severson points out “the state’s rich agricultural offerings and its relatively compact size have fed an intimate cooking culture that favors a feminine style of connection and collaboration over a more masculine, competitive one.” Is this true? If so, why?
If there is one place to put your finger on the pulse of the North Carolina food scene it is at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. In the spring and summer of 2011, the Southern Foodways Alliance sent three interviewers to the market (just down the road from Chapel Hill) to complete twenty oral histories with growers, chefs, market organizers, and long-time shoppers. Explore the archive >
This week, we revisited these interviews and discovered that North Carolina’s food scene is based on relationships much broader than a sisterhood. The ties between chefs and farmers, together with a passionate and supportive wider community, continually drive the Triangle’s food scene forward. This collaboration enables—and even values—fresh interpretations of Southern cooking, by women and men. In the words of April McGreger, the Triangle is “a perfect storm” for such a food scene. There are hundreds of farms within miles of cities, customers with the means to support an “idealist food system,” and a multi-generational market community supportive of its newcomers.
Sarah Blacklin, market manager. Sarah values the community spirit that the market fosters among market customers, chefs, farmers, and artisan vendors.
Ben and Karen Barker, Magnolia Grill. Long before restaurants in the area began to call themselves “farm-to-fork,” the Barkers opened Magnolia Grill in Durham in 1986 (now closed.)
Ken Dawson, Maple Spring Gardens. Ken engaged with a vibrant community of young people who were living off-the-land in the 1970s and tried his hand at many jobs before settling into farming.
Stanley Hughes, Pine Knot Farms. The Hughes's farm, over one hundred acres of it, has been in the family for nearly a century.
Wilma Hanton, Wilma's Garden. Wilma is the senior member of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. She and her then-husband, Jack, were original members of the Market in 1978.
Elise Margoles, Elysian Fields. Since age 25 Elise has managed her own farm north of Carrboro in Cedar Grove.
Betsy Hitt, Peregrine Farm. Betsy is known for her flowers at the market, a colorful marker of the seasons.
Alex Hitt, Peregrine Farm. Originally a pick-your-own berry business, the Hitts began selling at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market in 1986.
April McGreger, Farmer's Daughter. Previously a geology scholar, April found her way into the professional kitchen by way of making pastries at Chapel Hill’s Lantern Restaurant.
Andrea Reusing and Miguel Torres, Lantern Restaurant.Just one mile east of the market, dishes at Lantern fuse North Carolina ingredients with Asian flavors and techniques.
The Carborro Farmers' Market was established in 1979 and in thirty-six years it has grown from a small “trunk” market on Saturday mornings to a twice-weekly bustling affair in a custom-built pavilion that can house nearly seventy vendors. From its founding, its rules required sellers to grow and produce their food within fifty miles and business owners must be present. As Market Manager Sarah Blacklin explained in her 2011 SFA interview, “The Carrboro Farmers’ Market is the most strict…in the state. But I don’t mean that in a bad way. I think it’s a good thing in many ways.” As a result of these stipulations, twice a week growers and chefs meet across tables piled with some of the best produce in the nation. Over salad greens and field peas, pink radishes and sweet potato pies, essential relationships are forged.
The roots of today’s food scene in the Triangle grow deep. Mildred Council and her restaurant Mama Dip’s have been important pillars for decades. Council has always connected fresh produce and good food with relationship-building and friendship. As she likes to say, when you walk through her door, “you’re famous.” Council opened Mama Dip’s in 1976, and she and her family continue to serve up traditional southern food. In her 2007 interview with the SFA, Council remembers growing “things you could bring to Carrboro…and sell; peas and string beans and pigs and chickens and things like that.” She learned to cook the foods her family grew at home, and when her restaurant opened, she shopped at the Carrboro Farmers' Market—the closest thing to a kitchen garden. “I use everything fresh. Everything is fresh and everything—most everything is local.” The greats of Southern cuisine have eaten at Mama Dip’s through the years, including Craig Claibourne and Bill Neal. Council knows her cooking can impact community: “the joy in food and fellowship and the joy—I mean you don’t have nothing else.”
