The New Stice Wine: From Coast to Coast, Farm to Table

Meet Phil Stice
 
It’s 5 o’clock on the first Friday of January, and Phil Stice is in his element, hosting a wine tasting at Seabear Oyster Bar in Athens, GA. He does events like these from time to time in Athens, where he lives, and Atlanta, where he earns most of his living. Uncorked tonight are some of the hippest new wines to come out of California, establishment-defying Chardonnays and Grenache blends that are setting new standards for what California wine is and what a California winemaker can or should be. Unbeknownst to most of the Athens retirees, University-affiliated yuppies, and young, pretty service industry professionals scattered about the bar, Phil Stice is not only a wine taster and the chief sales representative for a small boutique company called Specialty Wines, but he is also a winemaker himself. He’s spent significant time in farms and cellars and released his first wines earlier this year. So while “Dr. Phil,” as he is sometimes affectionately known, simply charms the small seafood establishment’s patrons and educates them on the nuances of the nouveau Cali juice at their fingertips, he’s also part of the story of what’s changing in California, and an example of the way these changes are helping make American wine more interesting, delicious, occasionally cheap and definitely cool.
 
Stice is good-looking, with clear blue eyes, short wavy hair and an easy smile. He’s quietly confident and possessed with an impeccable palate. He’s also culturally ambidextrous, as easily at home in a crowded bar watching a soccer match as he might be in a high-level wine grape biogenetics lecture in the oenology program at the University of California at Davis. He came to the wine business honestly, if not directly. Raised in Athens, Georgia, he attended both the local public high school and the local public University, where his father is a Ph.D. in the Animal Dairy Science Department. Two cousins, however, are winemakers in California (one at Caymus in Napa and the other at Bohème in Sebastopol, California, near the Russian River Valley). While Stice started out pre-med with a biology major in college, he eventually tacked on a horticulture minor and finished college while doing a Maymester in Viticulture and Oenology at the University of Georgia’s campus in Tuscany. After that experience, he left his medical dreams behind and turned his sights to the California side of the family business. The only “Dr.” in his name may be the one Athens has given him.
 
First he went to work locally at Tiger Mountain Vineyards in North Georgia, just around the corner from Goats on the Roof on Highway 441 near the North Carolina border. In the fields with iPhone buds in his ears, hedging and thinning the grapevines, then harvesting the grapes, then diving into the cellar work of fermentation and aging, Dr. Phil learned the process from the earth up and back down again. That same year his cousin hired him on at Caymus. There, he learned the work ethic of a vineyard field crew, farming alongside the locals from dawn to dusk. He also had the pleasure of a work trip to Mendoza, Argentina to see first-hand a wine operation south of the border. With a solid foundation in the field, he came back to Georgia. Working at a boutique wine shop in Atlanta, he sharpened his palate on the bottles of white Burgundy brought in from the generous clientele’s home cellars for Friday tastings. Then he set out again for the west coast, interning at Rhys Vineyards in a California wine American Viticultural Area (AVA) called the Santa Cruz mountains, where he spent more time in the cellar learning the chemistry of winemaking. This time when he came back, he established the Stice Wine Company.  

The Changing Model for California Wine
 

In theory, there are two sorts of models for how California wine has always been made. The first is the estate model, which is largely the model we think of when we think of Napa Valley: the huge, ornate mansions (and Cabernets and Chardonnays to match them) with rolling, winding hillsides of beautiful vines and paths and irrigation systems, in-house farming operations that operate like clockwork, big tasting rooms and 5-star restaurants. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the grower model — the small, back-to-the-or-never-left-the-land farmers who grow grapes alongside chickens and goats and oranges and make wine with it themselves, day after day, year after year. While both tales have their basis in fact, the truth, it seems, is a little cloudier, more interesting and in some ways more troubling.
 
For example, there are many people and families and farmers in California who have grown grapes for decades and never made a single bottle of wine. They sell the grapes in a variety of ways, either through established contracts with estates or other producers, or through the help of the “grape broker,” who lines up potential buyers, especially for fruit that is unaccounted for toward the end of a harvest. More likely, these growers turn to what Jon Bonné, author of “The New California Wine,” calls the “Big Three:” Gallo, Constellation Wines and the Wine Group. These big California companies are responsible for producing two out of every three bottles of California wine. The five biggest producers after the “Big Three” account for another 20% of California wine (these are names you’ve heard of: Two Buck Chuck, Sutter Home, Kendall-Jackson, Beringer, etc). Together that’s over 80% of the wine being made in California. What’s interesting (or troubling) is that these companies don’t necessarily own all of the land or fruit that 80% of the state’s wine is being made from, but they find a way to access it, and often, to control its production and distribution (and revenue). Even in situations where landed California estates or small, sustainable producers own some of the land or fruit and produce some wine from it on their own, they just can’t compete with the low-cost production of the “Big Three” or the skyrocketing property value of the wine industry it created. What’s more, according to Bonné, the “Big Three” and the other major grocery store brands often don’t have anything to do with farming most of the juice that goes into the bottles you drink — they buy mass-produced grapes from the Central Valley to use for their cheap labels. This stuff comes from vineyards who go heavy on herbicides, insecticides, irrigation, nitrogen and steroids, essentially overproducing their fruit by overstuffing the soil and then packaging the juice up and shipping it out like a truck full of chickens bound for the plant. There’s no time for hands-on farming or winemaking decisions, only a guaranteed profit and a need for more chemicals the next year. 
 
Meanwhile, the remaining 20% of California’s wine is being produced by winemakers and farmers who’ve fought long and hard to buy land, or lease land to grow grapes, or purchase small batches of grapes through brokers to make wines that no one has heard of, unless you’ve gone looking for them. These farmers and winemakers are attached to the land, even if it’s not their land; they are attached to a sense of place and the special kind of wine it can produce, even without maximizing its yield with irrigation or pesticide; they are attached to idea that California wine has something more interesting and more rewarding and perhaps even more sustainable to offer than Two Buck Chuck (full disclaimer: as a cheap graduate student, I bought dozens of bottles of Charles Shaw at Trader Joe’s and drank them enjoyably and without remorse). But when you have the pleasure of spending wine time with Dr. Phil, who quietly yet charismatically and humbly claims that there is something out there that’s a little better, that isn’t necessarily more expensive, that tells a story of its own, that looks past the “Big Three” without attempting a revolution, that focuses simply on making good wine, while empowering the people and noticing the places that do it, why not dig a little deeper, learn a few new things, venture out and take a chance? After all, it only involves drinking more wine.

Phil Stice Makes a Chardonnay

Fortunately for Phil, his family had a built in love for wine and his cousin Kurt at Bohème was the perfect guy to lean on when it came to making wine. Kurt leases approximately 20 acres of land over three vineyard sites and is somewhat of a testament to the ways the wine business is changing in California, charting a different path between or outside of the mythical estate and grower models. Perhaps because of this, Kurt is adamant that the business side of winemaking must be viable: “there are serious costs to managing the entire process of making wine from start to finish, not to mention the extreme overhead just to lease vineyards to farm and harvest grapes”. For Kurt, running a good business is part of the sustainability project, which is part of why he resists the popular trend to get organic certification or turn fully biodynamic. The organic and especially biodynamic aspect of farming can be very expensive and can result in huge losses of grape product if the weather turns nasty or unpredictable, which in California, it does. The key at Bohème has been to follow organic practices and farm over 90% of the vineyards organically but without the certification, reserving the option to spray or adjust where necessary to keep the crop — and the business — alive. Kurt calls it an “organic, yet practical” business approach to reaching the same shared goal: good, quality, clean wine. This practice is also quite common in the Old World, where farming has been largely “organic” for generations without seeking a label or jumping through the necessary time and financial hoops to get the certification. Stice learned to respect these time-honored styles during his wine-shop time in Atlanta, with his boutique distributor, Specialty Wines, and, of course, in the field and cellar with his cousins. With this vision of straddling the New and Old Worlds, Phil set out to make a classic, Burgundian-style Chardonnay with California grapes: full-flavored but not heavy, with acid and fruit and body — a wine, if it met its goal, of “weightless power.”
 
Kurt offered Phil a facility he could use to make the wine, but first he had to find grapes. He knew he would probably be working with the popular “Wente” Chardonnay clone largely used in California, but he didn’t want just any grapes. He wanted the best grapes possible, from the best site possible, with the opportunity to establish a direct relationship with the farmers and farming practices that would determine the core of his product. One of the things that Stice and every other aficionado stresses about wine is nothing new to the wine world: terroir. The word doesn’t have an easy English translation because it incorporates a slew of things that relate to where and how a grape is grown, as well as what is done with the grape once it’s harvested to maintain these characteristics. It refers to the soil type and quality at a particular vineyard site, the weather patterns both daily and seasonally, and the farming techniques used (which could include the type of herbicides or pesticides or nitrogen used or the lack thereof, as well as other organic methods of preventing disease). It can even refer to a winemaker’s choice of which grape varieties to grow or seek out, given weather and farming techniques, or when to harvest certain grapes during a particular season. All of these intricacies are at the forefront of what Stice wants to know about a particular wine that he is selling for his job with Specialty, and so, of course, they transferred over to a particular wine that he was interested in making himself. At last, on a hunch from his cousin, Stice found a patch of “Rued” clone grapes, a Wente subtype of the Chardonnay grape, that were available through the Mengle Vineyard and largely contracted and farmed by a prestigious and independent Russian River Valley farming family. Through the help of a grape broker, Stice was able to procure a part of the harvest for his first wine. In essence, these were grapes that had made great wine before, and he felt good about the way they were farmed, the people and the place, the terroir. The Rued subtype also provided a little extra depth since it is often known for its aromatics and full body, one step closer to the desired “weightless power.”
 
He bought the grapes and set to work at Kurt’s facility. First, they gently pressed the grapes in a “bladder” press, rested it 24 hours to settle any remaining solids (the so-called “heavy lees”) and fed the juice into four barrels he had hand-picked from the cooperage Francois Freres, barrels he’d worked with at Rhys Winery. These barrels were toasted, providing a warmer oak flavor, a “graham cracker thing”. He wanted a long, slow, cold fermentation as is often done in Burgundy. He also chose a unique fermentation process, using lab yeasts on two of the barrels, while letting the other two barrels ferment spontaneously with indigenous yeast, another Old World technique. The first two barrels took two weeks to ferment, while the indigenous yeasts slowly worked their magic over the next six months. Throughout fermentation, Stice and his cousin turned the barrels and stirred the lees in each of them (lees are the byproducts of yeast fermenting grape juice into alcohol that can add texture to wine that ages on them). After fermentation, in classic Burgundian-style, Phil put the Chardonnay through malolactic fermentation, converting malic acid, a tarter flavor, into lactic acid, a smoother acid, enhanced by the byproduct of diacetyl, a compound that imparts a buttery flavor to the wine (this buttery flavor is one facet of what can often set Chardonnay apart from other white wine varietals, especially in California). After this secondary, malolactic fermentation, Phil aged the wine in oak barrels for one year at cellar temperature (~65 degrees). Then, before bottling, he moved the wine (called “racking”) into a tank for cold-stabilization to further avoid contamination and to begin mellowing the wine (cooler temperatures tend to do this while warmer temperatures can reactivate yeasts or encourage bacteria). Finally, after another trip to California where Phil and Kurt did what they claim was officially called “trailer-cowboy bottling” (literally, a trailer that they rented with a bottling line on board), Stice’s first wine was in bottle and ready to age. After a year in bottle, he hosted his first release party at Seabear Oyster Bar in April 2017.


A Georgia Boy in Fine Californian Company

Stice is far from the first person to seek out such these particular characteristics and processes when making wine. The basic grape crushing and fermentation process is almost standard. The hands-off approach in the cellar is a little less common. Many wines, including many in California, are ripened as long as possible to create as much sugar as possible, which then translates into higher alcohol levels. Higher fermentation temperatures or certain strains of lab yeast can also do the same. But there is a growing trend that Dr. Phil has tapped into toward a new sort of California wine, that echoes some of the long held practices of the Old World, but in a California-way. Stice sells some of these wines in his work for Speciality, notably Kenny Likitprakong of the Hobo and Folk Machine wine labels, Ian Brand of the L’Ptit Paysan and La Marea labels, Steve and Jill Matthiasson from the Matthiasson label, and, of course, his cousin Kurt at Bohème. These winemakers are all part of the California wine world and a trend away from what that has meant for the past 25 years. They’ve each started making wine in a very small way, without owning vineyards, without owning winemaking facilities and without a huge amount of expendable capital. They either farm their own grapes, consult on how grapes are grown, or have direct relationships with the farmers who grow for them and the vineyard sites where they are grown. They’ve been focused on making terroir-focused wines, using varieties that grow well in the places where they choose to get their fruit, rather than picking any desired varieties and forcing it into a climate that doesn’t suit it. These people embrace the unique qualities of California terroir without trying to "fix" it with drastic irrigation, changing the soil or drenching the vines in chemicals. 
 
