In early September, the Asheville Art Museum organized a panel discussion on “Appalachian Foodways” as part of its programming around “The Art of Food” exhibit. ASAP’s communication manager, Sarah Hart, moderated the discussion between farmers Malcolm Banks (of Yellow Mountain Garden in Franklin, NC) and Delia Jovel (of Tierra Fértil Coop in Hendersonville, NC), and chef Eric Morris (of Wicked Weed’s Cultura in Asheville, NC). Below is an abbreviated transcription of the conversation.
To start us off, what does Appalachian foodways mean to you?
Malcolm Banks: It means a lot! For me, it’s a group of small farms. It’s coming together as a group of farms and trying to help each other out—figuring out our food waste problems, figuring out how we can help the community we are in, figuring out how to help a small farmer that can’t get funds. In Appalachia, as small farmers, we don’t really have that much help. The big farm is going to get the grant before the small farm. Having groups to work with keeps small farms thriving. And we can give our community fresh food, keeping everything local. That’s what it means to me.
Delia Jovel: When you are immigrant—I think I am still in the process to understand what that concept means. I will say that I feel very privileged to be in this region. There is a network of small farmers, people who really have an understanding about what it means to produce food, but also what it means to share food. Because it’s not just about producing, it’s about how that food can go to the right people—the people that are part of that environment. I’m not an experienced farmer. I have learned by observing. Without the support we have in this region, a small farm such as ours would have maybe never become a reality. I think the economic, the natural, the social, the community environment in this area is a privilege. We have to feel really happy to be part of this. Because honestly, many countries, many cities don’t have the same relationship with food that we have.
Eric Morris: This is the best place in the world to be a chef. For me, Appalachian foodways is a confluence of different ideas and cultures coming together to support each other. A lot of it was born of necessity. We’ve learned from each other by, like you said, observing. But what is created is something totally unique. I work with, I don’t know, 20 different farmers, which is super special to me. But in addition to that there’s the tradition of foraging in Appalachia, something to get you between winter and spring. And that plays a big part of our food identity here. Knowing what to eat, knowing each mushroom by its proper name—and then sharing that information, sharing techniques of preservation. How we take our food and make the most of it is an integral part of Appalachian foodways. Appalachian food is a fluid, ever-evolving kind of thing. It’s steeped in tradition. But each next generation builds on that. I never get bored. I’m always being introduced to new ingredients, new techniques.
What brought you to food or farming? And what brought you to this region? Which came first?
Malcolm: My great-grandparents were farmers, but the next two or three generations did not farm, until it got back to me. I thought I was gonna be like this city-slicker boy moving to Atlanta. But I ended up meeting my wife in Atlanta and then moving to the Appalachia area. And I was like, man, I guess I’ll just farm, that’s the only thing you can do here. I started looking more into why we should farm and I was like, “Wow, the average farmer is 59 years old.” And I was 24 at the time. I got a head start. I had time to screw up and lose a lot of money and learn all the mistakes. That’s what really got me into finding out about food deserts. I want to help people in food deserts, like Detroit, Virginia, Charlotte, Atlanta. I’m not in it to be a big commercial farmer. I want to be the guy that says, “Hey, you can come knock on my door, I got meat for you.” I’m in it to help people learn and help the community thrive.
Delia: To be honest, I’m still asking what happened in my life and why I came here. But the first reason is, I have a family, and that’s the reason I came to Western North Carolina, Henderson County. But I believe that there are other reasons that maybe are more spiritual. I really take that as a mission. When I decided to become a farmer, it was not the plan for me. My father was a small farmer, but he never had big land. My father was an immigrant as well. He had been living in the United States maybe 25 years as an undocumented person. His dream was to come back to El Salvador and farm. He passed away maybe one year after coming back to El Salvador. I think the spirit of my father moved me and said, “You have to do something.” By farming, I have been finding a sense of belonging on this land. As an immigrant it’s really hard to feel part of a community. By farming, I have found that sensation of being part of a place. It has been also a way to heal a lot of trauma related to what it means to be farming for immigrant people who have been exploited, who are in a very harmful relationship with the land with pesticides, chemicals, in many different ways. I hope, one day, we can change the food system. We’re talking a lot about rights and a fair wage to farm workers. I don’t think that is the first step. The first step is to change the way we grow food. The day when we grow food organically without using any kind of chemicals, without exploiting people, that’s going to be the best way we can help any human being who is doing this work. For me, that’s a mission.
