As a child, I remember my uncle, Jacob Davis Hill, Jr., bringing us his freshly caught small bream, which my mother so expertly fried that I even ate the tails. Uncle Jake coming over with those little fish is one of my earliest recollections. A former legislator and railroad lobbyist, my godfather was to me “the fish man” and “Pretty Jake.”
During my childhood, a bite into a summertime tomato yielded a sharp and at the same time sweet taste intensified by an aroma of which I was barely aware as it reacted with my nose. Red juice would dribble down my chin. While fish were caught by family and friends, those juicy tomatoes were vine-ripened and picked from the yard. In our case, they were purchased from the back of pickup trucks at the market off Bluff Road in Columbia. Other local vegetables were available at the market as well, carefully selected from the baskets of peaches, green beans, unshelled field peas, yellow squash, onions, potatoes, and corn.
Today, I continue to enjoy farm fresh vegetables and fruit in season thanks to Mandy Churchwell. She brings a host of my local favorites from her Certified S.C. Grown family farm, the Veggie Patch in Neeses, to Columbia markets. I see her at the Farmers on Forest Market beside Richland Mall every Wednesday between April and November, rain or shine. The Veggie Patch also participates in the University of South Carolina’s Healthy Carolina project, begun by past USC First Lady Patricia Pastides, since its inception many years ago. Set up in front of the Russell House, the market provides students with healthy options that contrast with the typical college fast-food diet.
“Farming has been in my family for generations,” says Mandy. “Granddaddy farmed cotton, corn, and even pigs.” Her parents, Phyllis and Jerry, have been farming full-time for 15 years since retirement, after farming part-time during their respective careers of 25 years in manufacturing accounts payable and 30 years in welding. Mandy grew up farming and continued part-time while pursuing a business degree and working for 10 years in manufacturing. She became a full-time farmer at her parents’ 10-acre Veggie Patch 13 years ago. Farming part-time is not unusual for folks living in the country. “We work our regular 40-hour week and come home and farm,” she says.
Phyllis and Jerry sell Veggie Patch products at farmers markets in Camden and Orangeburg. When their largest crop, tomatoes, produces more than they can sell at the four markets, they will sell at the S.C. Farmers Market. In addition to tomatoes, the Churchwells now raise okra, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, and “whatever Dad wants to plant,” which may be watermelon and cantaloupes one year or even “a little bit of corn” another year. Beyond what they raise, they offer a full complement of fruits and veggies obtained through a network with other Certified S.C. Grown farmers.
Ask Mandy what her most popular item is, and she will tell you it’s their vine-ripened tomatoes, followed by okra. She shakes her head and chuckles about the okra. It is very labor intensive to pick, but she gives her customers what they want, and they want okra. I personally love it boiled and slimy while others prefer fried, stewed with tomatoes, or pickled, which is a great addition to fresh collards.
I have always known that the tomatoes of childhood did not taste remotely like most purchased in grocery stores or even served in restaurants today. My late mother-in-law, who worked at the Greenville Farmers Market well into her late 80s, explained that unripe green tomatoes can be turned into bright red ones using ethylene gas. While tomatoes naturally produce ethylene gas, they redden slowly when they ripen at their own pace, developing their wonderful taste. Hurry that process along by subjecting them to forced ethylene gas as some commercial producers do, and they will turn red but they will never fully ripen.
Fresh corn on the cob is also a passion for me. I had access to the freshest you can eat when living beside a cornfield in rural Orangeburg County in my early 20s. You cannot get fresher corn than when, like that tomato just picked off the vine, you tear off a corn husk directly from the stalk. This cornfield was used to produce cattle feed, so it stayed on the stalk until the stalks died, dried up, and were harvested. However, the stalks, while still young, contained the sweetest, most tender yellow morsels. Later, when I bought a fine old place surrounded by soybean fields, my friends were eager to sample this food product being billed in the early ’80s as the newest, healthiest source of protein. However, I had to warn them that soybeans, like red beans, are toxic if eaten raw.
One of my wintertime favorite oatmeal toppings, in addition to Mandy’s blackberries which I buy to both eat and freeze each June, comes from large bags of frozen Wyman Wild Maine Blueberries. I consume berries every single day year-round in generous portions, not just a handful. Years ago, a co-worker and I figured out when everyone in the office got the flu except us that the reason was that we both ate berries every day. Berries, particularly blueberries, are known for their antioxidant properties.
With my love for berries, imagine my excitement three years ago that a planned vacation trip to Canada included a stopover at Lubec, Maine, home of Wyman’s Wild Maine Blueberries, during blueberry season. Wyman’s wild blueberries are small and extra sweet. Surely our bed and breakfast and the local restaurants would be serving this local delicacy. Alas, it was not to be. We could not find a single wild blueberry because they were being packed, frozen, and shipped for export to places such as South Carolina. My Wyman Wild Maine Blueberries were waiting at home in my freezer.
With all the fresh produce, nothing brings it all together better than a nice, crisp salad. After a couple of successful and then several failed attempts to grow my own wintertime lettuce, this past year my life was literally changed when I discovered I could eat fresh locally grown lettuce year-round in the beautiful red and green and other special varieties I love. I buy my lettuce in the grocery store from Vertical Roots farm, based in Charleston with facilities also in West Columbia. Vertical Roots has created a packaging system that reduced the company’s plastic usage while also extending the lettuce’s shelf life. The lettuces are grown indoors in vertical rows, hence the name. According to the company’s website, Vertical Roots is now the largest hydroponic container farm in the country. What a dream for a salad craver such as I! Thanks to its unique packaging, made from recycled plastic that can itself be recycled, the lettuce can last around 14 days on the shelf.
