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Testing New Waters and Local Food at the Farm to Fork Dinner

By Chris Privett | June 23, 2015 | Explore NC

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There’s an old George Carlin comedy routine about what it’s like to be what he termed a “fussy eater.” The late Mr. Carlin correctly pointed out that it’s often hard to find logic in our preferences for what we eat – or more correctly, what we don’t eat.

The evening's menu.
The evening’s menu.

I’ve never thought that I rose to the level of fussy eater, but I will concede that I’m not exactly a sophisticated eater. Like everyone else, I have a mental list of Things I Will Never Eat Under Any Circumstances. (Everyone has a list like that…right?) Mine isn’t a long list, but the bulk of the items on it come from the water.

I admit I was a little anxious about the 2015 Farm to Fork Weekend, which Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina was proud to sponsor. I love the idea of farm to fork, a movement that aims to develop community food systems that connect smaller, independent family farms with chefs to design menu items that reflect a region’s history, character and food resources.

Local Culinary Adventure

And there’s science to back up the value of farm to fork in both economic and nutritional terms; a study by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that nearly 40% of America’s fruits and 12% of vegetables are imported from other countries. The average fruit or vegetable travels about 1500 miles by the time we buy it.

A peach that’s traveled 1500 miles is a very different peach than it was at the start of that journey. And generally speaking, not for the better.

The weekend – organized by NC State’s Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and the WC Breeze Family Farm – started with an opening dinner featuring a five-course seafood menu on Friday, June 5, prepared by some of our state’s finest chefs: Amy Tornquist from Watts Grocery in Durham, David Bauer from Farm and Sparrow in Asheville, Vivian Howard from Chef and The Farmer in Kinston, Chris Coleman from The Asbury at The Dunhill Hotel in Charlotte, Jay Pierce from ROCKSALT Restaurant in Charlotte.

Chef Vivian Howard detailing her dish, a skipjack crudo.
Chef Vivian Howard detailing her dish, a skipjack crudo.

Breaking Boundaries

Now, I am not an unreasonable man. I will eat fish. But it has to be cooked. And it has to come from salt water. And I have to be in the right mood. Like George Carlin, I’m not going to argue that any of this makes sense.

The evening at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University started with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres on the garden terrace. And as our courteous servers started offering appetizers from gleaming silver trays, I was immediately confronted with an item on the Will Never Eat list: trout.

As I stared at the smoked North Carolina trout on a homemade English muffin with horseradish and pickled red onion (for the record, pickled items also rank highly on my Will Never Eat list), I had what esteemed hip-hop artist/philosopher Jay Z has described as a moment of clarity. I saw a truth so obvious that it cut through my mind like a Ginsu knife through an empty soda can.

This was Farm to Fork Weekend, featuring all kinds of foods from small food operations made from the freshest local food ingredients – all harvested from our state. The chefs preparing each course were among the most highly respected in the country.

Vivian's crudo.
Vivian’s crudo.

If there would ever be a time to try something as exotic as trout, this was the time. After all, I saw other people eat trout, and then they simply carried on as if nothing had happened.

I decided to embrace the spirit of the evening and cast aside more than four decades of unquestioning adherence to the Will Never Eat list. I was going to eat trout. And amberjack crudo (to the uninitiated like me, that translates to “raw fish that’s something like tuna”), and smoked sunburst trout toast, and trout caviar and Coastal Carolina bouillabaisse.

I was going to eat it all and I was finally going to add my name to another list: People Who Try New Things.

The menu was not what most people outside of the South would consider traditional Southern cooking. There was nothing greasy, salty or lard-based. This was cuisine of the New South: nutritious, fresh, naturally flavorful.

What We Eat, and Where We Eat, Matters

During dinner, we heard from Paul Greenberg, author of the New York Times best seller Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food and the more recent American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood. He explained that America imported five billion pounds of seafood in 2005 – nearly double the amount we imported 20 years earlier. Incredibly, during that same period, America’s seafood exports quadrupled. Today, more than 90% of the seafood Americans eat comes from other countries.

We are trading more nutritious and flavorful seafood harvested in the wild for poor-quality farmed seafood from other parts of the world. Why? Well, that can get complicated, but the short answer is that Americans prefer cheaper farmed seafood to the higher quality – and higher priced – seafood we harvest from our own waters.

We’re one of the leading fish producers in the world, but we eat comparatively little of that fish ourselves. As he spoke, I realized I had spent the last few decades lowering our nation’s per capita fish consumption.

Keynote speaker Paul Greenberg discussing seafood in North Carolina and in the US.
Keynote speaker Paul Greenberg discussing seafood in North Carolina and in the US.

On this night, though, I was going to bump up America’s fish-eating average. It’s fair to say I was getting a little cocky by the time we got around to dessert: a stoneground pastry with roasted corn cream, berries and mint. At that point, if one of the chefs had served an old leather shoe covered in Dijon mustard, I’d have been the first to hack off a slice.

Because it would have been the best old leather shoe covered in Dijon mustard that one could ever eat.

No, there was no leather shoe forthcoming, but everything that was placed before us that night was the best example of what it was. It was all delicious.

The Rewards of Local

I’m proud to report that I ate everything on the menu at the Farm to Fork Weekend kickoff dinner. And I loved all of it. I ate soft shell crab – I couldn’t even tell what part of the crab I was eating – and it was fantastic. I ate chilled cucumber soup with pickled shrimp – cold soup! Now, this one posed a peculiar intellectual conundrum for me. After all, I normally make quite an effort to ensure my soup doesn’t get cold. But I found chilled soup is no different from regular soup, it’s just colder. Who could have imagined that?

I learned a lot at the 2015 Farm to Fork kickoff dinner:

  • Food really is better – in both nutrition and taste – when it’s local.
  • Eating locally produced foods is better for the environment and supports our state’s economy.
  • North Carolina boasts some of the best chefs in the nation.
  • I need to start eating more fish, especially fish from fresh water.
  • Most of the seafood items on my Things I Will Never Eat Under Any Circumstances list can now be removed from the list. There are still a handful of mollusks I don’t know if I can trust, but I’m going to keep an open mind.

There was much more to be seen — and tasted — at the 2015 CEFS Farm to Fork Weekend. We’ll be sharing more later this month.