Asheville is a Sweet Southern Surprise

Shopping and dining local in this North Carolina city is a treat

The story of how we found ourselves on vacation in Asheville, North Carolina, is long, and better suited to a travel piece. But find ourselves there we did, over a gorgeous October weekend that we learned was the busiest weekend of the year as visitors arrived in droves to bask in the beauty of peak color in the Smoky Mountains.

It was our first extended visit to “the South,” and it had its charms. We were attracted in part by the city’s reputation as a haven for artists, and there was street art, galleries, exhibits and music galore. The nearby Penland School of Crafts is responsible for launching hundreds of working galleries throughout the area. It’s also hosted artists in residence like Fred Fenster, professor emeritus of art metal at UW–Madison, and metalsmith Hiroko Yamada, owner of HYART Gallery on West Johnson Street.

The school is located on a stunning site along the Blue Ridge Parkway with a beautiful gallery featuring some of its students’ and staff’s representative work. The Parkway itself is a national treasure with more scenic vistas than it is possible to take in. And the Biltmore House, built by George Vanderbilt in 1895, with its eight thousand acres of gardens, farmland, forests and winery, is a history lesson all on its own. Put it all together and it’s understandable why so many people think Asheville is the genuine article.

While “retirement village for old hippies” is perhaps a bit broad, the mild weather, liberal politics, thriving arts scene and beautiful mountain setting has obvious counterculture appeal. And then there’s the food. We were aware that local food was of some importance to Ashevillians. And we were expecting both traditional and updated takes on Southern cooking. But we weren’t prepared for the depth and breadth of the local food scene, the preponderance of farmers’ markets or the variety of restaurants and food and wine establishments.

A recent article in the Asheville Citizen-Times cited an Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project estimate that western North Carolina consumers bought $62 million worth of local food in 2010. For a city of 83,000 and a region of just over a million that’s a remarkable percentage of the $5 billion spent nationally on local food that year. Said Charlie Jackson, the project’s executive director, “We are way ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to supporting local farms.”

The study went on to find one-third of area consumers spend more than twenty percent of their overall monthly food bill on locally grown items and more than eighty percent said they choose local food because those purchases help support local farms and contribute to the local economy. Businesses promote their local connections prominently. Much like Austin, Texas, the buy local effort in Asheville is part of the region’s identity.

The iconic Asheville restaurant Tupelo Honey Cafe welcomes guests, noting their “unique, Ashe-thentic table. You will find our take on the Southern Plate a little different. Because Asheville is a little different.” They clearly thought Sprecher root beer was “a little different,” we were pleased to see. But the sweet potato pancake with whipped peach butter and spiced pecans, goat cheese grits, pulled pork with smoked jalapeno barbecue sauce and new south sautéed greens were one-of-a-kind from a restaurant that is “proud to support local farms and purveyors whenever possible.”

Cucina24 says, “The freshest local and seasonal ingredients, farms and ranches of western North Carolina add local flavor to classic Italian dishes.” We had fresh, flavorful olives and some of the best meatballs we’ve ever eaten. We found a similar approach at Table where a recent menu featured Hickory Nut Gap pork belly, Headwaters Farm veal and Jake’s Farm arugula. There are eighty farmers’ tailgate markets, as they’re called, an equal number of roadside stands and more than seventy CSAs. It’s really quite amazing, but little Asheville, North Carolina, is a national model for the desirability, value and economic power of local food and sustainable agriculture.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com

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