My Slow Food Journey
By: Tia Bednar
I grew up on a small, quiet country lake in the Pocono Mountains of rural Pennsylvania. We had a little plot set aside for gardening at our house, and my grandparents, who lived up the street from us, had a larger plot of land for fruits and vegetables. We lived in “dairy country,” and often had fresh, raw milk to drink. My grandmother, who was of Italian descent, cooked three meals a day, often cooking with fresh produce from her garden. My grandfather knew how to hunt and fish, and created delicious smoked meats in his smokehouse behind their house. My father, their only child, was, by default, a hard and fast outdoorsman himself, and worked the family quarry from sun-up to sun-down nearly every day. My mother, of Scottish and Pennsylvania-Dutch descent, was also a great cook, and prepared meals for all four of her children every day. As for me, being the youngest, I wasn’t allowed to be in the kitchen or garden too often, but was assigned plenty of small tasks and chores to do my part.
Growing up, I spent a considerable amount of time with my grandparents, who owned a small general store, which used to be an old Indian trading post.
Summers with my grandmother were spent with empty, washed-out honey-buckets strapped to our waists, which we filled with blueberries that we had picked at the local orchard. We also spent time “topping” strawberries, or stringing peas from the garden. I remember having blackberry thorns tug at my skin while I squeezed into the middle of the patch (I was the littlest child, after all) so I could pick the best berries. We helped can mounds of tomatoes, and tested the peppers to see which ones were hot, because grandma couldn’t remember… ouch! There was always a fresh fruit pie bubbling in the oven at grandma’s house, and the creamiest fruit ice cream freshly-churned and sitting in a bucket of salt to stay cold. At home, I spent lots of time swimming in the lake and playing outside, but would help with the fishing process by scaling them before I handed them to my sister, who would filet them and then dunk them in a pot of cold, salted water.
Autumns were spent filling the woodshed, picking up tinder and kindling from the wooded part of the yard, and sleeping in front of the fireplace. Grandma often had rabbit or squirrel stew on the stove (rabbit was my favorite), and a fruit pie, filled with summer’s bounty, in the oven. I would watch as my father and grandfather left to go hunting—eager to see what they would come back with, such as deer, rabbit, squirrel, turkey, or grouse. Most of the meat would get “dressed” and then go into the freezer, but the deer would get made in to spiedies (cubed meat) or steaks. At home, my mother would make “traditional” meals such as roast with mashed potatoes and vinegared onions, creamed chipped corned beef atop muffins, boiled cabbage dinners with mustard, butt-n-beans, and pork with sauerkraut.
Winter was spent ice-skating back and forth between my father’s fishing holes, set with tip-ups, and sledding down the neighbor’s hill. Grandma would make her doughnuts (fried in fresh lard no doubt) and mom would start making sandtart cookies for Christmas.
At nineteen, I met someone and we decided to move South. Together, this move took us to East Tennessee. Everything was different there, to say the least. The culture, the weather, and certainly the dialect. I had now been introduced to a whole new culture, new food, and new ways of life.
I started going to Sunday family dinners with my friend’s family. These dinners were a big ordeal, and saying “no” was not an option. There was so much food! I remember eating the greens and being shocked when there was a pucker in my mouth from the vinegar, and the cornbread was white, and had no sweetness to it! There was also something called a Red Velvet cake that I had never heard of before, but when I tasted it… pure heaven. The older women explained to me that a traditional Red Velvet cake got its “red” from soaking each layer in cherry juice, and that is how I’ve made mine ever since . Another luscious dish these ladies made was soup beans. Nothing fancy, simply some brown pinto beans done in a pressure cooker, but the flavor and creamy consistency makes for a comforting dish. Grab a bowl of beans and pair it with the greens and cornbread, and you’ve got yourself a traditional Southern meal. Sometimes the ladies would fix the beans with a ham hock or bacon grease and that always stepped it up a notch in my book! While living in Tennessee, my friend taught me to hunt for Morel mushrooms in the mountains. We would prepare them by battering them with cornmeal, pan-frying them, and dipping them in barbecue sauce. It was also in East Tennessee where I tasted my first jar of moonshine. Actually, I think I’ve since tasted every flavor of moonshine, with peach and cherry always being my favorites!
Later, while finishing college, I worked evenings at a fusion restaurant. I had never been introduced to this type of food culture—it was intoxicating, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Making squid ink pasta by hand, stuffing it in a delicate fried cuff of pastry and then topping it with lobster; filleting large ocean fish into tiny blocks of lightly seared sashimi and then peppered with precious Enoki mushrooms; and carving racks of lamb which would later be encrusted with peppercorns and pistachios. There was plate presentation, towering desserts with handmade sugar art, wine pairings, beer-tastings, and espressos. Not to mention picking fresh mint and chive blossoms from the garden to decorate each dish… hold on…there are gardens at restaurants? This was an exciting experience for me. I loved the garden and thought it was a pleasure every time I got to pick out of it. This job had taught me everything from knife skills, to dessert and pastry, to fry-cook, sous chef, garde manger, and expediting.
After about a year, I moved to North Carolina to help open another restaurant of its kind here in Asheville.
