By Helen Mitternight
It starts with teaching a child that an apple isn’t just an apple – there are lots of kinds of apples, some tart, some sweet, some red and some green.
“Teaching kids that playing with food is OK, or teaching a child what a shrimp looks like before it becomes shrimp cocktail, piquing a child’s interest and engaging in healthy ways, is a foot in the door for building a healthy, well-rounded set of consumers for the next generation,” says Carrie Larson, Slow Food Charleston’s board chair.
You may have seen Carrie and others from Slow Food at the Marion Square Farmers Market, offering samples of food to children and adults. It’s part of Slow Food’s mission: to preserve the taste and biodiversity of our foods and to make sure that our food system is good, clean and fair for all. That means nominating foods for the international Ark of Taste, Slow Food’s roster of foods that qualify as tasty, culturally significant, able to be raised sustainably, and at risk. Local foods such as Jimmy Red corn, the Ossabaw Island Hog, Bradford watermelons and Carolina Gold Rice, among others, have been added to the list.
Carrie’s love of the food business started with a relationship with her mentor, Celeste Alber, beloved by local foodies for her raw milk.
“I did chicken chores; I fed baby piglets,” Carrie recalls. “I also helped her cultivate vegetables, learned to bottle her milk, and helped with the dairy operation, which I absolutely loved.”
It was a first step that would lead her to head Slow Food and to work with Lowcountry Local First, an advocacy group supporting locally owned businesses. Carrie’s time with Celeste gave her an appreciation of locally produced food and helped her form relationships.
“I like knowing where my food comes from, knowing I’m buying something that supports an individual I respect and admire,” Carrie says. “It’s a driving force in my decision-making.”
Relationships help with the first step in Slow Food’s mission: convincing farmers to grow these crops. Carrie talks about her experience with Seashore Black Rye.
“Greg Johnsman (of Geechie Boy Mill) was growing Seashore Black Rye on his farm as a windbreak to protect his cash crops.”
Slow Food lobbied to get the crop elevated to an Ark of Taste crop.
“Once he realized the financial viability of the rye, it changed the conversation altogether,” she says. “Now it’s being milled by bakers, brewers are using it. It’s serving him much better than just protecting his corn and preventing sand from Edisto blowing all over.”
The second step is persuading chefs to use the crops. Although you can pick up Carolina Gold rice at your local Harris Teeter, before the movement to preserve and promote the grain, you were stuck with Uncle Ben’s. Now heritage crops are becoming the pride of local merchants – try to buy High Wire Distillings’s Jimmy Red whiskey at holiday time and you’ll not only pay a premium, but you may find it is sold out.
Some crops may speak for themselves, like the group’s current project, the lemon cling peach.
“We’re having 150 trees grown at nurseries in Albemarle, Virginia, using scion wood from Albemarle CiderWorks to graft this peach,” Carrie says. “One of the only places it has been grown is Monticello. We’re bringing the trees down the winter of 2020 and we’re identifying partners. The goal is to repatriate this peach that used to be called the Carolina Kennedy. Thomas Jefferson said it was one of the most flavorful, juicy peaches.”
The final step is persuading the consumer to try the products and to taste the difference.
“Seeing the reaction of a child when they’re trying something for the first time, or touching on a subject they’re already curious about and being able to engage them in a meaningful way, it’s really fulfilling,” she says.
Carrie has plenty of practice at home, where she has a 6-year-old son with chef Jacques Larson (owner of The Obstinate Daughter and Wild Olive).
Slow Food will host an Ark of Taste event June 23 at the MUSC Urban Farm. The event will include educational activities, a seed swap and a ticketed evening dinner.
“I hope that we are encouraging our farmers to think outside of the box in terms of the plans and aspirations of their production; I hope consumers are more aware of the historic and cultural ingredients of our Lowcountry food shed,” Carrie says. “I think more and more restaurants are willing and able to use these lesser-known ingredients when they know there’s organizational support and a really rowdy group of cheerleaders standing behind the diverse ingredients of Charleston.”