Mildred Council has lived in the Piedmont her whole life, but many of the following generation of chefs and farmers moved to the area with the intention to build a sustainable food community, or as the chef Ben Barker says, they made “a lifestyle choice” in coming to market. Take Alex and Betsy Hitt of Peregrine Farms, for example. When the Hitts arrived in Chapel Hill in 1980, the restaurant scene was still nascent. They took their time finding the land for their future farm, eventually choosing a spot with good soil and irrigation just fifteen miles from town. When they began selling at the market, “We liked the immediate feedback we got from our customers,” says Alex. They grew their farm with the restaurant scene, eventually forming lifetime friendships with Ben and Karen Barker, who moved to North Carolina following their culinary training in New York.
The Barkers opened Magnolia Grill in Durham in 1986, and based their daily menus on what they found at the market. There, they met the Hitts and other growers. “We found fairly early on that we shared a lot of the work ethic and the understanding of how your work would translate into the end-result,” explained Ben in his 2011 SFA interview. “We became very good friends and cultivated marvelous enduring relationships with the people that grew stuff for us.” Ben and Karen began to ask the Hitts to experiment with new varieties of tomatoes and peppers, which made their way to the tables at Magnolia Grill.
Reflecting on this connection between grower and chef, Ben remarked, “It’s always been intertwined. The relationship is like that moonflower vine out there… the trellis is there and the foundation is there and we just curl around each other, seeking sunlight.” The weekly markets bring together chefs and farmers, who spur each towards a more perfect crop and a better meal.
"The relationship [between farmer and chef] is like that moonflower vine...the trellis is there and the foundation is there and we just curl around each other, seeking sunlight." -Ben Barker
April McGreger credits her success to the incredible local community of growers, activists, and mindful eaters. Originally from Vardaman, Mississippi, April moved to Chapel Hill for graduate school, and remembers forging early friendships at Internationalist Books, “a radical bookstore.” There, she met people who valued farming and home-cooking, skills she gained in her MS childhood. While earning a MA in geology, McGreger discovered her true passion was food. She embarked on a venture that would bring together the area’s best produce with the people she knew craved products that fed their soul and mind. She began pickling, canning, and fermenting fruits and vegetables grown in the Piedmont, at times transforming the most southern of ingredients—such as the scuppernong—into gourmet and sought-after products. “If I’m going to make award-winning products I have to have award-winning produce to begin with.” explained McGreger. “And the Carrboro Farmers’ Market is a source for the finest produce in the world.” Her customers appreciate her mindful jams and krauts. As she says, “I’m not selling fig preserves; I’m selling the story of fig preserves.” With several universities, research centers, and hospitals in the surrounding area, there are plenty of people with the interest and means to purchase her foods. Since her SFA interview, McGreger has expanded to more online sales and a community-supported preservery (CSP)—and still sometimes has trouble keeping up with customer demand.
Area universities actively support and engage with the local food community. Central Carolina Community College in nearby Pittsboro has a sustainable agriculture curriculum, NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in Raleigh trains much of the state’s large-scale growers, and UNC-Chapel Hill just announced a new, multi-disciplinary research focus for 2015-2017: “Food for All.” A new course, “Carolina Cooks, Carolina Eats,” debuted this spring and sent students across the state to “document the voices of North Carolina foodways.”
Learning from each other, the chefs and farmers of the Triangle continually push each other forward.
Learning from each other, in open conversation with engaged customers, the chefs and farmers of the Triangle participate in a culture of excellence and continually push each other forward. Hard work and innovation—by both men and women—is valued and encouraged in the field and in the kitchen. Unlike in other urban areas, the two aren’t so far apart. As Alex Hitt describes, in this environment it is dedication and originality that are valued beyond anything else. “The folks who do best at the market are the ones who have a real genuine interest in whatever it is. It could be the orchid guy. It could be April with chutneys. It could be me with heirloom tomatoes…You have to be the authority, you have to own it…To be authentic and original I think is harder and harder to do but there are specialties that you can get into…and the folks who are learning to do that are doing a great job.”
Whether it is Alex Hitt’s tomatoes, Vimala Rajendran’s cardamom brownies at Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, Andrea Reusing’s Asian-style North Carolina shrimp at Lantern, or Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie at Crook’s Corner—the best of the state’s foods are born out of this tight web of relationships, visible every Wednesday evening and Saturday morning at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.
All quotes for this piece are from interviews in the SFA archives, with the exception of the quotes from Kim Severson's 1/27/2015 NY Times article.