I was immediately drawn to the uniqueness of Asheville, and the open-minded culture that invites us all to be ourselves. And the food—wow—the food was amazing, and it was everywhere! After working at the restaurant for a couple of years, I started to yearn for more back-to-basics food preparation and baking, and to leave the expensive fancy food behind. One day, while visiting a friend who lived in West Asheville, I noticed that a new small bakery had just opened and was hiring; I applied and got the job. For the next two years, I worked six days a week at the restaurant, overlapping my days with the weekend bread-baking position at the bakery. Being a bread baker is a whole other world. “I have to be at work at what time?” That’s right, 2:30 am. I could barely manage to get out of the restaurant by midnight, let alone be at another job at 2:30am!
A bakery, during baking hours, is much like a monastery. It is quiet, except the dull hum from the oven and melodic tune from the floor mixer’s dough hook. There is a meditative feeling in the air, and the whole world is quiet at that time of morning. All sorts of thoughts and feelings start to flow when gently folding and rolling supple dough on a soft wooden table. The smell of alcohol and yeast waft through the air, and taut shapes begin to relax and take form into loaves and boules (balls). One has to be attentive to their creation, and help it become the prize-winning product that will eventually be taken home for someone’s tasting pleasure. Eventually, I decided to leave my restaurant job so that I could take a full-time position at the bakery and focus on my skills as a baker.
As a single woman, many of my late nights would consist of sitting in front of the computer, pen-paling a friend in Italy and reviewing course content of the University of Gastronomic Sciences instead of dating. “Aaahhh, Italy—should just move there,” I would say to myself nightly. As I delved into the University a bit more, I realized that it was called the “Slow Food University.” I started talking about Slow Food to friends, but didn’t quite know what it really meant at that time.
As I progressed with the bakery, we grew closer to our customers, the local community, and with the area farmers who started bringing their greens, vegetables, fruits, and cheeses. I had never felt such a sense of community before, and wanted to see that circle grow even stronger. I remember being so excited when one of the local farmers invited us to his organic vegetable farm. I had been to tiny dairy farms, and orchards, but never a vegetable farm. I didn’t even know how to garden or how to even start a garden! I felt like a little kid going on a field trip–a field trip that should have happened long ago. The farm was beautiful; green and lush, with fruits and berries abounding, coloring the landscape. I immediately had a whole different outlook on my food. I was so much more appreciative of it, and in awe that this farmer let us freely roam his land. I liked this lifestyle; it just seemed so real and natural. All the stress of the world just melted away when I walked around his property, and I wanted to feel that way all the time… it was healthy.
When I finally bought my first home, I started a small garden, and around the same time, the owners of the bakery started growing food on their property for the bakery. Neighborhood folks would just stop in and drop off free produce that they grew, sometimes bartering with the bakery. Tailgate markets started popping up weekly, and more farmers were able to sell their products to the bakery. Thus, a sustainable community started to form through supporting each other. Through a friend, I learned that there was a Slow Food Chapter here in Asheville, and I wanted to learn more.
I started to understand that growing up in a family that cooked every meal was a rarity in this country, and that I was very fortunate to have such traditional food ties in my life. Most people don’t think about the food they eat or where it comes from, let alone where the recipes came from or how the food was prepared. Until I started trying to preserve our family recipes a few years ago, I never fully appreciated my family’s Italian and Dutch food traditions. No one in my family ever said “This is how your great grandma used to make it in Italy,” or “This recipe has been in the family for generations.” All I knew was that there was food in my belly and I was satiated.
Feeling that I wanted to get back to my roots and preserve my childhood traditions, I started volunteering with Slow Food Asheville, which allowed me to be part of a local food community that is so rich with culture, tradition, and knowledge. Connecting with my local farmers and producers helps me to better understand all of the various roles in our full-circle food system. We are extremely fortunate that most farmers and producers in this region are welcoming to their community. I love that I can drive up to a farm and stick my hands in the dirt. I can see for myself how and where my food is grown, who grows it, get inspired about ways to prepare it, and maybe even learn a new family recipe from the farmer that produced it. Although I still dream of Italy, I soon realized that I didn’t need to move to Italy to find the Slow Food culture—I have lived it my whole life.
Today, I am the current Slow Food Asheville Chapter President. It’s awe-inspiring to know that by simply volunteering some of our time to Slow Food, we are able to teach children how to cook in schools; tour and taste produce from local farms; visit one of our creameries to see how cheese is made; learn how to have your own natural beekeeping system; grow grapes on a mountainside, and so much more. This whole region is rich with food heritage, and I encourage everyone to learn more. Slow Food Asheville has started several programs that allow us to create school gardens, teach hands-on cooking classes with children during and after school, work with area restaurants, and collect oral histories of regional Appalachia to preserve biodiversity and food traditions. We always welcome newcomers and we encourage the community to get involved, volunteer, and help this chapter grow and sustain.
Slow Food is more than just a movement. It’s an idea, a way of living. It’s about empowerment, and embracing your rights for a good, clean, and fair food system for yourself and your family. It’s about teaching as well as learning. Being a role model for your children and preserving traditions. Taking charge of your health and your lifestyle while contributing to local economy and supporting the farming families who are your neighbors. Everyone can help make a change when they make the choice to do so.
Tia Maria Bednar, Slow Food Asheville President, Manager/Baker at West End Bakery.
Avid outdoorswoman who needs fresh, local, seasonal food for fuel to: do as I dream, create food, peak mountain tops, and work hard.