Each of these new California winemakers is also unique in some ways. Kenny Likitprakong started out as “gypsy” winemaker, making wine however and with whatever he could get his hands on, in co-ops with leftover fruit, traveling extensively to learn and taste and try new methods, but now he has his own winemaking facility and four or five labels that he supports with it. Kenny’s Folk Machine and Hobo wine labels have also focused on making affordable table wines, outside of the mainstream of big Napa and Sonoma wine houses and with an aesthetic to a younger, hipper generation of sippers. The Matthiasson family is more focused on organic farming practices with the ideal farm being a completely sustainable organism (not biodynamic or “natural” but sustainable), complete with cover crops nourishing the soil, restrained irrigation strengthening the vines, and the use of unorthodox grape varieties that suit the Napa climate. Steve Matthiasson literally wrote the book on sustainable viticulture in California and still consults for a myriad of farmers and winemakers implementing organic and plant focused farming practices. Ian Brand at P’tit Paysan is apparently obsessive about soil type and quality and goes to great lengths to find the wildest, most unconventional vineyard sites specifically because of their soil quality. This sometimes leads to wine grown in gravelly and granite heavy soils, for example, and creates wine that tastes fun and different while remaining true to place. Most recently, he released a unique and exceptional California Albariño — traditionally a Spanish seafood white — on his La Marea label from a coastal Monterey vineyard whose soil is composed of sedimentary rock and calcium-rich shale (it’s amazing). Phil’s cousin Kurt likes to be hands-on with his land and leases. Bohème’s wines are mostly farmed by Kurt himself. He goes to great lengths to knows his vineyard sites well, paying close attention to the weather and growth in each one, and uses painstaking traditional techniques to trim each individual vine in each vineyard he farms. He also maintains close community relationships with other long-time farmers in the area, making wine from other vineyard sites that he leases from them, and, as we know, occasionally finding fruit for our friend Dr. Phil to ferment.
 
However different these people and wines may be, there is a unique desire to make something both new and normal in their products, something out of the California mainstream but not overtly strange or weird, just good. Not an over-ripened or over-extracted Pinot Noir or Cabernet, or an over-oaked Chardonnay, but aromatic and flavorful wines with individual expression reflective of the terroir that grew them. There is a more nuanced and particular, yet simpler approach to every part of the process. This new approach is a shared creation and vision ofthese new California wine folks alike, normalizing an emphasis on a more vibrant sense of place and a cleaner, more sustainable wine flavor. All of this while focusing simply on each vine and each grape and each wine that comes from them and either intentionally or inadvertently keeping the “Big Three” out of the equation. Now Dr. Phil earns his place among them. 


Story by Hunt Revell

Photographs by Paige French
 

Being the Change: How 3 Porch Farm Takes Responsibility

Steve O’Shea takes his environmental footprint seriously. Alongside his wife Mandy, he owns and runs 3 Porch Farm, an organic flower and fruit farm in Comer, Georgia. From the outside, their life seems glamorous. The couple embodies a lifestyle that’s frequently romanticized — a simple life, living off the land. But farming is strenuous, demanding work that requires tireless attention and effort. And following USDA organic guidelines doesn’t make it easier. Instead, it adds costs and complications, all in the name of conscientiously stewarding the environment — not because it’s easy or lucrative, but because it’s what they believe is right. Their products are beautiful, and they’ve grown a substantial following in Athens, Atlanta and the Southeast at large — and still, they make approximately $4 an hour, with much of their limited income being sown back into their operation (literally).  

But at this juncture in his life, O’Shea has no room for excuses. He began studying the environment and climate change nearly twenty years ago and feels increasingly motivated by what he learned. “I was not only humbled but somewhat terrified by the information I studied and am sad to say that all the climate projections were not only accurate, but what seemed like the most ‘drastic’ models of what would happen in the last two decades have been met or surpassed by reality,” O’Shea says.

He’s right: the last three years have been the hottest consecutive years on record, flooding reached record highs in the U.S. in 2016, the ocean is warming and rising and the occurrence of catastrophic weather incidents is rapidly increasing. All of this poses a radical threat to our health, safety and global stability. 

Farmers see this firsthand.

“As the climate changes further and drought becomes more frequent followed by heavy storms that erode soil and damage or destroy crops, we are on the front line of those impacted,” he says. “More importantly though, as weather systems continue their tendency towards extreme and erratic conditions, crop losses become more common and the world's population of 7 billion and rising will struggle to meet their (our) food needs. Scarcity equals high prices, equals famine and panic, equals conflict. Without unified action from not only governments, but each individual citizen at the daily level, we'll wind up exactly where we are aiming.”

For the O’Sheas, organic farming is the way they can combat global warming and be a force for good. “What started out as pure fear in my early 20s has now morphed into a sense of personal responsibility,” O’Shea says. “This farm isn't an occupation to me. This farm is our contribution to the world.”

At 3 Porch Farm, the O’Sheas go well beyond the call of avoiding chemicals and invigorating soil health. They’re also focused on their energy consumption and corresponding outputs. Inevitably, farms require significant amounts of energy between their infrastructure, use of equipment and vehicles for transport. The O’Sheas use solar power to run all of the facilities on their farm and they currently have three vehicles powered by spent vegetable oil (and O’Shea plans to convert a large delivery van to run on vegetable oil this winter). Aside from this, they’re conscientious of what many of us would consider the little things like turning off lights, turning off the heat or air conditioning when they leave the house and supporting local, sustainable businesses. 

“I think farmers and all citizens really, need to focus on the whole as much as possible.  Doing one positive thing like recycling, composting, or gardening is good, but if we aren't looking at the sum total of our impacts than we aren't getting the full picture,” he says. “Of course, life is demanding and there are limits on what any one person can do, but the danger is in the desire to shine a spotlight on our positive contributions while neglecting to acknowledge the repercussions of the vast majority of our actions. They all count whether we choose to look at them or not.”

O’Shea is a vocal advocate of these practices, and he doesn’t consider a meager farming income to be a sufficient reason not to make these changes. Instead, they’ve sought out resources to make it happen. “I don't think we can stop at organic production and call it good. The USDA currently offers a generous grant for rural farms to install renewable energy systems. The federal tax credit is still up for grabs too. Between the two, more than half of your renewable energy system is paid for in short order. We have used both programs twice.”

And though farming is clearly a passion for O’Shea, he admits that it isn’t what he always wanted to do, or even what he’d do if not for feelings of moral obligation. “I've discovered that living in line with my worldview is far more important to me and my sense of well being, than pursuing a more immediately enjoyable craft, or one that pays well. I've happily made that trade and am quite glad to have done so. Creating and sustaining this farm checks off every other box on my personal values list.”

In the wake of the recent election, there’s more cause for all of us to take individual responsibility for the environment. The incoming administration threatens to derail the EPA and to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, which would undermine all hope that our federal government will promote vital environmental protections. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with a man whose life’s purpose revolves around sustainability.

“With virtually every other world leader and 97% of all climate scientists on the planet in agreement that humans activities are aggressively changing the earth's weather patterns in a way that will lead to greater global instability within the next 10 to 20 years (think Miami underwater in 2030), it is an absolute shame that our government is pledging to block efforts to prevent things from getting out of hand,” he says. “This is not a political issue and no other country on earth is treating it as such. Natural disasters, starvation, unparalleled extinctions, mass migrations and increased military conflicts don't care who you vote for. It's not political. It's about sustaining our life support system so we can all live another day to have our petty self-centered arguments.”

It’s obvious that O’Shea isn’t alone in these sentiments. But the danger is that he’s among the few who will actually take action. To so many of us, taking responsibility for the greater good feels too ambitious. We sit around and wait for the world to change or for policies to change and then maybe we’ll fall in line. All the while, the world is in an undeniably precarious environmental state. Climate change is real. It is already taking a toll on weather patterns and crop production — a frightening reality in the face of a growing world population. 

O’Shea offers us a sobering call to action: “Many of us tend to complain about the state of the earth and the looming threat of climate change and we like to point fingers at this political party or that nefarious corporation, all the while we neglect to take stock in our own ability to have an impact and the cumulative effect that billions of individuals can have to make change now. Our criticism of others bears little merit if we don't apply those same standards to our own lives. Our stated values don't matter if we don't act on them and live by them. Be the change, don't just talk about what needs to change.”

To be clear: you don’t have to drop what you’re doing and become an organic farmer to be a part of positive change. Instead, you can evaluate how every element of your life impacts the environment — whether you’re contributing to waste or conservation, whether you’re being cognizant … “There's a hundred things we can all do every day to reduce carbon consumption if we are mindful of our impacts,” he says. O’Shea recommends beginning with the following:

  • Solar on the roof if you are a homeowner and an electric vehicle or hybrid vehicle are some of the most impactful things you can do.  
  • Insulate and seal your home.  
  • Turn the lights off when you leave a room.  
  • Turn the heat a few degrees cooler and put on a sweatshirt or blanket and snuggle.  
  • Turn A.C. and heat off when you aren't home.  
  • Walk or bike short distances instead of driving.  
  • Inflate your tires to increase mileage.  
  • Switch your light bulbs to compact fluorescents or better yet, LED's.  
  • Hang your clothes out to dry.  
  • Cut down on beef and dairy and make sure to buy grass fed local products when you can.  Shop at farmers markets or join a CSA to get your groceries from within 50 miles instead of the 2000 mile average.  
  • Support restaurants that do the same.  
  • Use the toaster oven instead of the big oven for smaller items.  
  • Choose Energy Star appliances.  
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.  
  • Filter your drinking water instead of buying disposable bottles. 
  • Advocate for renewable energy.  
  • Speak up to elected officials and your power provider.  
  • Plant some trees.  
  • Buy carbon offsets for your air travel. 
  • Attach an aftermarket bidet to your toilet to minimize paper waste, logging and milling.  
  • Buy local flowers instead of roses imported from Ecuador. 

“There are no good excuses to not take immediate action,” O’Shea says. “If you are a conservative, then it's time to conserve. If you are a creationist, then it's time to respect God's creation. If you are a leftist, then for crying out loud, put your money where your mouth is. If we don't actually step up, extend ourselves further into positive actions that benefit the greater good and not just our own personal interests, then we are the problem. If you hurt and fear, do something good. If you are happy with the election, then help make America great and protect it from instability. We need everyone on this and we need you immediately.”

Thank You Bird

It’s on a brisk morning the Sunday before Thanksgiving that he whispers thanks solemnly into the ear of the heritage tom he has raised with care for over a year. With its feathers fanned, a chevron pattern in coal black and amber brown frame its fleshy head, knotted in bright blue and red. Its age is clear from the size of the spur on its reptilian leg, about a quarter inch, and the modest beginnings of a beard on its inflated chest. He grabs the breast, swooning over the fat development he can feel with the hands that fed this gorgeous bird. These are free-foraging, pastured birds that are absolutely fresh.

“They’ve got one bad day, and it’s today,” says Clay Crowder of Five-C-Farm.

A group of twenty has arrived on his family farm to select their Thanksgiving turkey. Varying widely in age and background, they have all chosen to play a greater role in bringing the centerpiece of the meal to their table this year. They are interested in learning about livestock production on a small farm. Many are trying to make farming a business for themselves; others are just looking to move toward a more self-sustaining lifestyle. And of course, they all want a really good turkey.

The big toms are 18-20 pounds of muscular flesh, while the hens are smaller, between 12-15 pounds, with more tender meat. On Thursday, it will take added time to prep and cook these free-range birds, ideally starting with a 48-hour brine to breakdown strong connective tissues and then a low and slow roasting in the oven.

 “[But when you taste this meat,] it just kinda screams out—that’s turkey! It’s not a gamey turkey either. There’s a flavor to the fat and a sweetness to the meat. When you compare it to a store-bought bird, it’s fundamentally different.”

The workshop has an intentionally modest setup that demonstrates how to humanely process turkeys on a very small scale. There are just four stations—two metal killing cones suspended on a simple wooden frame, one large copper pot filled with the scalding water and set atop a log fire, chairs arranged in an arc around a tarp for the plucking, and a sterilized stainless steel work table for the evisceration. After purchasing a bird, each person moves through the stations, using his or her own hands to take back the production of meat, to close the gap between meat in the supermarket and animals in the field. This small group of people humbly gives thanks to the living creature that will nourish their loved ones in just a few days.

“This is careful work. It’s like the difference between white bread and a handmade loaf of sourdough that’s fermented for 3 days, and it’s just beautiful.”


 

Words by Erin Wilson

How to Host an Oyster Roast

If there’s something to be celebrated in the brisk days and long nights of late fall, it’s the height of oyster season. This time of year beckons communal eating over open fires, and what better feast than an oyster roast? Although these bivalves suggest the kind of decadence that feels out of reach for the home chef, there are few meals more rustic and approachable than an oyster roast.

Noah Brendel, co-owner of Seabear Oyster Bar in Athens, Georgia, has had extensive experience roasting these exquisite mollusks. Between hosting backyard parties and refined supper clubs, he’s worked his roast practice into something of an art.

Pulling together an oyster roast is easier than you might think, Brendel says. And as in all cooking, the first step is prep work.