The Shrimp Guy
Another childhood summer delight, most often enjoyed during annual family vacations at Edisto Beach, was the locally caught shellfish, primarily shrimp and crab harvested the same day my mother bought them. I was just recently pleasantly surprised to learn that fresh crabmeat can be bought from a local provider of fresh fish and shellfish. The Shrimp Guy, also known as Jeff Dowdy, can secure a tasty batch of fresh crab from the warm waters of Alabama, which he prepares into lightly breaded Maryland Crab Cakes for his customers. When I asked Jeff what happened to the handpicked South Carolina crab of my youth, he informed me that companies from the Mid-Atlantic send trucks down to buy it, thus driving the price up beyond what local pickers can afford. Then in New Jersey and other places, it is frozen and shipped out around the country. Maine blueberries all over again.
Dry packed scallops from Massachusetts are another specialty Jeff secures fresh for his customers, along with farm raised salmon from the Farroe Islands. Trucks leave Boston and head to market in Wilmington, North Carolina, where our Shrimp Guy picks them up. Wait, the Farroe Islands? Aren’t they near Norway? Yes, whole salmon are flown fresh from there to Boston. Not only are these fish never frozen, but they contain no chemical preservatives, nor does any other fish or shellfish Jeff sells.
After Jeff moved to South Carolina in 1996 while in the real estate and banking business, he was surprised he could not readily find fresh coastal shrimp. He started driving to Beaufort to buy shrimp from the day at the boat dock and eventually pursued local fish as a vocation as well as avocation. He says his most popular item is local shrimp, as would be expected, followed by scallops and crabcakes. He also sells whitefish, such as cod and halibut, through his Boston supplier. He sells Carolina coastal fish like triggerfish and tile fish, caught far offshore, and flounder and red drum from onshore, as well as many others as they are available. The taste, texture, and tenderness of the North Carolina blue-eyed tuna is remarkable. Jeff drives his refrigerated truck weekly to Top Sail, North Carolina, to pick up fish and shellfish. He sells fish and shellfish by pre-order, delivering to locations around Columbia, including a parking area near the Hangar at Owens Field.
With completion of a new processing plant equipped to clean, freeze, and ship his coastal delights, Jeff plans to add a commercial kitchen and a food truck to be managed by his daughter, a culinary school graduate. The Shrimp Guy’s Facebook page includes a photo of a Georgia billboard saying, “You didn’t come to Savannah to eat pond raised shrimp from China.” It’s amazing what passes for shrimp these days. The many tourists who flock to our beautiful coast dine on “fresh seafood” platters and buffets, never wondering what they may be eating. Once at a Columbia fish restaurant, I asked about the source of the shrimp and was told, “India.”
Persimmon Hill Farm
It’s fun to know the person providing your food. Each week Matt Loignon of Persimmon Hill Farm loads up the coolers on his big truck and heads into town to deliver chicken, eggs, pork, and, when available, beef. All come from pasture-raised and antibiotic-free animals. Matt’s father, Gerald, bought a Newberry County farm, where Matt was raised from the age of 8. Since Gerald had a regular job, he rented instead of farmed it. Nonetheless, Matt developed a taste for the land that stayed with him, eventually leading him to part-time and then full-time farming. After a tour of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine, he came home to Jalapa and bought his first 25 head of cattle. Some of them are still birthing calves in his fields.
Day old chicks arrive at the farm in the mail, and they stay in a heated brooder for several weeks until they “feather out.” The rest of the time the chickens are in pasture, like the pigs and cattle. Special houses are moved around the pasture daily to provide the chickens with the fresh areas of grass, bugs, and other tidbits they love to eat. The houses have coverings to protect Matt’s 100 hens from predators. Being pasture raised, the Persimmon Hill Farm chickens are not raised in barns with “access” to the outdoors and thus labeled “free range,” as referenced in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a source of my dietary enlightenment in 2006. One type of hen is used to lay eggs and another is raised as meat. Hens lay fewer eggs in winter when daylight is shorter although they eat the same amount, so I have learned to place my online egg orders early in the week.
Matt buys piglets to raise at eight weeks old, and they mature in six to eight months. Since finding piglets was difficult last year, this year he is planning to raise his own and has a boar hog to help do the job with five sows. A typical litter is 10 to 12 offspring. He sells his tender pasture-raised beef only periodically, so I know to stock up when filets, roasts, and other goodies show up in his online store.
Matt has been married to Kelly, a pharmacist, for five years, and they have a toddler son, Paul, who will have the privilege of growing up on a working farm. Matt says he drives two and a half hours one way to Kingstree, South Carolina, to use the only Certified Humane and Animal Welfare processor in the state for all three of his types of livestock.
My lifelong devotion to what is fresh and local continues, and I am always ready for new local foods. I understand and appreciate the economics of keeping small businesses going, especially during the current pandemic. I can’t even imagine giving up my local foods for some raised on mega-farms with petrochemicals and who knows what else. I have my vegetable farmer; my chicken and egg, beef, and pork farmer; my Shrimp Guy; and even year-round locally grown lettuce from Vertical Roots Farms. If you are interested in locally harvested, fresh food, check around. You may be surprised at what you find.