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Slow food | Area groups, restaurants embrace farm-to-table concept

Home Sweet Farm is a member of Slow Food Waccamaw. Courtesy photo.
Home Sweet Farm is a member of Slow Food Waccamaw. Courtesy photo.

Earlier this month, a diverse cross-section of more than 60 people descended on the New South Brewery in Myrtle Beach, which played host to an event called the Farm to Fork Brewery Potluck.

The brewery became a haven for locals in the midst of yet another busy season on the Grand Strand – an oasis of camaraderie, New South brews – and a smorgasbord of locally sourced fare featuring 70 pounds of Carolina Heritage Farms ribs smoked and prepared by Chef Joe Bonaparte, executive director of Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s International Culinary Institute of Myrtle Beach – and side dishes showcasing products from Worley Lane Farm [goat cheese], Millgrove Farms [fresh greens], The Walker Farm [free range eggs], and local fruits and vegetables from Home Sweet Farm, Fowler Farms Fresh Produce and Sugarfoot Organic Farms.

Behind all of this is an organization called Slow Food Waccamaw, the new local chapter of Slow Food USA.

According to its website [www.slowfoodwaccamaw.org], Slow Food Waccamaw is “part of a global grassroots movement that strives to educate, support and connect the communities of Horry and Georgetown counties to good, clean, local and fair food.”

The Slow Food movement was founded in 1986 in Italy by journalist and former political activist Carlo Petrini, initially as a protest to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Oxford Dictionaries online defines slow food as “food that is produced or prepared in accordance with local culinary traditions, typically using high-quality locally sourced ingredients.”

If we blend in buzzwords like “sustainability” and catchphrases like “farm-to-table,” we can see things begin to dovetail right here on the Grand Strand. Even in the land of the deep fryer, Calabash Seafood and endless chain restaurants, more and more of us on the Grand Strand are experiencing an awakening of sorts and beginning to care about where our food comes from.

According to David Epstein of New South Brewing [www.newsouthbrewing.com], playing host to the Slow Food Waccamaw event was a good fit for philosophical and practical reasons.

“It just makes sense on a lot of levels,” he said. “Being a South Carolina-made product here, we try to source out whatever we can locally,” he said.

This is not something he can do with his two key ingredients, hops and barley – but New South sourced local honey from Home Sweet Farm and Sugarfoot Farms for its new Summer Session Ale.

He said he enjoyed getting to know some of the farmers he has been working with – as well as supporting the efforts of Kimberly Busse, a founding member of Slow Food Waccamaw. Busse and husband Matt Busse have been frequent guests at New South Brewing.

“Joseph [Bonaparte] is going to be instrumental in the new brewing program [at HGTC], so there’s that whole tie-in. And for the first go-around, I think everyone had a good time. The food was amazing, and I’m looking forward to doing more in the future,” he said.

Local diver and entrepreneur Brandon Toms saw the event online and on signage at New South. He showed up with wife Michelle Toms. While not members of Slow Food Waccamaw, he said they were looking forward to a nice family meal with their friends at New South.

“Slow food is an expression of love,” he said. “It’s about setting aside everything else in life to put effort and time into a meal that nurtures the body. It’s about getting together with your loved ones and eating something worthwhile. Slow food is an acknowledgement that you are what you eat, and so you love yourself.”

Bonaparte is chair of Slow Food Waccamaw. He has been involved with Slow Food for many years, having helped start chapters in Houston, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C., while also working for the Art Institutes in those locations. He said he became chair by default.

“There were like five of us meeting at Crady’s in Conway and the fingers pointed at me,” he said.

Bonaparte caught the Slow Food fever while visiting in Italy in the late 1990s.

“I had brought culinary students from Houston over there on a culinary tour,” he said. “Everywhere we went they were talking about slow food. I was getting a little irritated thinking they were just giving us crap because we were Americans – that all we ate was fast food.”

He finally asked what Slow Food was, and later visited Slow Food headquarters in Bra, Italy.

“I got to meet Carlo Petrini and signed up that day. I have been active ever since.”

Bonaparte attended Slow Food’s biennial Terra Madre conference in Turin on three occasions and has presented at a Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco in 2008.

His takeaway from Terra Madre is compelling.

“Each time I have attended Terra Madre I have found new inspiration, knowledge, passion and the desire to not only share my experiences, but to learn more ways in which I can be involved in educating people in the tenets of food which are good, clean and fair. It inspires me to push myself to be more of an activist, to not only use local products, promote farmers, educate students and the public, but to work in community gardens, raise money to help those in need, to cook real food at shelters and try to help people understand that cooking and eating real food is doable on any budget.”