Begin by gathering your materials. Brendel’s essentials are:

  • wood for a fire
  • burlap sack (“easy to source from local coffee roaster”)
  • 5 gallon bucket of water (“what you soak your burlap in”)
  • piece of sheet metal that you can lay across the fire (“assuming you don't have a proper rig, you can always use a piece of sheet metal and some rocks or cinder blocks laying around the yard”)
  • shovel (“a spade with a square head is what I prefer for ease of scooping”)
  • table top to put oysters on (“it will get messy, so I would suggest not using an antique table”)
  • yard gloves (“nice to have but not imperative”)
  • large cooler (“for storing the oysters before you roast them”)

But what’s, perhaps, most important? Cold beer and plenty of it. If possible, setting up a makeshift bar is also highly encouraged.

The process of purchasing oysters in bulk is one of the more daunting aspects of hosting an oyster roast, but Brendel says it’s doable even if you don’t own an oyster bar. “I would say the easiest way would be to contact your local restaurants that do carry or sell oysters and more often than not they will help you out (we always help out customers looking for roasters),” he says. “But if that doesn't work, you can always find an excuse to drive to the coast and grab a bushel or two from the docks.”

And if there’s not a seafood restaurant in town and it’s infeasible to drive to the coast, Brendel also recommends asking your local grocer to place a special order for you.  

So, now you’re ready to place an order, but what exactly are you looking for? “Cluster oysters work well for roasts,” says Brendel. “If you have to use singles, then I would suggest an oyster with a little more body or size so that you don't end up with tiny little steamed oysters.  Anywhere along the coast where you can source oysters is a great source but specifically I have had luck with Blue Points, Rappahannocks, or any gulf oyster for that matter.”

oytser_roast (26 of 27).jpg

The real trick is in knowing how many oysters to buy — it’s a fine line between overspending on a fairly pricey meal for the masses and, even worse, leaving your guests ravenously hungry. Brendel says estimating how many oysters to purchase is always the hardest part, but he typically orders one-and-a-half to two dozen per anticipated guest. And in this case, a little bit of diplomacy goes a long way. “More often than not you will have the guy that eats 60 in a row, but his buddy ‘doesn't eat oysters’ so it's always a little bit of a crap shoot ...  It's also about knowing your crowd, and don't be afraid to ask your intended guests what they think they will eat.”  

When the big day has arrived and you’ve gathered your tools, your oysters and your lucky guests, it’s all about execution. And this is where it actually gets easy, Brendel says.

“I tote the above listed equipment and supplies, I usually start the fire early — a hot bed of coals goes a long way when doing a roast.  You learn that lesson fast. I set the oyster table up, shuckers, towels, gloves, cocktail sauce, crackers, hot sauce and trash can somewhere within tossing distance of the table. Not much to it really.”

The work of creating a perfectly roasted oyster, like anything takes practice — even if that practice takes place just before the roast kicks off. “Not all oysters roast the same, take some time before your guests arrive and do a test batch and get your timing down, so that when it's time to put the show on you look like a seasoned salty dog. No need to overthink it, it's simply a matter of heat, steam and time,” he says.

And what are some rookie mistakes to avoid? “... Sometimes your sheet metal, depending on how it's placed, will leak onto the fire, ultimately putting it out and making it hard to keep the fire hot. So make sure if you are roasting on an open flame that there is a little bit of an angle to the metal and that if falls clear of the fire off to the side. As I mentioned earlier the fire is the key element, you want it hot, so you obviously want to source your wood from a reliable source to ensure it's properly seasoned and burns well.”

Now that the oysters are roasted to perfection and thrown across a table for happy guests to indulge, there are a few accompaniments you’ll want to have on hand. (Although the real sign of success, is an oyster worthy of enjoying unadorned.)

“The standard oyster roasts accoutrement to me are saltines, cocktail sauce, hot sauce and maybe horseradish” Brendel says. “I always prefer cold domestic beer (whatever your flavor), and depending on the season either a gin, or whiskey cocktail. To me this is perfection. Full disclosure, I often find myself eating oysters right out of the shell without any sauces, but they are definitely nice to have.”

Words & photos by Jodi Cash

Sweet Grass Dairy Co-Owner Jeremy Little on Taking Success As It Comes

In restaurants and boutique food shops around the country, Sweet Grass Dairy cheeses are a lauded feature on menus and shelves. With five staple products, as well as seasonal items, the cheeses represent a variety of styles and flavors. Two of the cheeses (Green Hill and Lil' Moo) have won highly competitive American Cheese Society Awards. 

But the real success for Sweet Grass Dairy is not in its accolades or esteem, its in their commitment to sustainability and their diligent pursuit of good food from ethical sources. In 2010, Sweet Grass opened their first iteration of a restaurant in Thomasville, Georgia, where the cheese plant is also located. The restaurant was closed not long after launching, and in its place they developed the Cheese Shop, a market of artisanal goods — and most notably, their line of cheeses. When the restaurant re-opened in the Cheese Shop four years later, it was with a clearer vision and refocused passion. 

Now Sweet Grass Dairy continues to evolve as it remains a centerpiece in the quaint town of Thomasville, as well as a beacon in the world of artisanal food at large. We talked with Jeremy Little who owns Sweet Grass with his wife, Jessica, about what growth looks like for them. 

How did Sweet Grass Dairy get its start?
Sweet Grass Dairy started in 2000 by Desiree and Al Wehner, my wife Jessica's parents.  They had been dairy farming unconventionally for just shy of 20 years, producing milk that was higher in quality as well as utilizing a method of dairy farming that was better for the earth, and the animals, but were not able to show anyone that their methods yielded a better milk.  They set out to show people their efforts produced a very high quality milk, so they looked for a way to show people through food. Cheese ended up being the right balance or art and science, and continues to be our primary vehicle for our mission, which is to educate and inspire people on the true origins of their foods. 

How did the experience with the previous restaurant in the Cheese Shop's space influence what you hope to accomplish now?
To say that was a learning experience would be horribly incorrect.  It was one of the worst time's in my life, but it taught me a great deal about a lot of things. We got distracted from our initial vision, made a bunch of mistakes, and ended up doing the exact thing we started out to do. Our original plan was to do the exact thing we are today — simple food, with great service using "storied" ingredients. The influence was the importance of having a clear vision and sticking to it. 

What do you hope the Cheese Shop contributes to the Thomasville community? What do you hope it offers to visitors?
The Cheese Shop is our local vehicle for our mission — to educate and inspire people through food.  Our brand and our cheeses offer that on a larger platform, and it has allowed us to frame it for our local community through the Cheese Shop.  I hope it provides a reprieve to local and visitors alike from the craziness of their day to day and enjoy themselves.

What's the greatest challenge of making cheese sustainably?
The milk supply. Most people do not really think about where there food comes from, other than from the "store." It's part of our mission to change that perspective. Its incredibly intense to sustain a farm that used a rotational grazing method. You are always a few days from running out of food for the cows if the pastures are not properly managed. That's an incredibly stressful situation, and really challenging to do well. 

What's the biggest reward?
Feeling like you are making a difference with your actions.  

How do you hope the restaurant showcases your products?
I hope it better connects people to where their food comes from.  The more people know about the origins of their food, the better educated they will be to make good food choices.  In a world where products are marketed with such a plethora of buzz-words and tag-lines, its hard to know what the truth really is. 

How do you envision Sweet Grass, as a whole, continuing to grow?
Our mission challenges us to be better on a daily basis. We continue to get better at what we do each day, so my hope is that we'll see the fruits of our labor in all we do — both internally and externally — as a business.  My hope would be to provide better opportunities for our team members, as well as better products for our consumers. 

What's your favorite thing to eat at the restaurant?
 I like to try new things, so my favorite is the next new thing we are working on. 

What about your favorite Sweet Grass product?
It's my job to be critical of our products. I am in constant pursuit of how to make our cheeses better, so I would say I have favorite things about each of the cheeses as time passes. Right now, the flavor and texture of our Georgia Gouda is really nice, and I love how the Green Hill's texture is showing as it matures/ripens. We are still working on all of them, and probably always will.  

What's your day-to-day work like?
Unpredictable. I take our kids to school in the morning, and try to catch up with Jessica for a few minutes. After that, its really just a matter of catching up with our team. I make the rounds, see whats happening, and do what I can to keep us moving forward. 

What's next for Sweet Grass Dairy?
We are in the process of expanding our facility, with a few new product thoughts on the horizon. The new facility will allows us to be more consistent in our product offerings, as well as give us more opportunity to develop new products.  

Where are your products available?
Our products are available nearly nationwide in select markets and cheese shops. If not readily available locally, you can always order directly from our website. We just launched a new website, so please check it out. 

Story & photographs by Jodi Cash

What The Turnip Truck is Bringing to the Georgia Urban Ag. & Outdoor Expo

In anticipation of the Georgia Urban Ag. and Outdoor Expo this weekend, we talked with Michael Schenck, founder and COO of The Turnip Truck about the importance of creating access to good, fresh food in urban areas. Schenck shared with us the mission of The Turnip Truck, as well as how events like the expo empower them to continue innovating ways to get food from farmers to consumers.

The Turnip Truck works with more than 50 small, local farms to get their fruits, vegetables, dairy and other products to Atlanta area restaurants, schools and institutions. By tackling the challenges of storage and distribution to deliver products, they bring local, sustainable food to businesses with ease, advancing the cause of slow food and local food in Atlanta. In their first five years of business, they put 1.9 million dollars in the pockets of their local farmers.   

You have a background in the kitchen. How does that experience influence your business?

We really pay attention to what chefs are looking for and have an eye for quality and consistency in what we buy from our farms and deliver to our customers.  We are also structured in a way that emulates traditional food service distribution, so the ordering and delivery system is what they are used to and makes it as easy as possible to incorporate local items into their menu. 

Appreciating local food and developing confidence in the kitchen seem to go hand in hand. How do you explain this connection?

I think a strong emphasis on local food really pushes home seasonal cooking and utilizing the season's strong points in your menus.  When young chefs first experience a truly local, fresh off the vine heirloom tomato, it is like a light bulb going off.  You start to understand what many of the masters strive to teach, which is that you can do whatever you want to to your ingredients, but if you start off with the freshest, best possible products you're going to be head and shoulders ahead right off the bat.  Simply put, you don't have to do much to this food since it comes out of the ground ripe, ready to eat, and tasting incredible.  I think learning that can be a huge confidence builder, providing you know where you can get these awesome products!  

What are your goals in looking ahead to the Urban Ag Expo? What message do you most hope to spread to attendees who might stop by the Turnip Truck booth?

We are very excited to let the food-interested public know that all of the incredible ingredients that their favorite Atlanta chefs have had access to for years are now within reach for them on our new website, www.turniptruckga.com!  From local vegetables and fruits, to dairy, cheeses, grains and grits, to honey and sauces, they can place orders on our website for pickup at our shop or delivery to their door.  We are also very excited to partner with the GA Farmers Market Association for their new Norcross market and we hope to help them increase exposure and buzz around the starting date with our display of fresh produce, eggs and other products for sale at the expo. 

Local food is so often tied to an image of a small time farmer. What has been the most exciting thing about being a larger player in the local food system?

The most rewarding thing about what we do is being able to work with these incredible farmers and food producers, and to help them take their dream of producing good, wholesome food from a small seedling to a thriving organism. We aim to help them grow their operations to meet demand and create efficiencies to make their lives easier and to increase the reach of their food.  We are very excited to see some great interest from a more broad sector of the public, it's not just the "foodies" or high end chefs that are calling these days.  Consumers in general are very interested in eating healthy, GMO and pesticide free food produced in a sustainable manner, more interested in where it comes from, and in supporting local food systems than ever. 

What are you most looking forward to at the Georgia Urban Ag. & Outdoor Expo?

We are excited to participate in the Urban Ag Expo.  I strongly believe that small scale food production and the sale of it in the community is a transformative system that can change our communities and economy for the better in a way that almost no other daily transaction in people's lives can.  If you think about it there really aren't many areas in life these days where we actually know who produced the goods we consume or where it actually came from, and I think the opportunity to experience that with something as important as the food we fuel our bodies with every day is incredibly powerful. 

Photo via Flickr/Tim Sackton

Neither Shaken nor Stirred: Uncle Sam’s Mint Julep

There is much lore that surrounds the first Saturday in May for many southerners, wealthy young people and racing aficionados. The Kentucky Derby marks the first leg of the Triple Crown, the “Run for the Roses.” It’s the chance for jockeys to get their colts off on the right foot. It’s famous for its hats, its horses and its history. There’s the dirty, debaucherous infield where the cheap seats more closely resemble a mosh pit than a genteel estate. The brass band always plays “My Old Kentucky Home.” And it’s the day that made the mint julep famous. 

I’ve no real attachment to the aristocratic heritage that the Derby represents, the lineage of old white money, small brown jockeys and decades of horse breeding in search of the perfect star; but as a southerner, or perhaps as a drinker, I do appreciate the excitement of a remarkably short sports event whose hallow hangs on the aroma of a particular drink. 