Eric: Food came first for me. I was in New York working as a cook for a long time. In a lot of the settings where I worked, food was just a commodity. It’s a way to make a buck. I felt like food was over manipulated and under appreciated. Also in New York, you can’t own anything. You never have equity, even in the sense of your community. My wife and I were looking for a new start somewhere where we could have equity and invest in our community and feel like a part of something bigger. We looked at a lot of different places. What stood out about the Appalachian region, especially in Asheville, was the reverence and respect people had for food. People celebrate a perfect tomato here every year. We eat our tomato sandwiches in the summer and we post it on Instagram. Because it’s that important to us. The amount of love that the community shows for farmers and how that’s reciprocated in a lot of restaurants here is pretty unique.
What are some of the ways you see yourself showing up in your community?
Malcolm: I want to make sure people are onto the right stuff. One thing about farmers, we don’t really like to let people on our properties. We think somebody’s gonna take a tractor or something. By me just opening up to people, I think I’m gonna impact life in the community. I have a lot of secrets to tell. If you are every day in the field by yourself and you never tell nobody, it’s never going to spread out.
Eric: The food donation program that we started [at Cultura during the pandemic] really helped open our eyes to the impact food can have. A lot of times when you’re in the kitchen, you’re like, “Does it matter what I’m doing?” Having that direct connection with the community and feeding people who are hungry felt good, felt like there’s a purpose to my job. I wanted to keep that moving forward and for that to be part of the identity of our restaurant.
Delia: Food is always related to community. When you eat with other people, the flavor is different. Farming has to be also a community. The conventional way that farming has been done, somebody is the owner of a big piece of land and other people do what he tells them. But we have another understanding about what it means to farm. It’s about growing food, but also about changing the way that we create that relationship with food.
What’s your vision for food in our region? How do we need to grow or adapt to get there?
Delia: Our vision is why we have created this farmer coop led by Hispanic people. Hispanic people have a very painful relationship with farming. The way we have farmed, we’ve had to lose almost everything. I have chosen to farm. But I can choose to go work in early morning or after 4 p.m., because the sun is not so hot. I have a sense of ownership. For many people, it’s not a choice. It’s the only way to have a job. We want to heal that relationship. We can have joy by farming, when we farm the right way. We find community, we can laugh, we can be surprised by nature. It takes time to be able to advocate and share that. We create change by doing small things. Because food is everything.
If we compare the prices of food three years ago [during the COVID pandemic] and the prices today, actually the crisis is now. Many families don’t have the capacity to buy fresh food, it’s so expensive. We have a food distribution every month. We serve around 150 families. Three years ago, I was spending maybe $3,000 on bulk purchases for food boxes. Now I have to use maybe $6,000 to buy the same amount of food. No, things are not better. I think we are in the moment of real crisis about food access. I say food access, and also what kind of food we have access to, because it’s not about having any kind of food. It’s having the right food that our body needs. The Black community, Hispanic communities, these are the ones that have more health problems because of the way we eat. I remember something I heard, if somebody controls your food, they are controlling you. That’s what is happening now. We have to keep our identity and also the identity behind the things we grow.
Eric: There are so many cultures and traditions that contribute to Appalachia right now. My vision is that when people see a plate of food, they don’t take it for granted. They have a moment of reverence, understanding how lucky we are to have access to such a variety of foods. Appalachian foodways are built upon learning from each other, from the Cherokees, African American immigrants, the Dutch, the English, the Scottish. I love history—that understanding of what we’ve brought from other cultures has made something more than the sum of its parts.
Malcolm: What I like about this area is that businesses haven’t spread it out. It’s actually more farms and homesteads. That’s how you keep the community strong. In all the places I have traveled to, it’s like, “Okay, this guy got the farm. And nobody else got no food.” But it’s not like that in Western North Carolina. A whole lot of families got food, or somebody that knows somebody got food. If the switch is cut off right now, I feel like Western North Carolina will be one of the areas in America that will survive. When I first moved here, I was like, this is it, right here. At least I got to see America before it got destroyed. What happened to America is we’ve been dependent on other people to raise our food. This is what it’s gonna take: Building a community, trading with each other, knowing the people who grow our food.