Authenticity in Food through an Asheville Lens

The food world and its many followers are on a constant search for authentic experiences. Perhaps the reason is that life in the modern world, with its stresses and technological disconnections, has people craving genuine, tangible re-connection. Food, it seems, is an elemental medium through which we can feel more grounded. I admit; I’m susceptible to this metaphoric hunger and most of my dining experiences are designed to try to connect to a place or a culture through food and drink. Why is this? I think partially because food feels most authentic when it is rooted in and redolent of a particular place, created by a specific, artisanal hand. These two notions – place and craft – are intertwined manifestations of two larger themes that are paramount in my food choices: environmental sustainability and cultural heritage.

However, there is something about many of these food-tainment experiences that makes me uncomfortable. The more I eat out, the more I can’t help but notice that the majority of folks partaking in this new food culture appear to be white and privileged. How inclusive can a food–based economy really be if the core demographic is homogeneous? And as a result, will such a system always end up displacing certain disadvantaged communities and individuals or is there room for change? Is it possible to eat sustainably, with a respectful sense of place, in a way that isn’t out of the reach of the vast majority of the population?

I thought about these issues of authenticity and inclusion during my Christmas vacation in Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville, as most food-obsessed East Coasters know, is a budding epicenter of food tourism, rife with farm-to-table and craft cocktail movements, and full-page ads in glossy culinary magazines like Saveur. Over our vacation, my husband and I had a fabulous three days in which we happily sampled the Root Daiquiri, a delicious sarsaparilla and burdock flavored cocktail at Sovereign Remedies, a downtown retro cocktail bar. I happily devoured farm-raised scrambled eggs with a house-made biscuits, smoked chèvre grits and fried green tomatoes at Biscuithead, a line-out-the door breakfast spot. Our dining pinnacle took place at The Admiral, a laid-back yet buzzy restaurant serving modern twists on southern comfort foods like lobster pot pie, fried Carolina oysters with smoked miso-remoulade, and pimento mac and cheese.

Is it possible to eat sustainably, with a respectful sense of place, in a way that isn’t out of the reach of the vast majority of the population?

Terrific dining experiences all, did they please us because we were served delicious food in a trendy setting, surrounded by other satisfied, in-the-know diners? Or was something more substantive achieved during those moments? In fact, there were serious environmental principles and commitments to community traditions and social justice at play that contributed to their authenticity.

Take Carolina Ground, an artisanal grain miller of certified organic heirloom grains whose flour I bought at the local co-op to support my new bread-baking habit. I made this purchase because I’ve realized that flour doesn’t have to be a tasteless industrial product that adds few nutrients to my diet. Instead, the bread I am learning to bake will be made with southern hard and soft red wheat, ground locally using stone grinding technique. Why? Four reasons. First, organic grain, like any organic crop, causes no agrochemical pollution; organic farms are friendlier to wildlife and pollinators. Second, locally grown grain supports local farmers’ economic welfare and strengthens a relationship-based supply chain among farmer, miller, and baker. Third, these wheats are heirloom crops that contribute to the genetic diversity of our food system and celebrate history and place. Finally, because the flour is cold-milled and stone ground, it retains its endosperm (rather than just the starch as in commercial brands), making the bread more flavorful and nutrient-rich.

Similarly, Sovereign Remedies emphasizes that its beverage and food menus are driven by relationships with local farmers and foragers, while Biscuithead stresses its commitment to zero waste for a positive impact in the community. Interconnected values are reflected here – environmental sustainability and community health; a tradition of frugality in the historically impoverished Appalachian region; a celebration of the close relationship mountain communities have always had with the plants and animals of the region.

As a conservationist, I am interested in supporting socioeconomic systems in which farmers can grow crops in environmentally healthy systems and foragers find value in the forests and other wild lands around them. As a food lover, I invest in travel and dining experiences that help support robust local economies in which farmers and foragers, millers and chefs, artisans and restaurant workers can earn a living because people like me are attracted to their town. So I appreciate that when I eat pimento cheese, fried green tomatoes, or mountain trout, I am celebrating a unique, non-homogenized culture in a place whose waters, forests, and fields have produced these foods for generations. It happens to be my husband’s culture, so it matters to me even more.

A few days before our Asheville trip, my husband and I visited his sister and brother-in-law, Jane and Butch. The couple lives on a small farm in the North Carolina piedmont. Jane cooks most nights and I’ve grown accustomed to the southern traditions that inform her table, which are very different from the New York dishes I grew up with on my own table. But on our first night she suggested we go out to eat – a rare treat for this hard-working household.