The only drawback of the julep is the toll on the bartender. This person is asked to muddle mint and crush ice to a please a customer who mostly expects an over-indulgent, syrupy-sweet cocktail that is more reminiscent of a mojito than whiskey rocks. As soon as someone in the bar sees or smells what’s happening, everyone in the room wants one. 

But let’s not allow this over-investment of effort in a crowded bar setting to tarnish the cocktail itself, especially given the strange tradition to which it is tied and the fact that it can be quite delicious. In fact, it makes it all the more important to take the julep a better way, something my great-uncle Sam used to do in his day.

Uncle Sam’s julep recipe came down our family tree through my grandmother, his sister-in-law. Once spring was in full bloom and the green jacket awarded at The Masters—a calendar milestone when you grow up in Augusta, Ga.—my parents would dig out a pile of faded yet meticulously handwritten notes for the mint julep. The mix was simple, but it was the way Sam put it together, and perhaps who he was, that made it special.

Samuel Thompson Redgrave Revell was a revered family doctor in Bedford, Virginia. No one questions the fact that he loved and dutifully served his patients. Once he’d retired and no longer had anyone to look after but himself, Sam embraced the curmudgeonly war veteran-type. He was perfectly content to walk the beach naked in early morning and happy to tell you his unfiltered thoughts on a range of topics from medicine to politics to religion to sailing. Yet we loved him for good reason, as he was fond in his way of the grandchildren, and we shared an ardent if not equal love for my grandmother, especially after they’d both survived her husband, his younger brother.

My first Derbies and Uncle Sam’s juleps were with my father, a man who prefers a good cocktail and enjoys any opportunity to relish family traditions. He was also the favorite of his mother, which put him next in line for the julep recipe. I can remember him making juleps each Derby Day, preparing the syrup and crushing the ice with a careful hand. Even as a small child, I knew the importance of the julep cup. These were given to my siblings and I as youngsters, each engraved with our initials. They sat on our desks for years collecting change until we were old enough to go to war, impatiently awaiting the day when they would be called upon to do their duty, honor their family, and serve Uncle Sam.

It wasn’t my first, but my best memory of the mint julep was one year in my early twenties, fresh back from a semester in Costa Rica where southern culture was far from my mind and college years in Athens had pushed back my memories of watching dad honor the tradition.  I was out of school by May and at my parents’ house with a special lady visiting from the Pacific Northwest. She was charming and lovely in her smart, tough way, but she was far from a southern belle or a determined whiskey drinker I was to find. My family lingered as we do after weekend lunch at the house that first Saturday in May. I noticed the ritual begin as my mother dug out a folded and stained receipt from its crevice in a recipe book and my father gingerly gathered and washed the family julep cups, silently lining one up for each of us.

It was a slow but steady ritual, perfectly timed to prepare us for the best two minutes in sports. The television was already on the correct channel and there was no rushing about in search of the right ingredients. In New York one year, my tendency toward disorder resulted in a basil julep, which was delicious, but quite embarrassing for a southern boy who should know better. When the volume on the TV went up and the jockeys and horses were brought in, Dad made the cocktails.

 

In preparation…

Make a mint simple syrup.  You can easily find any number of recipes on the internet, but the key is not to be shy with the mint, the more minty the syrup, the less need for tedious muddling. The next thing to do is crush ice. Gather your ice in a bag or handkerchief or bandana and smash it with a mallet. Give yourself an excess of crushed ice so you don’t worry about using it later.

Then…

Load the julep cup with crushed ice to cool. After icing the cup, empty it and dry muddle 6 - 8 mint leaves at the bottom. Dad always thinks along the lines of a sophisticated New Orleans barman, the idea is to seduce the mint, not to punish it.”

Fill the cup overfull with more crushed ice. Some people like to make a domed top with the palm of their hand; the Revells prefer it a little more ragged looking. But never be short with the ice. 

Add ½ oz. - 1 oz. of mint simple syrup.

Fill your julep cup to the brim with bourbon whiskey or other whiskey of the American variety. Early Times was popular from the start being sponsored by the Kentucky Derby itself. They now promote Woodford Reserve, which may be a strike against it. Uncle Sam and my grandmother preferred Evan Williams, even the green label, but they happily used Jack Daniels. Other pricier bourbons work great, but there isn’t much need to overdo it.

Finally, add a large sprig of mint to the top, for flair and fragrance.

 

What happens next in my mind is a moment of simple genius, the profound effects of which I felt that day in May and can recall on moment’s notice. Uncle Sam had one rule about his julep—it was neither shaken nor stirred. While the crushed ice creates an arctic chill for your hand on the julep cup and a touch of sweet mint syrup patiently waits at the bottom of the drink, the first several sips of Uncle Sam’s mint julep are pure, cool whiskey. And it burns. As the horns start the theme to “My Old Kentucky Home,” the whiskey sinks in, your vision blurs just a bit, your soul turns a bit sentimental, you take another sip or two, barely beginning to detect the hint of something sweet…and they’re off!

Two minutes later that day, I looked over at my special lady from a distant land and realized she was plumb drunk. And I was well on my way too. That was the year they put down the Derby’s first filly right there on the track after she broke a leg crossing the finish line, nearly winning. That sad moment, the music, the roses, the family, the South—well yes, it left a definite impression. And if it weren’t for Uncle Sam’s take on the classic julep, I may never have the seen it from the right angle at all.


Story by Hunt Revell

Photograph by Paige French

It Takes Time

It starts with leaving a warm bed on a cold morning. When the overwhelming majority of your friends are only halfway through their night’s rest or maybe even just winding down to hit the bed, that’s when you get on the road. 

At 5 a.m. Saturday morning, cruising through your vibrant town that lives for the night makes you think that perhaps it’s all an illusion. There were never people there. There can’t be. Because now on this crisp Saturday morning, long before the sun has risen, all their young souls lie in rest. 

Who chooses to get their groceries this early? I do. And thus, my multi-day “grocery trip,” as it were, continues.

When I arrive to the land of opportunity, I strike off with only the essential equipment necessary to complete my task. Oh, the strange fears found wandering through the woods in the dark! Each tree becomes a bear. Every shrub becomes a man. Every scurrying nocturnal beast leaves me a little unsettled.  

Squeezing its way ever so methodically, the sun begins its warning. Having missed my turn on the trail, I must use instinct alone to find my stand. The pressure of the pending sunrise pushes me more recklessly through the woods; until there! I spy my hide in the sky.

Up to this point I’ve waded through a maze of dark brambles and bushes, but the true challenge, climbing the icy stand in the darkness, is my final test before I sit.

Twelve feet? It’s not that high I tell myself as I dangerously hang off the tree, trying to negotiate with a questionable branch how I will get to the other side. I can see the seat. And as I maneuver around the tree I land safely to the arse-busting metal grate that I will sit on for the next 4 to 5 hours. Let the cold settle begin.

Try not to move. I challenge you.

This is where some sort of primal patience that is all but lost in our modern world must be conjured. 

Patience, my friend — when was the last time you very consciously and thoughtfully practiced patience? 

A single deer hunting season is possibly the longest that anyone will wait for some ground chuck or sausage anywhere in the first world. 

I once watched my grandpa walk about 20 feet in 30 minutes. Yes, he was old. But his lethargy was due to the fact that he was ever so precisely approaching a squirrel that we needed to bag to have squirrel pie for dinner. This is patience! 

So now I sit in my adulthood, with hopefully more resolve than I had at age 9, waiting for a deer to amble past my stand.

The morning is a crisp, cool one. In autumn, deer go through their rutting phase — an intense display of sudden sexual frenzy. Coincidentally, this is one of the best times to see a mature buck with large antlers foolishly gallivanting through the woods. Something about a doe that wants to breed makes bucks lose their mind and the majority of their logic driven cortex. I’ve also found that deer are more active on cold days. 

I see a doe running about 100 yards to my left. A little suspicious, so I keep my eyes on the line of her trail. As if prescribed, here comes a young buck following her trail. He is too young for my liking, so I let him pass.

I hear some movement behind me. I turn very slowly. A beautiful, young 8 pointer is sniffing and checking a scrape he has made. I decide to pass on him as well.

Shortly thereafter, a doe walks about 20 yards in front of me with her yearling in tow. They seem a little wary. Once again, a small buck is following their trail hoping for a good time. I pass on all three deer.

By 8 or 9 a.m. it’s not quite so cold, I’ve thawed out, and I’ve passed on about seven different deer. At this point I feel a twinge of regret on passing on all the deer I have seen, but mainly, I feel fortunate to have witnessed such a wondrous, natural display. 

BOOM! From the down the road the signal sounds. I wonder if my comrades have bagged their fancy. My patience starts to seem irrelevant as I hear two more shots. 

Around 10:30 a.m. my legs are stiff, my butt is cold, and the deer have stopped moving. I decide I shall tender my resignation. I stand in a wobbly, uncertain fashion, and after another awkward dance between gear, tree, stand, and fool, I am back on the ground. I cautiously sneak my way out of the woods in case of a run-in with some late morning deer.

As I approach the other hunters and vehicles, I remove my cartridges and accept my defeat.

Luke killed 2 does. Ryan killed a small 8 pointer. Robert slept in. 

I congratulate them without hesitation knowing that I practiced restraint, a skill that’s perhaps more difficult than spotting a deer or killing a deer. But for each man, his obligations to provide differ — Luke has a large family, it’s Ryan’s first hunt this season, and Robert always chooses sleep over sustenance. But I have only to feed myself and my wife, and we have a few packs of meat left over from the previous season. Thus, the process is extended.


In the middle to late portion of deer hunting season my willingness to simply observe deer weakens and my lust for a successful hunt intensifies. I’ve done my fair share of watch and wait, but as I see my freezer’s innards increasingly diminished, I feel the urge to offset it. 

I believe that if you head to the woods with the intent of killing any beast, then you might as well be a songbird watching. You will not see the animal that you came to hunt. The first and last thing you will see is your car. I swear to God.

So I head to the woods with little ambition other than to enjoy a glorious sunrise on an unusually balmy November day. I sit on a high ridge crowned by an oak-hickory forest. The chestnut oaks and white oaks seem to have dropped a wealth of acorns, the perfect diet and attractant for white-tailed deer. 

My stand allows me good visibility of the entire ridge and optimal mobility.

To my right I catch a glimpse of a brown flash and a subtle noise. No squirrel moves so quietly or conservatively. I raise my binoculars and scan where I saw the flash. It’s a small buck. I’ve decided I am not shooting any small bucks, so I continue to watch through my binoculars. He seems a little preoccupied with his surroundings. He is not alone. I then see several more shapes materialize. A yearling makes itself known. Then just behind the yearling a long nosed mature doe cautiously steps forward. She is a beautiful specimen and precisely what I am after.

I raise my gun and pick out the cleanest opening in the undergrowth that she is walking towards. She slips into the opening, and I take the shot. Bam! The woods are brought to life! Deer that I couldn’t even see are running in every direction. My targeted doe stumbles down. I know that I have made a clean shot and now my multi-day quest is fulfilled.

I must now be quick and thoughtful so that I waste nothing. I am thankful for the opportunity to have harvested an animal that will provide me with 40 to 60 pounds of lean meat for the next year.


Field Cleaning, Cleaning, and Meat Preparation

The beast lay at my feet, a picture of a distant past. My purpose and goal of the preceding weeks is finally laying at my feet, and coincidentally, a more time-intensive and time-sensitive portion of my process has begun.

When you have harvested a large animal there are several options on how to proceed. The first is the simplest: you take the animal to a butcher (or in this case a “deer processor”). I’ll be the first to agree that you may be able to handle the hunting and harvesting of a deer but not the butchering itself. And that is quite alright, innumerable professional deer processors can be found on country highways throughout the Southeast.

Butchering your own deer is not for everyone. However, this is the option I generally prefer, which of course is doing it yourself. 

Hopefully harvested with a clean shot, I walk up to the doe on the ground. I approach from its rear just in case. It appears that I have successfully and thoroughly harvested the animal. 

Now for the following paragraph, I suggest that only medical students and hardy Americans continue reading.

I make my primary incision in the inner thigh of the deer, thus puncturing the abdominal cavity without puncturing any organs that would spoil the meat. I run two fingers into the incision, and with my hand facing upwards and my knife cutting from inside the abdomen, I run the knife the length of the abdominal cavity to the sternum. Cutting from the top through the hair would quickly dull your knife and doesn’t allow you to control what you might cut down into. It’s also key to use your non-dominant hand as a guide and barrier between the guts and the knife. If all goes well, nothing in the abdomen has been shot or punctured. Next, I cut through the diaphragm to the chest cavity. The heart, lungs and vital organs are found here, and for an efficient kill, they should be thoroughly disrupted. With care not to puncture anything, I remove the vital organs, the abdominal organs, and the digestive tract. At this point, I have effectively field dressed the animal.

If you are lucky you get to field dress the animal in the daylight, otherwise, you may find yourself doing this whole process in the dark. And in case you are wondering, I have transported a field dressed deer in a sedan, mini-van, SUV, small truck, and luxury vehicle. A large truck being necessary for hunting is a redneck legend and most simply an excuse to buy a beautiful, big truck.

