Bold Local Flavors, Strong Communities Bloom at the CEFS Farm to Fork Picnic
That Old-Time Feeling
As I pulled up to the Farm to Fork 2015 Picnic at Breeze Family Farm in Hurdle Mills, NC, my whole family took a collective breath. Big tents, swarms of people, and – as soon as we got close enough – tantalizing smells all gave the sense that we skipped back a few decades to a somewhat simpler time. That’s not even to mention the horse-drawn carriage, the games of cornhole, and the petting zoo.
But maybe the old-fashioned bit is important. Because if the Farm to Fork Picnic is about anything, it’s about going back to our roots.
The premise is simple: pair local chefs and restaurants with local farmers. Produce amazing food. Invite the public to dine. It’s that intimate connection between local North Carolina ingredients and culinary talent that makes each dish sing and the experience so memorable. CEFS is at the heart of the farm to fork movement here in North Carolina, and the Farm to Fork Dinner. Located at NC State, CEFS “develops and promotes just and equitable food and farming systems that conserve natural resources, strengthen communities, improve health outcomes, and provide economic opportunities in North Carolina and beyond.”
I’ll admit it. Unlike Chris, when it comes to food I’m just about as adventurous as you get. I jumped right in at the picnic, both of my kids looking around in amazement at the crowds and stalls and all the things to do. Our first bite? Fried shrimp heads. You might balk at the idea, but I promise they’re like fishy potato chips with a little more chew. Truly delicious.
Farmers and Chefs Together Making Delicious Dishes
It was just the beginning of one of the tastiest evenings on record for my life. 40 farms and 40 restaurants and chefs in total produced such a wide and wonderful variety of food that it’s hard to enumerate. Each serving was small, but packed with flavor and, quite often, lots of vegetables.
Some of my favorites included the carrot kimchi deviled duck eggs from Scratch and Fickle Creek Farms; and Oval Park Grille and Elodie Farms’ rum-scented goat cheese, jerk pork tenderloin and green tomato jam on crostini. Watts Grocery and Green Button Farm also made quite a showing with their smoked sorghum ham with a cucumber, cherry and tomato relish on a small (home-made) English muffin.
In addition to all the pairings came the artisan tent, and that’s where my big moment happened. If you appreciate food the way I do, you know just what I mean: there are moments when you eat something, when you get a taste that is so exciting it stops you in your tracks. For a split second, maybe a few more if you’re lucky, that taste transforms your perception of the world around you. Even time loses meaning. You’re aware of nothing else, and you’re blissfully happy.
That Perfect Moment
For me, this moment came courtesy of The Pig, which is already one of my favorite local restaurants. But it wasn’t barbeque (I might be a Yankee, but there’s no doubt where I stand when it comes to “real” barbeque – no thick sweet sauce, thank you, and plenty of vinegar). It was Lady Edison extra fancy country ham. And before you laugh and imagine an eight-pound, vaguely jelly-bean-shaped plastic package sitting forlorn in the grocery store, let’s take a step back.
The ham I had was a work of art, cut paper-thin and so delicate you could practically see through it. And it’s a close cousin to the Iberico hams of Spain than anything you might find diced up in a diner omelet. Their process is painstaking, but the outcome is worth every minute of the 18 months of curing.
It’s surprising how a single ingredient can be so transformative. There was no sauce, no dip, no seasonings or companion dishes. Just a single, artisanal ingredient steeped in local North Carolina culture. Truly remarkable. Good food doesn’t have to be complicated.
My kids had a blast, too, and ate to their hearts’ content. The sweet corn gelato from Il Palio and Brinkley Farm was one of their favorites, and my son absolutely adored the cold chocolate chai from Escazu Artisan Chocolates and the chocolate croissants from Loaf. In between blowing bubbles, face painting, and horse rides, not to mention running amok with all the other kids, they were full and exhausted on the way home.
When I think back on the day now, I can help but feel proud. Now, I’m not a native North Carolinian. But I’ve lived here for twelve years now, pretty much the majority of my adult life. To see so many people at the event, learning about local food and local chefs and restaurants, really made me swell with pride.
Why Local Matters, and How CEFS is Helping
When it comes to eating fresh, local food, North Carolina still has a long way to go. But we’re making great progress. But the challenges ahead are great. From the CEFS’s Farm to Fork website:
“The most recent agriculture census reported that NC was tied for first in the nation in loss of farmland in 2007. Loss of North Carolina farms is equally alarming with a loss of half of the farms from 100,000 farms in 1976 to 52,500 farms in 2008. Nationally, we have lost 1 million acres of farmland since 1997 and there are now more people in prisons than on farms. With the average age of farmers now 59, it is critical that we support the training and development of new farmers. Proceeds of the Farm to Fork Picnic support the new farmer training programs at CEFS and the Breeze Farm.”
And by supporting programs like CEFS, we’re well on the way to a brighter tomorrow for our children and ourselves.