He’s been scrambling haphazardly up and down a craggy brick artifice with armfuls of eggplant, dancing along a raised ledge where a wood floor used to meet the hearth of an old fireplace. The abandoned chimney is the final remnant of the plantation house that once graced Walnut Hill. Tonight Keeler’s smoldering oak fire pit garners the attention. He and his crew stand above a growing crowd, poking at the coals, looking the way chefs always look—nervous and impatient. Later I see him hoisting a roasted pig from a large welded drum cooker. It’s a porchetta: the whole animal, backbone and ribs removed, the middle rolled and tied tightly like a cigar, the head on with feet tucked neatly against the body. The burnished skin glistens with lard, and the Lowcountry Field Feast begins.
Across the lawn a bluegrass band croons into a couple of amplifiers. The bar beside them slings sumptuous cocktails made from the local Bittermilk line of premium mixers. Charleston’s beer mavens Scott Shor and Rich Carley, proprietors of The Charleston Beer Exchange and Edmund’s Oast, tap a specially flavored brew to complement the Bittermilk Tom Collins spiked with elderflowers and hops poured over ice. Music chimes the air as I gaze out at Sidi Limehouse’s sprawling Rosebank Farms, where a sea of collard greens and turnips sprout from the sandy soil.
Nikki Seibert of Lowcountry Local First (LLF) calls to the crowd, and we saunter toward the Dirt Works Incubator Farm. Seibert heads up this loose band of entrepreneurs and green thumbs who leased small plots of land to try their hands at growing local foods to sell to restaurants and families. They have use of a tractor and a walk-in cooler, seminars and advice, and a fervent community of supporters. Seibert explains that many participants began in the Lowcountry Local First apprentice program. According to her, most do not stay on this career path, preferring to return to the comforts of urban life. But the diehards come here, secure an acre of land, and begin the farmer’s journey.
The most impressive plot belongs to Jim Martin, one of the first farmers accepted into the program. His twenty-five-year career in horticulture has now come full circle with the growth of his business Compost in My Shoe. His easy demeanor belies the hard labor he puts in at the farm. Two years ago he grew produce in his backyard. A year from now, he will expand to a larger piece of dirt to boost his popular community supported agriculture (CSA) sales. His colorful van frames fields of organically grown produce; there are peppers and okra, cut flowers, and plenty of the eggplants that Josh Keeler is roasting in the old hearth up the road. As he leads the tour between his raised beds, guests reach down to touch the soil, earth once stripped of its life by conventional farming techniques now mellowed with the rich smell of humus and bacterial life. It is alive
The average farmer in South Carolina is over sixty years old, the reason why LLF got into the farming business in the first place. When farmers retire, they either pass along the land to another farmer, or they sell it for coastal development. But with no farms, there will be no food, at least not the kind of food that we will eat tonight.
Quality chefs focusing on modern cuisine work with real food: ingredients grown locally, not shipped across the country or the world. This farm-to-table fare depends on a steady supply of local foods and, by extension, the people who provide them. As we watch Jim Martin, not a young man but a teacher of them, walk through his abundant garden, one can easily imagine the romance of such a role. When you hear of the tremendous hours worked, the low pay, and the incessant battle against pests and disease, the fairy-tale picture fades. Growing real food is torturously difficult.
So people like Jim Martin depend on guys like Josh Keeler, and vice versa. How do you pinpoint what needs to come first in an emerging local food economy? Without demand, the local farmer has no market; he can’t compete with huge conglomerates, economies of scale, and the exploitative labor practices that make grocery store produce cheap. Lacking local supply and a relationship with the land, a chef’s inspiration diminishes, unable to explore the adept interpretations of season and ingredient that define the semblance and soul of a particular place. It is a conundrum solved by pairing the field and the kitchen, working in tandem to make great food a possibility. The chef often gets the final credit, but the farmer provides the meal.
This is evident as we sit down to partake of the Field Feast. The porchetta is succulent and tender, a heritage breed Ossabaw pig raised on Wadmalaw Island that drips with delicious fat. The roasted eggplants have become a puree
slathered on crusty bread. A line of chefs emerge from the kitchen to ovations and rapt applause. They tell stories of the feast, of the ingredients and cooking, the method and technique. As a brief video featuring the Incubator Farm plays, I spy Jim Martin perched above a delicious dinner. He looks satisfied with a job well done, for he grew almost all of the evening’s vegetables on his farm. His expression testifies to the accomplishment of nurturing the land, but also the promise of returning tomorrow to take another turn in the dirt. — j.a.