The next step is to skin and quarter the deer. This is easiest and most sanitarily done somewhere you can raise the deer from the ground and with access to a hose. It is generally easiest to hang the deer by making an incision in its hind legs between the bone and the large tendon. I skin the deer from the rear legs down to the head. This can be hard work without the assistance of a wench — no pun intended. 

Once the hide and head are removed, the animal finally looks like the carcass that you might imagine hanging at a butcher’s. I simply start cutting away from the carcass in steps by removing the backstraps, the tenderloins, the shoulders, neck meat, the roasts from the hind quarters, and all of the good pieces for grindings found all over the body.

I generally prefer to keep the backstraps and tenderloins whole. They are wonderful steak like cuts that are best grilled or pan seared. The roasts that are removed from the hind quarters are great for a crock pot slow cooked roast. The majority of the other meat goes into the grinder for sausage and burgers. 


I walk through the woods. It's cool and beautiful in its early blues and blacks. This is a unique feeling, like Whitman says, "the feeling of health...the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun." I see myself, as an old man, taking my time and doing this again and again. 

Story by Gresham Cash

Photographs by Jodi Cash

From Consumers to Producers: The Homestead Atlanta

On a chilled morning in late fall, The Goat Farm in Atlanta feels deserted. Twisted vines climb old brick walls and the only sign of life is the droplets that coat windowpanes, hinting that some warmth dwells inside. Stepping through a white unmarked entryway, a metal cage reveals itself. Eight students stand alert at their anvils, watching the instructor etch in chalk the details of today’s lesson. 

Mark Hopper is teaching a beginner’s metalsmithing class this morning.  It’s part three of a campfire cookery series offered by The Homestead Atlanta, a roving hub for affordable workshops that explore practical sustainability and forgotten heritage skills.

Kimberly Coburn started The Homestead Atlanta in early 2013 with the goal of creating a network of skill-based experts and a community of people eager to reconnect with their hands.

“I don’t have a background in any of this. I just love it all,” Coburn says. “Part of the reason I started this is because I wanted access to it.”

Classes are available in a range of subjects from knitting to foraging and aromatherapy to rainwater harvesting. The diversity keeps it interesting, and the level of knowledge required to sign up for any class is zero.

“One of the biggest things all of these [programs] are about is reintroducing people to their capacity for creation,” Kimberly says. “Our birthright as humans is the ability to create and be problem solvers and make things that get us by. Reminding people that they can be producers instead of just consumers is key.”

Jessica Collins is a student and an assistant to Mark Hopper at the GoatnHammer metalsmithing shop. She’s seen that moment of change in people that Kimberly hopes to cultivate — she watches participants realize they can do something now that they couldn’t do before, and it’s powerful.

“Did everyone get that down in one heat?” Hopper asks as his students hammer with speed and deliberation, hoping to make the next curve before the iron cools. “That’s okay. You’re using caution. Saturday morning and the coffee hasn’t kicked in.”

For all the hammering clamor, this kind of work requires finesse. Intentional force and a delicate aim are required to succeed in the process of bending and shaping metal.

“Be sympathetic to the form you are creating,” Hopper urges. It’s critical to follow the line of the anvil.

Coburn seeks out experts like Mark Hopper to teach the wide range of classes she offers. She also seeks to connect future apprentices to their teachers.

Hopper stands tall in steel-toed brown leather boots. His pants are held up by black suspenders coupled with a belt fastened by an anvil-etched brass buckle. In his pockets are a blue kerchief for sweat and a knife in holster, around his neck an intricate silver choker. The details give tell to a deep respect for metal.

Hopper never succeeded in school, so when he was 15, he decided to start travelling the world. He apprenticed with blacksmiths across the globe, only to return to Atlanta seeking the purpose and the community he would later establish at The Goat Farm.

Hopper and Collins became acquainted while pursuing separate passions at The Goat Farm. One day Hopper came to her with a revelation.

“I think I found my life’s work and that’s to develop a very concise and lineated curriculum for blacksmithing,” Hopper says.

The GoatnHammer launched about 3 years ago. The curriculum Hopper offers in collaboration with The Homestead Atlanta takes a less precision-oriented, more object-oriented approach to metalsmithing. Fittingly, it’s more the approach of an agriculture-smith, one who makes only the objects he needs on the field to get by.

“Only 40 to 50 percent [of students] had swung a hammer with intent before,” he says. The students are most often people who work in offices, not carpenters and builders.

“It’s people who don’t get a lot of time to work with their hands. I think that working with our hands is something that humans really have to do,” says Collins. “They crave it. They need it. And this is an outlet for that.”

One older student came to the class because his father and grandfather were both trained blacksmiths that had to become house painters instead to support themselves. They encouraged him to do something else, so he became a professor of math and statistics. Now he finds himself drawn back into the work of his elders.

Another student’s wife encouraged him to take the metalsmithing course after she attended weaving courses offered by The Homestead Atlanta.

“I kind of joke that I’m brainwashing people one craft at a time,” Coburn says.

Creating a community based in cultivating human skills is the goal The Homestead Atlanta hopes to achieve.

“I want to make sure that people don’t think this is nostalgic, you know, or backwards looking. Just because something was done two hundred years ago doesn't mean it’s any less relevant today. There’s that element of trying to protect those [practices] from being lost because people don’t have to do them anymore,” Coburn says. “[These skills] are going to move us all into a more sustainable future.”

Overhill Gardens: A Place to Grow

Alissa was in love the first time she heard Avi Askey’s voice. 

She’d seen an ad in the paper that he was hiring help at his plant nursery. She was on her way to a job in Canada teaching kids how to survive in nature, the whole bit, but she needed quicker cash than a trip to the depths of the Canadian wild could yield. So she called him. 

Avi didn’t answer. But there was something in his tone and his candor, even on the machine, that she couldn’t resist. 

“I heard his voice and I was just like I. Love. You. I hung up the phone and was like I am going to marry this man!” she says. “I went and wrote a banjo song about him and I was just obsessed.” 

He returned her call days later, and this time she missed it. He left her a message asking her to come in for an interview.

“I played that message like a hundred times. I’d be at a party and go into the back of my van, and I’d crouch down real low and listen.”

Arriving in Vonore, Tennessee the day before her interview, she drove around and past the nursery, searching for signs of a man she already knew she loved. 

When she met Avi finally the next day, he wasn’t exactly what she’d expected. 

“But his voice and the way he walked, it was just like I was hooked,” she says.

She was immediately hired upon interviewing. They made an arrangement that she’d stay in the barn loft on his verdant holler property, but she never spent a night without him. Just as soon as she’d committed to working his land, they were talking marriage and children. Three weeks later, she was pregnant with their first boy, Jonas. 

Life quickly changed for all of them. 

“It was quick, it really was, and it was a heck of a way to meet somebody, but we’ve done alright,” she says.  

Avi was drawn to Tellico Plains through similarly supernatural means. 

He felt drawn to go South from Pennsylvania, and he trusted his gut as he wound through mountain roads without direction. He knew he wanted land. He knew somewhere down here he’d find it. He turned left when he felt he had to. He turned right as his instincts instructed. He found land for sale on Citico Road; he made a bid, and he bought it. 

Avi Askey was far from the first person to discover this fertile Eden. It was a mecca of Cherokee history. They flocked to the land after being displaced in every direction by 18th century European settlers, only to be forced onward again years later. 

Alissa’s own Cherokee heritage is in Tennessee, a place she never imagined herself (and a fact she didn’t know) until she was there. Her great, great grandad was the Raven of Choctaw. Now she finds arrowheads and remnants of Cherokee pottery every time they till.

In his first two years of living on the land he called Overhill Gardens, Avi lived in a teepee. He wasn’t unaccustomed to living less-than-conventionally. His parents are self-described “back-to-earthers.” 

“You wouldn’t call them hippies, because politically they weren’t hippies at all,” Alissa says, “but they were into that whole back to the roots kind of thing, you know?” 

His mom is the kind of woman who made cheese everyday from scratch. His parents raised cattle and grew their food. They bought a dilapidated farm house and made it their own. They believed in knowing where their food came from long before it was a thing to do. 

“[Avi’s mom] is a hard woman to live up to,” she says. “This woman is getting double knee replacements, and she’s working 50 hours a week here in the nursery squatting and doing all kinds of stuff -- she will not complain at all, and if she ever does complain, you need to be looking at ERs or something. If she’s like, ‘yeah i’m not feeling that great,’ I’m like ‘we’re going to the hospital.’”

Avi’s parents joined them on the rolling Overhill property, first in a trailer and now in a home that sits just up the dirt road from their children and grandchildren. 

In the face of whatever intimidation Alissa is confronted with, she continues to move forward. Together, she and Avi envision more for their family and their property. The two are intertwined.

In time, she’d like to create more space for other people to stay, in renovated airstreams, teepees and a cabin that has its foundation already laid. 

“Sit for a second and dream with me,” she says, tucked into the booth of the bright red Shasta airstream that sits on the pathway from her house to the woods. Her boys play sweetly in the loft. “Everybody thinks this is a dream,” she says, “but you have to beat back the land all the time.”

The work at Overhill is ceaseless; that’s the catch of a “simplified” life. With no one to rely on but yourselves, there’s a big, less-than-glamorous difference between simple and easy; the Askies know that first hand. 

“Avi’s work is non-stop -- he works until he goes to bed,” she says. “It’s so exhausting and there’s no money in it. You have to love the lifestyle or you’ll just go crazy.”

And for where there is challenge, there is sincerity. The Askies do what they do because they believe in it, not because they think someone might be looking or maybe because fate had a hand in it.  

When Alissa and Avi met, she’d been an adventurer, traversing from her home in Florida to the Pacific Northwest, searching for anything but permanence. She’d grown lavender and raised alpacas, biked the coastline into Canada and traveled to island farms by sailboat. 

When she heard Avi’s voice for the first time, she wrote down her dreams: that she’d live on a farm, raise children and love the man on the other side of the line. 

After she came to the holler, she never left. 

Now she’s surrounded by three growing boys, Jonas (age 6), Asa (age 4) and Callum (age 2), and a husband she loves, respects and admires. They fill her life with purpose and beauty that can’t be described but only experienced. She and Avi aren’t sure what they want for their boys -- whether one or all of them will take the land as their own, or even if they want them to. 

"Our kids spend May through October foraging for wild foods (many of them in our yard),” Avi says. “And it’s one of our biggest joys as parents – to have them grow up with that being the norm."

Believe it or not, there’s a school bus that makes its way out to Overhill Gardens. Alissa cried when she watched her oldest boy step onto the bus as it pulled him away with dust swelling in its stead. 

Story & photographs by Jodi Cash

Oasis in the Wild


Robert Rankin first laid eyes on the Snowbird Mountain Lodge in the 1970s. An avid hiker, he had emerged from the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in serious need of a bath. The innkeeper charged him five dollars for a bar of soap and the use of an outdoor shower.

“I fell in love,” he said. And the love affair has not since ended.

In 1941, the Wolfe brothers established the Snowbird Mountain Lodge just outside of Robbinsville, North Carolina, and their original vision remains strong under Robert’s proprietorship. They created a space designed to surprise with every aspect, to exceed expectations, to be an oasis in the wilderness.

Today, lodges built on mountaintops are rare.

The original drive ascends in a curve that mimics the feeling of climbing a mountain. As you are about to crest, all that appears in your view is a pure blue, wide-open expanse of sky. It’s not until you round the final bend that the majestic Unicoi Mountains and the lodge itself are revealed in full form.

It’s been 21 years now that Robert has owned the Snowbird Mountain Lodge. “The Lodge was condemned when I bought it,” he said.

From that moment on, he has handpicked every detail in the place. The authenticity gained from that care is felt by each guest, from the first step onto the mountaintop property until the final goodbye, assured they must return.

Robert says about 80% of his guests come every year. And that is a sign that he is doing his job right.

“I think people are looking for something authentic,” Rankin says as he hunches over his well-stocked bar. He is highly engaged in conversation, but you can tell he is attuned to everything happening in the room. He cannot and will not let service falter.

The Snowbird Mountain Lodge exists somewhere between elegant and rustic. Truly, it is comfortable, and it is a retreat.

We are always connected in the modern world, but Robert questions to what. He says we are instead assaulted by the technology that rests readily at our fingertips and surrounds the daily human experience. We are tethered to a digital world.

“There’s a peace that descends on me when I enter these mountains,” he says.

Robert floats around the Lodge most days because his presence is part of his philosophy. He wants guests to know that the person that did all of this is actually here.

“With inns and bed and breakfasts and the like, you’ll find that if the owner fits the place, it’s phenomenal,” he says. “If the owner doesn’t fit the place it’s kind of like that missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that kind of looks like it fits but it doesn’t really fit.”

Tonight, Robert is bartending. As he expertly tours a guest through his large bourbon selection, she coyly asks,  “How did you become such a connoisseur?” He frankly replies, “I drink a lot!”

Every convenience has been considered at the Snowbird Mountain Lodge.

Offering 23 private rooms that are equally historic and modernized, the Lodge can host a maximum capacity of 46 guests. The whole experience is designed for couples to connect and for people to enjoy a retreat to nature.