He doesn’t think Slow Food has taken full root here yet and said the volunteer organization is only as viable as its members. An ebb-and-flow of activity is always at play. But the philosophy will, in his estimation, take hold.

“It is the evolution of the food world. If it is not because of desire, it is out of economic necessity that people eat what is grown, raised, caught, around them. Their food culture is their food culture. Not one from 2,000 miles away, not even 100 miles away. All types of people are becoming more aware of the impact diet has on their health and well-being. A little more high browed would be more and more people are becoming aware of the local social and economic impacts of the loss of their agricultural and regional food cultures.”

Bonaparte told The Surge that a fair amount of the Slow Food philosophy is integrated into the curriculum at HGTC’s International Culinary Institute – but it is hard to put seasonality of local foods into some of the very structured classes teaching fundamental and classical cooking techniques.

“Yet we are very fortunate in that we have two classes that operate in our restaurants, and our goal is to use at least 80 percent local products in our restaurants. Our belief is that good cooking starts in the fields, in the pastures, in the waters – with the product. Before we had any recipes, we had the product,” he said.

With the recent news about claims from Taco Bell and Pizza Hut that they will stop using some artificial ingredients in their products, does this indicate that a societal paradigm shift is at play?

“It is changing,” said Bonaparte. “People are caring more about what they put in their bodies. Garbage in – garbage out.” He cited Chipotle as an example of positive change.

Kimberly Busse is also a board member of the Waccamaw Market Cooperative and former owner of The Local Table, which was originally a virtual farmers market – connecting consumers to local farmers and producers in the area and distributing local food to the community. Although the service has stopped delivering food, Busse has maintained relationships with area producers.

“We need to care about where our food is coming from and who is growing it, and we need to know more about what the impact is and how it is produced,” she said.

Because she has had her finger on the pulse of local food for years, it was easy for her to see the upswing in interest.

“There’s a growing trend among some of the folks that are living here – and we know that folks who are visiting or moving into Myrtle Beach that are embracing Slow Foods. The more people we talk to, we see that they are looking for this kind of thing and embracing it. And on the other side we have the involvement of the chefs – with Joe and some of his colleagues from the Culinary Institute. He is training those chefs, and they are going out into our area with a philosophy of good, clean and fair food. We are kind of hitting it from all directions.”

But what would compel somebody to skip the convenience of the grocery store and hit up say, a farmers market?

“That’s a hard question because I think people are involved in this for multiple reasons,” she said. “The more you learn, the more you kind of can’t help it. Once you start thinking about it, you can’t go back.”

People embrace Slow Food for a number of reasons, according to Busse.

“There’s environmental – there is health, animal rights or the whole non-GMO thing – so many reasons people at the beach will latch onto this. No matter those specific draws, the bottom line is that they believe they can make a change in our community through what we choose to put on our plates. They believe that their fork matters,” she said.

Busse was happy with the outcome of the Farm to Fork Brewery Potluck and grateful to Epstein and company for hosting.

“We were really pleased with that event – bringing together some different folks and maybe a different environment that they haven’t seen before,” she said. “That was kind of worlds colliding, and they were a great group to work with.”

Blake Lanford, regional lead agent with Clemson Cooperative Extension, says that the Waccamaw Market Cooperative [www.waccamawmarkets.org] started out as a project eight years ago, but quickly grew legs of its own.

“Eight years ago, the City of Conway came to us and said, look – Clemson Extension seems like the right organization to help us start a farmers market. We said, OK, sure – we will help you start a farmers market – so we helped them start one in Conway – literally right under the bridge.”

Other municipalities and locations followed suit – and over time this grew into a total of nine area markets.

As things grew, Lanford said he knew that the only way to make this work was to put all of these markets under one cooperative structure as its own entity, separate from Clemson Extension, and this is how the Waccamaw Market Cooperative came about.

“Cooperative means to share resources, management and guidelines,” he said. “We effectively started building a growers’ cooperative from the ground up – that also had physical market locations that were strategically placed in areas of the region so that they were not competing with each other.”

Although Lanford said the markets are thriving here, he added that it would be difficult to attribute this to the growth of Slow Food.