We went to Yadkin Valley Seafood, a restaurant in nearby, non-tourist-driven Yadkinville. When we approached, I realized that I’d driven by the place for years on our visits but never stopped in. Why? I guess because it just didn’t look like my kind of place. A fluorescent-lit, marlin-on-the-wall, landlocked seafood joint, the place was surrounded by pick-up trucks. The unpretentious kitchen, however, was churning out delicious food, and I quickly saw the error of my thinking. Our table was soon piled with rich hush puppies, broiled perch, fried mountain trout, and deviled crab, which I learned was a local specialty in which crab meat mixed with pepper, onion, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, mustard, and mayonnaise was stuffed back inside the crab shells and baked or fried.

Beyond being very tasty, our dinner was just as authentic as my meals in Asheville, albeit with a very different ambience, location, and price point. My plate of perch, cole slaw, and unlimited hush puppies cost a mere $6. The ingredients were sourced locally, the catch was sustainable, and the preparations reflected local food traditions — all of the things that I search for in my dining experiences. Why did it take me so long to see it? I can only attribute it to a latent snobbery impeding my ability to see that curated authenticity is no more authentic than unvarnished authenticity. While Yadkin Valley Seafood may not make the cover of Saveur, it doesn’t diminish its authentic experience.

Local plates at Knife & Fork.
Chef Nate Allen of Knife & Fork.

A major critique of the farm-to-table, locavore, or foodie movement is that it is too out of reach for most of the population. This negatively impacts its inability to play a large role in the solution of our country’s food problems. And we have major problems – environmental damage from agro-chemicals that pollute our soil and waters, horrific treatment of poultry and other livestock, the conversion of forests and farmlands for commercial agriculture threatens wildlife habitat and commodifies foodstuffs, the loss of traditional foodways and genetic diversity in our crops, overfishing of our oceans, and the epidemics of obesity and diabetes from cheap, nutrient deficient diets. Just look at the news coverage of the devastating environmental consequences of the 2016 floods that hit North Carolina destroying hundreds of chicken house operations, not to mention the loss of human life and livelihoods.

But there we were, eating in a restaurant that was local, sustainable, and accessible, simply because the fish were sourced locally and the menu catered to regional tastes and wallets. The irony was inescapable. More than any of the labeled farm-to-table restaurants I experienced in Asheville, it was Yadkin Valley Seafood that was locally and sustainably mainstreaming food values into American society, rather than reserving them for a privileged few.

So what can consumers do to ensure that more such establishments thrive? What can food purveyors do to be more attentive to issues of inclusion?

More than any of the labeled farm-to-table restaurants I experienced in Asheville, it was Yadkin Valley Seafood that was locally and sustainably mainstreaming food values into American society, rather than reserving them for a privileged few.

There are many new culinary initiatives that have social justice and economic empowerment baked into them. Knife and Fork restaurant in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, where my husband and I had shared house-cured local trout and foraged miner’s lettuce, is a great example of both a environmentally conscious restaurant and local business that is helping to revitalize its small downtown. Located off-the-beaten-path and considered a destination restaurant, it is welcoming and accessible in price and décor to local townspeople as well as tourists. Being part of the community and the landscape was a deliberate choice by its chef-owner, Nate Allen, who previously cooked in A-list restaurants in Los Angeles.

Further afield, Massimo Bottura, the chef at the helm of the world’s best restaurant, opened Refettorio Gastromotivo in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympics with a mission to feed Rio’s disenfranchised in a beautiful space using recycled food waste. Now, post-Olympics, the restaurant operates with an innovative financial model in which diners who can pay for their meals do so to “pay it forward” and cover the economics for those that can’t. Proceeds of lunches provide dinner gratis to less fortunate diners. Rumor is that the next Refettorio will be developed in the Bronx, near the headquarters of my organization, the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society.

Claus Meyer, perhaps, comes closest to melding the kind of high-end food tourism that Asheville is cultivating with the attention to inclusion and economic opportunity that a food-based economy needs if it is to benefit society broadly. Though his destination restaurants clearly cater to those with deep pockets, his Melting Pot foundation launched not only Gustu, a world class restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia (a WCS partner), but also Manq’a, a set of cafeterias and cooking schools in under-serviced neighborhoods that train thousands of kids in the hospitality industry while providing low cost meals in their communities, cooked with local foods. He has exported this idea to Colombia and a version of it also thrives in Brownsville, New York.

These examples point to exciting opportunities for investors looking for innovative business models in which restaurants, and the act of dining out, are motors for social and environmental good. Those of us who are merely thoughtful consumers can support these positive outcomes through the choices we make when choosing restaurants or buying food. I’ve written in previous columns about making food choices to support goals of environmental sustainability, animal welfare, or locavorism. Here I’m suggesting that we, the dining public, choose food options that build social or environmental outcomes into their business models explicitly. We can choose the non-industrial flour, make a reservation at a restaurant that commits to reduce waste or support local farmers, and we can visit establishments that, whether trendy or not, take pride in the expression of place and craft – authenticity – through food.