It’s the level of service that allows that freedom.

Not only are all meals included, but they are first class. Your packed lunch order is taken at the seated dinner you’ll reserve personally with maître-d at check-in. They source food locally, even though it’s not the easy way, nestled deep in rural Southern Appalachia in a large county with only 7000 people. 

“We know everybody and we depend on everybody,” Robert says.

That means that tonight’s menu will be completely different from yesterday’s. The trout comes from local rivers regarded for fly-fishing, beef from Brasstown Valley, and pork from Nantahala Meats. Robert finds himself in Asheville twice weekly scouting produce at farmers markets if the two local farms he sources from—or the neighbors’ front yard garden—cannot supply his needs.

“We take pride in that we know who we are buying from,” says Robert.

Robert also takes pride in his staff of 24 – 30 employees who receive a yearly salary despite the two months of winter closing. The genuine care for service is felt from the top down, and the drive to be the best possible, in life and in work, is a mantra that resonates throughout the Lodge.

In the early nineties, when Robert found himself at a crossroads in his professional life, he found himself fly-fishing on the Nantahala River with his father. Standing on the bank with this man who had worked passionately at his career for his whole life, Robert was given the best gift a parent could give. His father said, “whatever your passion is, you find it, you follow it,” because money will never lead to happiness, just stuff.

“I told him I’d always wanted to own an inn and be of service,” Robert said, “and he laughed and said, ‘well, when are you gonna do that?’”

In the Snowbird Mountain Lodge, Robert has found career and solace. His idea of success lies in the guests he serves, and the small things, like watching a couple drink coffee in their pajamas in the lobby or taking off their shoes because this place feels like home.

“Being able to reconnect with each other on this level and with nature and the ground and the earth that we walk on and the food we eat is really important and that’s what this place is about.”


Story by Erin Wilson
Photographs by Jodi Cash

Drawing Closer the Farmer: An Evening with Outstanding in the Field


In the brightest sunlight of the day, a crowd of strangers approaches a piece of unfamiliar farmland. There will be a tour of a barn most likely, maybe a look into a greenhouse, certainly a walk around a property that has seen hard work, and the definitely the opportunity to hear from the voice of a farmer.

This is an event outside the norm. As instinctive unease wears off and the hunger for a good meal grumbles, the table is revealed.

“From the artistic perspective, I’m always thinking of the composition of the table in the setting, like an artist looks at a canvas or a piece of music,” says Jim Denevan, founder of the travelling open-air pop-up dinner series Outstanding in the Field. “I go way overboard with placing the table in the environment.”

Jim Denevan is a chef and an artist in his own right, and those creative pursuits feed directly into his work with Outstanding in the Field .  

“My artwork is about place, and especially time, where the compositions would be erased by tide or waves or the rain and the wind,” he says. His art is large format, temporary and tied inextricably to place.  

In the 1990s, Jim worked as a chef in his hometown Santa Cruz, California, just five miles from his brother’s organic farm. Riding his bike to work everyday along the ocean, he simultaneously became excited about sharing the stories of ingredients’ origins and about drawing in the sand.

“I quickly became obsessed with making artwork on the way to work as a chef,” he says. “I was late to work a lot.”

But once Jim made it to work, he was fiercely dedicated to telling the stories of local agriculture. At his tiny restaurant Gabriella Café, the menu was handwritten daily with the names of the farmers written beside their produce. He invited the farmers to the restaurant.

“I just sort of sprung them on [the customers]. I wanted to make farming as interesting as it could be. I wanted to tell a story through the menu,” he says.

Thus, Outstanding in the Field was born in 1999.

Jim’s menus as a pioneering chef at Gabriella Café and the collaborative menus between guest chefs and host farmers at Outstanding in the Field dinners have always spoken to the season and the growers. The food on the table lingers on the meaningful relationship between the natural world and the social world that is easily lost.  

“When we started there was no phrase farm to table, it didn’t really exist,” Jim says. “We had a lot of convincing to do.”

In 2015, Jim and his team will serve almost 12,000 people. In the history of the project, they have now traveled to over 10 countries and all 50 states, setting the table almost 100 times each year on the beach, under the apple orchards, on the hillside—where ever the food beckons.

Outstanding in the Field personally hosts the farmers, winemakers, foragers and artisans who are purely connected to the ingredients on the table. These are the stewards of the land that the general public must reconnect with; this is the point of it all. Being able to invite farmers to sit at the table alongside the general public is a built-in component of the price.

“It’s incredible to hear the stories of farmers across the country,” Jim says. “It’s very personal when someone is talking about the land they’ve worked on.”

Jim recognized from the beginning that there are more and more people, especially young people, who are getting into farming, and he needed to be part of supporting that growth. Outstanding in the Field set out to pay farmers just as much as share their stories.

“We were going to pay everybody for everything,” Jim says.

He is firm in his stance that this is not a charity. When farmers can’t feed themselves even though their work is about growing food, he sees a wrongdoing.

It’s all about getting more people, more consumers, to devote their dollars to small organic farmers. “You don’t have to convince anyone to participate anymore. That’s a cool change in culture,” he says with some pride. “There was a whole period of time where people were taken away from direct experience and simultaneously technology gained power.”

People are finally pushing back; there is an upsurge in yearning to be present. In the groups that dine with Outstanding in the Field, there is a tangible desire to use their senses in the physical world and to really know about the places where they live, from the best route to walk downtown to the farmers that supply their food locally.

Jim has seen this deeper sense of connection ignite in his guests. It’s the building of communities of diverse yet like-minded individuals that makes his events powerful for people across the globe.

“The interesting thing is that [Outstanding in the Field] does translate to other countries and that is related to greater questions of why people want this right now in our culture,” Jim says. “[The Japanese] love sitting communal style with strangers, finding that they have common humanity. Real connection really touches people.”


Story by Erin Wilson

Photographs provided by Outstanding in the Field

To attend an Outstanding in the Field dinner, visit the website here.

A look at real life at white oak pastures


You can gain a glimpse into the life of a farmer without quitting your day job and buying a plot of land. Visiting a fully operational farm-for-profit opens your eyes to the realities of the job—the harsh and the beautiful, the rigorous and the peaceful—and it gives you a depth of perspective and appreciation for the people who grow your food.  

At White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, the average person can see firsthand how a large-scale farm can flourish while raising animals humanely on pasture and growing vegetables organically.

“I think it’s important for [people] to see it,” said Jodi Harris Benoit, White Oak’s Farm Events Manager. “I appreciate those customers and want our customers who already buy from us to see it, to see where [the animals] are raised. Hell, they can stay right by the chickens. I want them to experience it.”

It’s a place worth seeing for many reasons. It’s the largest organic farm in Georgia, one of the most prominent sustainable and humane animal producers in the country, and the only farm in the nation that has USDA approved abattoirs on the premises to process the animals they raise.

Jodi and her sister Jenni Harris are the daughters of Will Harris and the fifth generation of the Harris clan to run the farm.

A visit to White Oak Pastures begins with delivery to one of a few cabins tucked away on the property. The largest dwelling, the Pond House, was the modest starter home for Will and his wife Yvonne as newlyweds many years past. At that time, it was a simple cinderblock building with little in the way of adornments or décor. Now it’s decked out with rustic interiors and all of the White Oak value-added products you could desire for a very comfortable, yet retreat-focused stay.

In the last year, Jodi Harris has taken on the task of making White Oak an agrotourism destination.

“We didn’t anticipate the tourism thing,” she said, “it just kind of happened.”

The Harrises opened White Oak Pastures up to the public for the sake of admirers and critics alike. It’s a chance for anyone to see ten species of animals living in natural symbiosis, a sight that differs drastically from a large scale, corporatized single-species beef or poultry farm. Any given visitor has access to every aspect of the farm—from baby sheep frolicking through the beautiful fields to the surprisingly sterile, calm and systematic slaughter of a cow.

“I think transparency is the best marketing tool,” said Jodi, while walking us (literally) through each aspect of production on the farm.

And that’s perhaps the most charming aspect of visiting White Oak Pastures. There was not an ounce of pretense from anyone. The Harris family is warm and open, as were the doors to each operation at the farm.

If you’re lucky, Will Harris will crank up his Ford pickup truck and assume the role of tour guide. He personally drove us around the property and laid out the full scope of White Oak Pastures with uninhibited commentary and references to his own colorful family history.

“We’re fiercely proud of what we do,” said Will. It’s one of his signature lines, but that only goes to show that he’s serious. He spent an afternoon pointing out rare Iberian pigs buried deep in puddles of mud, goats roaming the forest and cows freely grazing sloping pastures of fertile ground.

He’s a busy man. He’s a full-time farmer. But he’s on a mission to showcase his success to anyone who will listen. He’s not looking for a pat on the back or more plaques to hang on his already crowded wall of accomplishments—he wants to prove to the world that sustainable, moral farming is not only possible, it’s necessary.  Not only that, his business is profitable, even if the majority of revenue goes straight back into his operation that continues to morph and grow.

White Oak Pastures has been in the Harris family for more than 150 years. Passed down through five generations, the farm saw only the hooves of cattle. Today, the property sprawls over 2,500 acres (most owned, some leased) with 10 species of animals and organic produce.

Will took the leap to turn to sustainable practices with little guarantee that it would be profitable. In what onlookers might have called a mid-life crisis, he decided that he wanted to find more value in what he was doing. He wanted to consider the welfare of the animals he raised and the welfare of the land he stewards.

It dawned on him that he had to do better.

“Saying that our old idea of animal welfare was right is like saying raising your kids in a closet with only a mattress, but it’s 72 degrees and you keep plenty of crackerjacks in there for them to eat and you leave the light on, is good parenting,” he said.

So he made changes. Through hard work, diligence, and a small army of people, he learned to raise nine new species of animals, to process them on-site, to grow organic produce and to incorporate value-added products. The learning curve was steep, but he’s brought on good, smart, honest workers to turn a lofty ambition into a reality.

While driving us around, Will pulled over to introduce us to every employee we came across, and without fail, each one happily showed us his or her pet project—a man named Jay Barrows let us taste the goat’s milk he’d harvested that day, Jenni’s partner Amber Reece showed us the cow hide dog treats that are a customer favorite, Mary Bruce gave us a tour of the organic farm (complete with a snack from the garden), and John Benoit, Jodi’s husband, let us peep at hogs that were being readied to mate.

But the most charming part of the visit was sitting down for lunch and dinner each day with the Harris family and the extended family made up of the people who work at White Oak. At The Pavilion we got a pure glimpse into what matters to them.  A sign is painted on the wall of this restaurant that Will built to feed his people—it reads, “We pray for plenty of good, hard work to do and the strength to do it.”

The essence of White Oak Pastures is evident in how hard the people work to do the right thing; to be right by each other and right by the living things they raise and harvest. Being there was not a glamorous trip to a precious farm-to-table experience; it was real.

Jodi, Will and Jenni Harris.

Jodi, Will and Jenni Harris.

*A version of this story appeared first in Flagpole’s Locavore column. 


Story by Jodi Cash

Photographs by Paige French

Full Moon Farm: A Delicate Subject


Iwalani Farfour stands tall in her relaxed denim overalls. Her warm face is flanked by two thick, dark braids and marked by pensive eyes that exaggerate the composure of a wise woman. Her hands take care in movements, as if in deep thought, but their dusty tan reveals hard time spent with the sun and the earth—and all are better for it.

Iwalani is first and foremost a good steward to the land. Second, she is the manager of Full Moon Farm, an organic, family-operated farm in Winterville, Georgia.

Full Moon Farm was born of the local food movement in and around Athens, Georgia. In 2005, farm-to-table restaurant Farm 225 was supplied almost exclusively by the network of sister farms collectively known as Full Moon Coop. For everyone interested, you might say the farm system reached celebrity status, or at least the degree of name recognition for a farm that was unheard of 13 years ago.

Today, the restaurant has closed, but Full Moon Farm remains in abbreviated form as one acre of farmed land within about five acres of the property formerly known as Roots Farm.

“But we’re able to pump it out on this little space,” says Iwalani, manager at Full Moon Farm, especially with the combined power of her new multi-farm CSA, Collective Harvest.

Considering the population, Athens-Clarke County is surrounded and supported by a large number of small organic farms. Along with the Collective Harvest President Alex Rilko, Iwalani recognized the power of the cooperative model she had experienced in the past. Collective Harvest unites Full Moon Farm with Front Field Farm and Diamond Hill Farm to provide a larger bulk and a wider variety of vegetables, fruits and eggs.  

“Our three farms are coming together to do this CSA to hopefully be able to serve more people and to make it a larger thing,” Iwalani says. “Alex…approached us all with this idea—why don’t we just work together instead of all three of our tiny farms trying to compete against one another.”

In March, just before the CSA launched, the field was empty save for a corner of covered crops and blackberries in the distance, already trellised. Much of a farmer’s work throughout the year involves strategic planning, especially in preparation for the bounty of spring and summer. In fact, farming outside of the industrial arena is fairly quiet. It’s a lot of cleaning and keeping organized.

