May 5–7 Offers More Than Garden Variety
By Lauren Stepp
Dishing up the history on Asheville’s foodie culture requires a teaspoon as opposed to a serving ladle. Local chefs didn’t start cooking with gas until the late ’90s. Before XYZ, been-heres drank at Gatsby’s on Walnut Street and farm-to-table practices were largely relegated to isolated hollers. All that is to say, the downtown restaurant scene of yesteryear nowhere near boasted today’s array of flavors.
“As the culinary field expanded, chefs realized they needed more than just prepackaged rosemary,” says A.D. Reed, Asheville Herb Festival manager.
This light bulb moment happened in concert with the bust of big tobacco. With folks putting down the Luckies, North Carolina growers either diversified their crops or left the business. Most eighth-generation snuff farmers chose the latter. Seeing agriculture’s fading heritage, young homesteaders began surveying abandoned holdings.
They saw promise in the black-as-night soil and eateries craving dark opal basil for pizza and citrusy cilantro for guac. Put two and two together, and it’s easy to predict what happened from there. In dirt-to-fork fashion, growers got fresh spices to Lexington Avenue dives—and chefs delivered on their end.
To capitalize on a growing market, Madison County basil grower Rick Morgan put on the first Asheville Herb Festival in 1990. Reed says six vendors came out to the WNC Farmers Market that first year. For the 28th annual festival, opening on Friday, May 5, and running through Sunday, May 7, he expects around 35,000 attendees and 65 sellers.
Celo’s Joe Hollis—also known as the “old man of the mountain”—will bring medicinal plants that have been used in these parts for the past century. Elderberry, for instance, helps sick young’uns shake coughs and marshmallow root settles the stomach. Hollis will be joined by timeworn ginseng growers like Robert Eidus and nursery proprietors like the Speights of Hot Springs.
Jennifer Flynn with the North Carolina Natural Products Association and Grass to Greens, an edible landscaping and consulting nonprofit, will return to the festival’s roots by providing savory how-tos on permaculture. Here’s a quick preview: Solomon’s seal thrives in the shade. It’s an easy plant to grow, just don’t dig too deep. Flynn suggests four inches. The root can be harvested for tinctures, but the shoots can also be boiled and eaten.
It’s an Appalachian alternative to asparagus, and it pairs well with thyme-crusted trout or pancetta risotto. But that’s just a suggestion. Foodies, feel free to run wild.
The WNC Farmers Market is located at 570 Brevard Road in Asheville. Admission is free. For more information, go to ashevilleherbfestival.org.