“I know that the very fact that Slow Food is able to sustain itself is indicative of a greater awareness of the importance of local foods,” he said. “I think Slow Food and the markets have kind of come to maturation at the same time. There is a lot of interplay. The market can help promote Slow Food, and Slow Food can drive people to the market. It’s no coincidence that the people that are part of Slow Food are also part of the market.”

Darel Watts, owner of Sugarfoot Organic Farms [www.sugarfootfarms.com] in Conway and membership/volunteer coordinator for Slow Food Waccamaw, said the Grand Strand is becoming much more receptive to the farm-to-table movement.

“We’re seeing tremendous growth in the interest in local foods, which is influenced by a growing number of people who are adopting healthy eating habits and supporting their local economies by purchasing from local merchants and producers,” he said.

He also said the Slow Food movement is spreading and that it connects the pleasure of eating good food to the well-being of the community and the environment.

“We’re also discovering that there is real economic and cultural value in supporting our local farms. A thriving local farming community makes a great partner for a thriving tourism industry, each providing benefits such as resiliency and market opportunities. We know, too, that better schools and social services, safer neighborhoods, livelier shopping and entertainment districts, and a higher standard of living are all found in those regions with a higher number of embedded small farms. Grand Strand restaurants in particular are in a position to influence and cater to their communities by developing relationships with their farming neighbors, and many of them are doing just that.”

Watts cited the huge number of visitors who bring their values with them on vacation, perhaps visiting farmers markets and demanding authentic local cuisine.

“We can grow terrific produce here in the Pee Dee/Waccamaw area and have the potential to be the breadbasket of South Carolina,” he said. “There’s still some work to be done as farmers transition and as we work on distribution models, but the concepts of local foods and sustainable farming have taken hold along the Grand Strand.”

Miracle Lewis, owner of Home Sweet Farm [with Jimmy Rabon] and a member of Slow Food Waccamaw, said that the concept means connecting families and community members to their farmers and producers while teaching them that preparing nutritious foods can be simple.

“Slow Food strengthens the structure of a family through food,” she said. “If we can convince consumers to use more locally sourced products, take more time in preparing their foods and decrease the amount of ‘fast food’ they rely on – we have won a small battle.”

Home Sweet Farm is located in the Bayboro community of Loris, and grows a wide variety of produce which is sold via the Waccamaw Market Cooperative farmers markets, through on-farm sales as well as some “you pick” products.

A growing number of local eateries are getting on board with the Slow Food philosophy, but there are some that have been embracing farm-to-table since they opened.

Chef Curry Martin of Aspen Grille in Myrtle Beach [www.aspen-grille.com] said that Slow Food and sustainable means taking the time, energy and the effort to find products that are raised, farmed and/or grown in a sustainable manner – the antithesis of doing things on the industrial level.

“Once we get the products in, we take good care of them and serve them in a natural way – not using super-heavy sauces or flavoring agents – and let the food stand on its own,” he said. “We’re not into molecular gastronomy or foams. When you come to Aspen Grill, what you see on the plate is what we think is the best representation of the product.”

A lot of effort goes into sourcing his food, but there is still work to be done.

“I wish I could say that every onion and carrot and piece of celery that we get was from our area,” he said. “It’s not – but we certainly put a focus on highlighting vegetables and proteins that are from Horry County or the region – even North Carolina because we are so close.”

Chef Darren Smith of Rivertown Bistro in Conway [www.rivertownbistro.com] says sustainability and local foods have been very important since day one.

Now in his 21st year in business, Smith remembered his landlord in the early years [he now owns the building] as a green thumb.

“He was part gardener, part landlord – so I had the luxury of getting strawberries, asparagus, tomatoes, banana peppers – all at the peak of the season,” he said.

Later, he decided that it would be smart to go out and find local sources for much of his fare – from produce to seafood.

“The stuff that they are doing is not meant to sit on a grocery store shelf or in a big box warehouse for four weeks. It’s a very finicky thing – and that’s what we appreciate. And it’s all right here in our back yard, if people just look around, go to farmers markets and make those connections.”

Smith said he’s not dogmatic to the point where he is not going to serve salmon on the menu just because it doesn’t swim in the Waccamaw River.

“I also love jumbo sea scallops – so we pepper our menu with those items because people want that and I love cooking those things.”

Smith changes his menu two to three times a year.

“That allows me to be basically seasonal with the vegetables. And your proteins basically stay the same. Fishing seasons allow me to change up those proteins, but then on our specials daily and nightly – we get hyper-seasonal,” he said, adding that he looks forward to embracing these changeups.

“But any chance we get, it’s local,” he said.

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