“It’s pretty tedious work too, which is not your typical man’s work,” says Iwalani. “Farming is such a nurturing thing. It’s totally growing from babies, and there’s a lot of cleaning that happens.”

Her assistant Sarah Thurman echoed a similar experience—as a young girl, farming was never presented to her as a career option.

Sarah says, “When I went to Brazil and I was finally out of adults telling me what I could do with my life, I went (whispers) ‘I want to be a farmer’.”

Today, in the organic and small-scale market in particular, the number of women in agriculture has increased. According to the USDA, nearly one-third of domestic farmers, those that list farming as their primary occupation, are women. But nationwide, still, not a lot of women are farm operators and managers like Iwalani and Jacqui Coburn of Front Field Farm. The 2012 Census reports that 18 percent of organic farms are lead by a female farm operator, as compared to 16 percent in agriculture overall. You still see a lot more women as laborers.

“Men like to use the tools, but when it came to anything that had to do with being delicate…I was always seeding, I was always preparing the food to be sold. Making sure it looks good,” says Sarah. “If we were harvesting delicate things, I would end up doing the delicate harvests.”

To understand the value of organic and sustainable practices, there must be a drive to protect and improve land and resources for the future.

The Full Moon Farm property has been organically managed for over 20 years. Before Roots Farm even, the owners of the land had the foresight to avoid chemicals, put in trees and start a sustainable infrastructure.

“It’s just been building since then. We’re not certified organic yet, but this property has been managed in that way for a while, making it easy for us to transition,” said Iwalani.

And perhaps that’s where a return to small-scale and organic farming ties into a reemergence of women in farming.

Organic farming principles require a more intimate relationship with the land and the cycles of nature that then inform the cycles of the farm. It’s a hands-on approach to growing food and sustaining the earth that requires patience. It relies on a personal investment in the future.

“Knowing how to grow your own food is knowing how to provide for your family,” said Sarah. “We might struggle to get by or not make a lot of profit but I know my family can eat food or you know your kid has the best food in world and that’s going to give him what he needs to grow.”


Story by Erin Wilson 

Photographs by Paige French

Salt of the Earth: The Life of a Georgia Shrimper


Tybee Island came to J.B. in a childhood dream. As a Midwestern boy, he saw a vision of a lighthouse and the tide, long before laying conscious eyes on the ocean.

When J.B. Riffle arrived on the island as a young man pursuing his place in the world, it was déjà vu.  

He moved to Tybee in the early 70’s, travelling by Harley. Working on a railroad in South Dakota didn’t suit him; it was too damn cold. And when the Wounded Knee Incident occurred a mere 60 miles away, he knew he had to find a new home.

He drifted from job to job, town to town, traversing much of the country. He thought himself “too sorry” to make anything stick. 

Until he stepped foot on a shrimping boat and realized work was not the problem—it was people. 

He was taken on as a crewmember by a man named W.G., a man much akin to his own spirit. 

Together they built the Agnes Marie, one of the last wooden shrimp boats on Southeastern seas, and aboard it they worked together for 30 happy years. W.G. taught J.B. all that he knew—from driving a boat and casting nets to running a business and chasing women. 

In their time together, they watched the industry fluctuate through extreme highs and lows. In a good year they’d make as much as $200,000, and the next they’d be lucky to break even. When J.B. began his shrimping career there were 1,400 certified shrimpers in the state of Georgia. Last year there were around 300.*

It’s not easy work and there are no guarantees. Since Riffle entered the industry in the 70’s, the cost of fuel has skyrocketed, alongside the cost of basic needs like nets and a boat.

“Everything has went up 10 times… yet we’re getting the same price for our shrimp that we was gettin’ 40 years ago,” he said. “But if you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.”

W.G.’s greatest gift came to J.B. in his final moments. 

J.B.’s son had just graduated college and was working on the boat while looking for another job. W.G. intended to retire soon and had already sold the boat to J.B., who planned to carry on his legacy. 

While at sea, W.G. was overcome by a heart attack and died miles away from the dock. J.B. stayed calm and took over the wheel. He steered the crew to shore and called the police. But he didn’t want to see his mentor carried off of the boat in a body bag. At the thought of it, he was crippled by grief. He didn’t want to see the man who gave him a skill, a passion and a purpose become a nameless corpse, cargo to be disposed of, tucked into a zippered bag. 

“’Bout that time, my son come up and put his hand on my shoulder and said ‘dad, I got him,’” said Riffle, “The last present that old man give me is I watched my boy become a man right in front of my eyes.”

Parenthood is the only pursuit J.B. has loved more than shrimping. As a single dad, he raised a daughter and a son. Much of their upbringing was spent on the boat. It was a vivid exercise for the children in hard work and determination, and it instilled a deep appreciation for the ocean’s power and splendor.

J.B. watched his marriage deteriorate over money when the mother of his children inherited a fortune she refused to share. But he considers this no loss—he’s surrounded by the riches of the life and children that he loves. 

“The evilest thing in the world is money. It changes peoples’ hearts, ya know?” he said. “And if you really love somebody, you’d live under a bridge in a tent to be with that person.”

J.B. isn’t the only one to be unlucky in love—it’s considered to be a family curse. His brother has been married eight times and his sister has been married nine. 

For what romance was lost on the island, J.B. found friendship, and in no shortage.

“Tybee used to be the kind of place that if you didn’t fit in anywhere else in the world, you fit in down here,” he said.

It was the kind of place where his arm would grow tired of waving as he drove the shrimp from the boat to market everyday. 

In the name of loyalty, Riffle doesn’t like for the shrimp he catches off of the South Georgia coast to leave Tybee Island. He likes to provide for his own, and he looks forward to driving his shrimp to friends at Bowie Seafood or enjoying them at his favorite restaurant, Sundae Café.

These relationships define the life Riffle built for himself on the island. But in recent years, his business has been increasingly threatened by shrimp imported from across the globe. He knows that even on the island, restaurants desperate for tourist traffic will sell imported shrimp and pan them as local. 

Last summer the tide shifted in his direction. Much of the Asian shrimp population was wiped out by disease, and he was one of few men around with the delicacy in great supply. This year, legislation is being passed in his favor. The FDA is refusing to let masses of imported shrimp contaminated with banned antibiotics cross U.S. shorelines. And if the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act passes, Riffle and other U.S. shrimpers may finally receive fair prices for their shrimp. 

With little interest in the price he’s paid, J.B. will board the boat before sunrise every morning. He will cast his net as he did the day before, and he’ll turn back to shore before he’s depleted his spot. 

“It’s a zen thing,” he said.

Once his pastor challenged him for missing church every Sunday. Riffle compelled the man to come out on the ship. 

“He said, ‘J.B., I want to tell you something, he said I owe you an apology,’ and I said ‘what’s that for,’ he said ‘you’ll never ever be any closer to the Lord than you are right now.’”

Riffle has no problem appreciating his lifestyle day to day; he only wishes that those visiting the island would change their clocks to Tybee Time, that they’d watch the sunrise and the sunset. 

In the houses that used to hold neighbors, he now finds visitors. His kids are grown. W.G. is gone. But he begins and ends every day just the same. He loads onto the Agnes Marie, and he sets out to see what the ocean presents to him. 

“Everything has changed, and I just haven’t.”

JB-9360.jpg

Story by Jodi Cash

Photos by Paige French

Sources:

*Data verified by John Wallace of the Wild Georgia Shrimp Association

Southern Shrimp Alliance

 

 

spring studio day

Our director of photography and design, Paige French, is inviting readers to join her, along with Rinne Allen and Eve Nettles, to spend a morning together: creatives, sharing our processes and our work.

We'll begin the day with coffee and refreshments, and then venture into the woods with Eve to gather natural elements for styling. We will then work with those elements, making light drawings with Rinne, whose aesthetic and skill as an artist embraces all genres. Her work has a broad span, and she is truly a gift to the creative community. Rinne's process is deeply influenced by nature, and light drawings are a perfect example. Her own light drawings can be seen here, and you'll have the opportunity to learn this traditional art form. These prints will be a beautiful take-home to be passed through generations.

Eve has a distinct gift for discovering and creating beauty wherever she goes, and will share her unique perspective on the use of otherwise unnoticeable materials to make art. Eve is a skillful stylist, and will discuss her approach to sculpture, installation art, and crafting well-formed scenes to be photographed. 

Paige will share her perspective as a self-taught photographer, what she has learned about the art form, and making use of natural materials to create beautiful photographs. You can see Paige and Eve's collaborative project, Nettles + French, here. We'll also discuss the value of cultivating your own distinguishable voice as you pursue the craft of photography in the digital era.

Lastly, our time together will conclude with a light lunch and an opportunity to talk about what we've learned. 

The Seed & Plate is excited to offer our readers this opportunity to experience so much of what we are passionate about, what inspires our content. Spring Studio Day is May 9th, 2015, located just outside of Athens at The Brick House, historically a home for local artists. The Brick House is nestled in the beautiful woodlands between Athens and Crawford, and is a lovely, eclectic space. Our hope with Spring Studio Day is that we will rediscover a strong sense of rootedness, connection to nature, the beauty of traditional methods of using light to make art, and how these things translate into making photographs in the digital age. We chose to limit the group to twelve people, and there are still a few seats left. We would love to have you join us! To learn more and book your seat, please click here

The Shot Provides Itself


The primitive yells of my hunting partners distracted me from the briar in my boot that was digging into my ankle for over an hour. I’m pretty sure my ear was bleeding, but I couldn’t tell if it was blood from my ear, my nose, or the game in my pouch. Of course, I chose to do this on purpose, this self-mutilation. Diving into an eight-foot tall briar patch with a loaded shotgun. All in the name of good taste or good times or good manners.

Some liken it to being Southern, I, on the other hand, enjoy the cold air, walking with friends, drinking gas station coffee in the car, and of course, the resulting sweet meat. I tolerate the brief discomfort and my weathered face and hands because I think that a meal is incomplete without a source of protein—preferably of the meaty persuasion. However, the cost of meat and its short shelf life at home can make it difficult to maintain a carnivorous diet.  Fortunately, the opportunity to obtain your own organic, free range meat is easier than you think.  

Hunting is a classic way to enjoy nature, promote sustainable eating, exercise in the outdoors and ensure that your food was never living in a cage. Most people assume they can’t get into hunting because of cost, accessibility, or knowledge, but with a little research and practice, you can become a conscientious provider for your family and friends.

The months of January and February bring one of my favorite hunting seasons and one of the most accessible for new hunters—rabbit season. Rabbit is a delicacy that is hard to find in restaurants, despite the fact that it was once a staple for Depression era families across America.

During the early and mid 20th century, much of the southern United States was heavily farmed and routinely clearcut. In the years of the Great Depression, when the financial security of the United States and funding for farmers was in jeopardy, there was an abundance of fallow farm fields and early regrowth forests. Fortunately for poor folks, rabbit, quail and other game birds prefer this type of habitat, making for an abundant source of cheaply obtained protein. Originally caught with thriftily assembled rabbit boxes and snares (unfortunately minimal information can be given on the rabbit box here as it is deserving of its own complete piece), rabbit hunting was also as simple as driving or walking down dirt roads with a .22 rifle and sharpshooting rabbits near the road. Eventually the most practiced and fruitful rabbit hunting was with the assistance of some briar resistant beagles or hounds. The dogs are trained to trail and essentially run the rabbits for optimal shot opportunities for hunters with shotguns, thus, lessening the necessity for people to jump into the thickest of brambles. However, if, like me, you don’t have time to train beagles, you must dive into the sea of briars yourself.

The first step of a successful rabbit hunt is to find a clearcut to hunt. The natural succession of regrowth from a bare clearcut forest shows grass and forbs sprout first, followed by small woody vegetation and early successional trees, and finishes out with pines dominating the former plants to forge the way for large hardwoods and pines—your apex forest. Rabbits happily live in these first few environments. Their preferred habitat is thick undergrowth that is composed of fennel, various blackberry varieties, ragweed, broomsedge, panicgrass, and a wide variety of other native plants.

Once you have found your habitat, gather a few friends (all of whom must be licensed to hunt), shotguns and thick clothes. The process of rabbit hunting is preferable for those who are turned off to the idea of sitting in a deer stand in 30 degree weather waiting for a deer to meander by at its own leisure. You and your group get in a line and walk in a line, wading through the thick undergrowth and brambles that hold our furry delicacies.

Rabbits are difficult to shoot. As you can probably imagine, they run fast. They are small. And they are very elusive. As you are walking, or more accurately pushing through, thicker growth and vegetation, the rabbits are disturbed and scatter. Once they run, the shot provides itself. If you have not been completely shredded by the brambles and your chilled fingers still operate, these opportunities can occur many times during a long morning of walking in the brisk winter air. Be alert though! Rabbits can appear simply as a flash of brown and it can take a few sightings to adjust your focus.

A successful rabbit hunt can provide anywhere from one to twenty rabbits depending on your goal at the onset and the hunting restrictions in your state. In Georgia, hunters are limited to 12 rabbits per hunter per day. As rabbits are known to reproduce quite efficiently, the opportunity to reach that limit lies explicitly with the group of people most willing to dive into that human shredder and sacrifice their comfortable Saturday morning.

