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Relishing roadside produce finds

Summer on Grand Strand means sandy days, warm nights and lots of outdoor events. It also means that we don't have to shop the produce section of the grocery store or stand in line at one of the few open check-out lanes at Super Wal-Mart for an imported tomato. Locals, and tourists in the know, get the distinct pleasure of shopping at roadside oasis of fresh fruit, vegetables and, sometimes, seafood.

From my childhood memories of shucking corn and stringing beans on my grandmother's back porch, fresh produce has a nostalgic quality for me that cannot be replaced. Just as the taste of an astro-pop and the smell of fresh cut grass reminds me of my more athletic days, our local produce stands remind me of childhood days in South Carolina and the beginning of my fascination with food.

A long-time favorite of mine, from the days of merely vacationing on the Grand Strand, is Mike's Produce Stand on Lake Arrowhead Road across from Finn McCool's Irish Pub. I remember stopping by on the way to my uncle's place for the first night's feast. Mike's has almost everything you would need for a full meal. I picked up some local corn, onions, scallions and some watermelon rind pickles all for about $8. The watermelon rind pickles were a curious buy as I'd never seen them before. I am still waiting on the right opportunity to impress the flavor upon some foodie friends. These Southern treats are canned in Columbia for the farmers market, but the folks at Mike's like to offer a selection of semi-local canned and bottled condiments in addition to fresh produce.

Mike's also offers local seafood in three large coolers at the front of the stand. Shrimp and scallops from the morning's catch are available while supplies last. They don't replenish until the following day, obviously. Open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily during the summer, get there early to get first pick. Also, bring cash as those plastic cards we keep in our wallets are not accepted at this stand. There is something incredibly organic about exchanging cash for fresh vegetables that is reminiscent of older, simpler times.

The next stop on the great produce tour of 2010 was the J&B Produce Truck, which parks itself in the Rite Aid Parking lot at 77th Avenue and U.S. 17 Business. During my days at a nearby restaurant, we would bring their goods in as a staff treat or for the daily drink special. Too many times, we looked at the chef and asked "what can you do with this?" Of course the possibilities were straight from an "Iron Chef" episode, but we found that keeping it simple was best.

The folks of J&B drive to the beach from the McBee area everyday to give us the chance to buy their produce. Due to the drive, they get a little later start at around 10:30 a.m. and will stay until around 5 p.m. Given the limited selection when I arrived recently, I'd say this mention isn't the first many of you have heard of the J&B Truck.

I scooped up some local okra and figs for less than $3. They also offer peaches, tomatoes and watermelon, among other things. The folks at the produce truck are as friendly as the produce is fresh. I was given the choice to pick my own from the array of baskets that displayed the goods, which I always like to do, or have the pieces selected for me before they are weighed and priced. Stellar service for the back of a pick-up truck, I would say.

Pepper Joe's Produce Stand on 29th Avenue N., just west of Oak Street, in Myrtle Beach, not only offers the usual suspects of fresh produce, but its own offerings of hot sauces and condiments. Everything from Habanero Hot Sauce to Apple Butter has the Pepper Joe's label on it. I opted to window shop the sauces, but did manage to bag some local eggplant, sweet potatoes, red bell pepper and fresh-squeezed lemonade for less than $7. It's a little fancier than the back of a truck, but still holds the same farm fresh punch as the others.

Some of my favorite restaurants in the country use local produce. Many in our area are utilizing the same as much as possible. Let's face it, everyone is penny-pinching to a degree and I've found that, for the same or not much more money, you can pick up some of the local treasures for your home-cooked meals. Dig up some of the recipes that you remember as a child or go it on your own and reinvent a classic. Regardless, I would recommend using one of the many roadside stands on the beach for all of the freshest produce. Not only does it taste better, but it supports the people that continue to grow and eat local.

Cheers!

Kevin Hoover, a local foodie, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com.

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