Enjoying eating rabbit is quite rewarding after you have learned to hunt, clean, butcher and cook them. One rabbit provides 5 primary cuts of meat, and a successful hunt can provide an enjoyable solution to feeding a lot of people. Depending on what you prefer, you can fry, roast, slow cook, or grill these tasty morsels. If your palate is more refined, you can try your hand at sausage, terrine, rillettes, or pâté.

If by some chance your hunt has no kills, you had the opportunity to exercise as the Neanderthals of old and to spend a crisp winter day with some friends. And that is what is most important—but the true “other white meat” sure is good eatin’.


Story by Gresham Cash

Photos by Paige French 

 

Ruminations for the Change of Season

Muscadines and scuppernongs remind me of being on the way somewhere, on a summer trip towards a desirable destination, or mostly the interruptions getting there.

As a family, we picked them up at roadside stands en route to the lake or the river or the Carolina coast. We kids would be mostly annoyed at our parents for stopping the smooth ride and the air conditioning in the car on a hot summer day for some delicacy we didn’t quite understand. Mom would wax nostalgic about summers as a kid in South Georgia and Dad would relish the juice, spit the seeds out the window and chew the fruit joyfully as we rolled our eyes. I would turn the R.E.M. back up on my headphones.

In recent years I’ve grown more interested in these native grapes of the American South. They exist in a light and sunny realm between summer and the earliest hints of fall, like they were created as a coping mechanism to help get you through the maddening heat. In flavor, they’re somewhere between sweet and sour and a bit bitter. There’s a process involved in the finding and eating of these southern grapes, and there’s a mystery of flavor and finesse waiting beneath their varied skins.

Over 300 different muscadines have been catalogued, but Southerners know there are two that matter, muscadines and scuppernongs, and that these can be distinguished by color—purple or bronze. Yet, does anybody really know the difference between a muscadine and a scuppernong? If you ask around, as I have, you usually get more confusion or indifference or the occasional know-it-all who points out that the muscadines are the red ones. Upon further investigation and reflection, there’s both more to the story and less, which in my mind makes the grapes all the more fun to play with.

Genetically, they seem to be pretty much the same. A scuppernong is a muscadine, though not all muscadines are scuppernongs. Both start green and tiny, and it can take some time for them to turn red at all, leaving a period mid-summer when you’re not sure which way they will ripen.

Clearly, there are differences. The scuppernong is known for its golden brown skin in maturity. They usually taste somewhat less sweet, at least in the juice if not also the fruit. There’s a floral quality. A deep burgundy muscadine can still have a tart fruit but when you bite through the tough skin, the juice flows sweetly, like Welch’s. Scuppernongs are named for a river in North Carolina, where they are also the state fruit. The mother scuppernong vine allegedly still produces grapes on Roanoke Island, which, of course, adds to the allure.

As I’ve grown more interested in these wild grapes, I’ve found a place for them in my ever-present desire for drink. Two summers ago, I tried a variation on the Pimm’s Cup. I muddled and pressed the ripe fruit for juice and bitter skin flavor, then mixed them in a tall glass with gin, lemonade and ginger beer. With a straw, these went down quickly.

For a later “up” version, I added a few dashes of homemade dry-hopped grapefruit bitters to coat the glass, substituted fresh-squeezed lemon for lemonade and cut out the ginger, still muddling a mixture of muscadines and scuppernongs for bitter, earthy skin flavor. The bright hop citrus nose opened the sweet and tart of juice and fruit and mixed well with the herby-dry Pimm’s-gin blend, then finished with a nice bitter bite of grapefruit. Spearing a few more grapes of varying size and color over the concoction, I felt like I’d accomplished something.

Last summer, I went bourbon. I’m always looking for a way to drink whiskey in the summer, and the sweetness of the muscadine has always made it a great way to cut the heat in August. I was at least discovering a different variation on the theme. I added lemon juice because it helps brighten most things, and a bit of sherry for good measure, then, following the hoppy nose from the previous summer, I eventually floated a barspoon of Islay Scotch on top of the cocktail as a subtle promise of the cool-weather campfires to come. Some called it Smokey Bourbon Sherry Grapes, others the Grapes of Wrath.

This summer, time is ticking, as grapes are ripening. We have to use what we can and save what’s left for warm fall days. Heavy end of season vines call for a shrub. The preserving elixir comes from shared time between mashed fruit and apple cider vinegar, both cooled and simmering, with a bit of added sugar. It can serve as an old-fashioned health remedy, fruit preservative, or simple drinking vinegar. It lasts forever in the fridge, they say. The color is an earthy red, deep pink and purple, and it’s that particular hue that defines this year’s end of summer/early autumn refresher.

The recipe is a simple take on a Gin Fizz, muddling both muscadines and scuppernongs for sweetness and skin flavor with the tart shrub, lemon juice, and a splash of simple syrup, then shaking it cold with Aperol and Gin and topping the mix with soda water, which has a nice balancing effect on the all the strong flavors. With this drink, I got somewhere, tapped into the duality of these wild southern grapes, welcoming their similarities and differences even when I couldn’t tell which was which.

So after all these attempts and creations and concoctions and trips to a nearly abandoned grape grove, I still find myself back to my first musings. On a warm sunny day, early fall now, a wicker satchel full of grapes of various colors, shapes, and sizes and flavors already in hand, thinking about family trips while spitting seeds at my friends’ kid, I was wondering what the difference was between a muscadine and a scuppernong, really, and whether it mattered at all.

I submit that you really can’t always tell what’s what when you’re picking from the vine. And varied grapes become the vine for living. Sure, if you go to a big produce company with labeled fruit at the grocery store, the red ones are the muscadines, dummy. But on the vine, there is more variation, gradation, ingratiation, inspiration. Every corner of the wild grove can have a different mix, a different ripening, a different skin and juice—like most things that are really alive and worth enjoying. Part of the fun is finding a place where you can spend some time picking fruit, welcoming the ambiguity and not worrying about the details. Best to enjoy what’s ripe while it lasts and preserve what you can for posterity, or at least for the fall.

 

View from the Hill: An Afternoon with Lee Epting

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“Everybody’s looking for the Garden of Eden,” says Lee Epting. “You’re not gonna find it. But if you’re lucky you’ll get little glimpses of it.”

For Epting, a master party-thrower and the founder of Epting Events, it’s all about creating a memory and a feeling that his clients can keep for the rest of their lives. And this mentality, paired with a keen attention to aesthetics and genuine hospitality, is reflected from his business to his own kitchen table.

Epting has been catering unofficially since his time managing fraternity house kitchens in college. When people came into town, he would arrange a party.

“I didn’t know it was called catering then,” he chuckles as he checks on cornbread and country ham warming in the fireplace. “I started not cooking but giving parties, entertaining people. The whole essence of what we do now is making people happy. That’s the business I went into.”

These days, Epting Events throws at least one wedding every week and up to seven over a weekend in the spring. Many of these celebrations are held on Epting’s own land, The Hill.

The Hill is only four miles outside of downtown Athens, Ga., but driving up the gravel path to what Epting calls his “orphanage for old homes” feels like another world.

For more than 40 years, Epting has cultivated and curated his property to pay homage to an era that has long since passed. The property was originally divided into the Phinizy and Gillian Plantations. When Epting’s grandparents lost their Prince Avenue home after the Depression, they purchased the Gillian Plantation and moved out to the country.

“Thank goodness,” Epting says, reflecting on his ancestor’s move. To this day he feels a deep sense of relief to be coming home when he pulls onto the land.

The yellow house that Epting calls his home was hauled to The Hill from Williamston, SC. It was a family home built in 1785. As he pieced the transported home together room by room, he saved the heart of the home, the kitchen, to be from an 1830’s home from Athens. The small rock house out front was built in the 1920’s by a grandson of the slave that originally inherited the Phinizy plantation, the half of the land that Epting first acquired. Everyone in the family has lived in that small house.

Epting is a man of full intention in every endeavor, a set designer and historian in many ways. At The Hill, he has crafted a space that honors the abundance of the South—from the region’s handmade furniture and art that fill the houses to native fruit trees and a seasonal garden that dot the land. Even the structures themselves were collected from different Southern states and restored. The people that move out to The Hill appreciate dirt roads, and Epting is very protective of that.

He’s creating a living museum, although he wouldn’t want you to call it that. Nothing lingers on a shelf collecting dust. Each room has a sense of place, both in history and in the present. He uses the collection of artifacts and antiques that decorate his historical home to preserve an old way of life and to share it with a modern age.

As lunchtime approaches, Epting heats a cast iron pan on the stove, grinds a few pepper pods with a pestle and gingerly turns a piece of battered steak with a hand-carved wood-handled fork and knife.

“It gives me great pleasure to turn the meat with that fork. It’s got a little style to it. It’s got a story to it,” he says. “I don’t know if it tastes any better, but it just feels good.”

Polished sterling silver and fine china are for everyday use in this home. This breathes new life into them. So do the people who come to share in Epting’s own personal Eden.

“When [these homes were] built, it was a lonely time. We weren’t industrialized, we weren’t up north, we weren’t cities,” Epting says as he removes his worn gardener’s hat. “You know, in the South we were rural. Plantation to plantation or just farm to farm was a long ways away, so when people came, you had to feed them.”

Epting treasures the opportunity to bring people into his realm whom he would otherwise never meet. He never holds back when given the chance to share his life and resources with a passerby rumbling up the drive or with a bride and her groom on the day that means the most. He indulges in the chance for conversation and the ability to feed.  

“No one wants to live exactly how I live,” Epting says. “It’s cold in [this house], and the smoke does get in, and the wind does blow through the place. No one wants to live that way all the time, but they love to experience that just for just a little while.”


Story by Erin Wilson

Photographs by Paige French

Heritage and Hospitality Across the Atlantic

On the banks of the Cumberland River, tucked away from the bustle of Music City, USA, Peter Nappi Studio is at once a luxury leather goods store, a music venue and a respite for anyone who walks through the doors.

“When people come to our studio, we want them to feel welcome, obviously,” said Dana Nappi, the president of the company. “We want them to get a sense of authenticity.”

Dana’s husband, Phillip, launched the brand in 2011 after learning that his interest in designing shoes reaches generations into the past.

“My husband has been passionate about shoes and footwear his whole life,” said Dana, “and we got to a point where now’s the time to start something new and let’s see what we can do in the footwear industry.”

Eager to pursue a dream, the couple and their infant daughter left their home in America for Italy.

While living in Florence, they immersed themselves in the craft of shoemaking. They researched leather and production facilities, and they learned about the exceptional attention to detail that sets handmade shoes apart.

But artisanship wasn’t all that Phillip and Dana Nappi learned in Italy— they also discovered that the Nappi family had a long history in shoemaking. Phillip Nappi lost both of his parents as a child; he grew up knowing little about his heritage. But while doing research in Italy, he found out that his grandfather, Peter, whom he never met, was also a shoemaker.

Peter Nappi came to America from Italy in 1904 with the title of “shoemaker” declared on his passage papers. He and his brother made their way to Columbus, Ohio, where they settled and opened a shoestore.

“When we uncovered this, it was truly like a calling from beyond,” said Dana. “It went from a hobby and a passion to alright this is a business, this is something that I’m doing that was in my family, and I’m continuing to build my family around it.” Armed with expert craftsmanship and a new sense of purpose, the Nappi family moved back to the U.S. and set to work out of their home in Nashville. Phillip designed the shoes and their team in Italy made them and sent them to Tennessee to
be sold.

The operation quickly grew too big to be executed in their house. They sought out a space that could be all that they needed it to be—a place to stock and showcase their products, a place to design new products and do business, and most importantly a place that could foster a sense of family, creativity and hospitality.

They stumbled upon what proved to be the perfect space by chance. The building was at the end of a dead-end road, beyond railroad tracks and tattered with ‘Do Not Enter’ signs. But the space had just enough promise, and it evolved from their office space and small-scale showroom into a fully functional retail store. It continues to fulfill their dreams as a community hub.

The Nashville community quickly latched on, and the shoes found their way onto the feet of country stars and people with an appreciation for high quality footwear and classic, enduring style.

The skill, passion and products that came from Italy didn’t gain traction in the South simply by chance. Instead, similar values make for likenesses in taste. “There’s a lot in the Southern heritage that almost echoes the Italian culture,” said Dana. “Family is very important in both, heritage is very important in both cultures as well. So when you build a product on those two platforms as the foundation, it
has similar aesthetics.”

For all of the support the Peter Nappi company has seen from their community, Philip and Dana have given back. They host regular, intimate musical performances with members of their exceptionally talented city and are eager to point visitors in the direction of their favorite restaurants and bars. They also hope that people will spend time in their store casually, and guests receive complimentary espressos and comfortable seating—a kind of hospitality that resonates with their roots on both
sides of the Atlantic.

“We want to be that kind of cultivator of creative energy,” said Dana. “It’s abou sharing knowledge and sharing contacts and really helping each other grow. That’s a part of what has turned Nashville into the great city that it is.”


Story by Jodi Cash

Photographs by Emily B. Hall