A Farm-to-Fork Tour
My early memories take me to the dusty patch of dirt and field off Smyrna Road where my mom taught me to pull wayward weeds from rows of green beans and potatoes. When we were old enough to pick what was ripe, my sisters and I would work alongside mom filling Hefty garbage bags and buckets full of bush beans. We hardly had to come in for lunch since we could just snack our way through the garden. Our vegetables were fresh and full of flavor. An afternoon in the garden was always an adventure. I remember coming across a copperhead once, it's head like a triangular, pressed penny perched above the dry fescue, and my mom made quick, decisive work of him with her hoe. It’s funny though, because life has a way of speeding up. Before you know what’s happened, you live in a subdivision with a yard the size of a small Amazon box. There’s nowhere to plant, and the truth is, you don’t remember how to garden anyway.
Thankfully, for both the locals here in Blairsville-Union County and those hankering for a short trip to the hills, with just a bit of planning, a day spent farm-to-fork is still available right here in the mountains.
A farm-to-fork tour of north Georgia will start with prescheduling a 9 AM slot at The Union County Cannery the morning of your tour and a quick visit with your grandma for some Mason jars from her cellar. Then, for those craving a juicy, heirloom tomato and a wedge of hoop cheese or a crisp cucumber with a sprinkle of sea salt, the first stop of the day will be at the Farmer’s Market off Old Smokey Road. When I was in high school that’s where the young boys would go to settle their scores with an old fashioned fist fight. Nowadays, Old Smokey hosts the best market in northern Georgia, and you best get there early if you want to get a bushel of Freddie Collins’ fresh green beans or a dozen ears of their Silver King corn which they tout as superior for canning. You’ll find Michael Surles there with his sourwood honey and Whimsey Flower Farm's Jennifer Logan will have a table swarmed with people snatching up her bouquets of zinnias and ranunculus. Expect to be greeted warmly by the locals, and if you have a
pooch, rest assured it will be in the good pup-sitting hands of The Humane Society's donation-based doggie-daycare. Later, you can bring your four-legged companion for a run at The Farmer's Barket, a new off-leash area opened just this year.
After sampling your way through the organic, fresh produce at the market, you’ll walk just a few feet over to the Union County Cannery. Whether you have never seen the inside of a Mason jar or you spent summer’s standing over steaming pots of stewing tomatoes with your grandma, you will find The Cannery is nothing short of inspiring. No experience is needed.
Simply show up with your produce, your jars, and your lids. From blanching your beans to stuffing your jars, to adding that important teaspoon of canning salt, to filling the jars with water, and finally steam-bathing the jars to seal them, a local expert will walk you through the preserving process start to finish. Just imagine in less than an hour you could literally can your own farm-fresh food. What a perfect, custom hostess gift for your next dinner party!
As you leave the city limits, stop by Cabin Coffee for a quick cup of their site-roasted coffee, then head south to The Byron Herbert Reece Farm and Heritage Center. Here you can step back to the time when a man stood behind his own plough and wrestled Georgia's red clay into submission. Byron Herbert Reece was an early 1900’s farmer and Pulitzer-prize nominated poet who cultivated corn and words, both of which grew beautifully in his skilled hands. His candid way of capturing the Appalachian farmer’s experience is both refreshing and gut-wrenching. It was he who said, ‘Did I ever define nostalgia for you? It is the instantaneous recognition of our mortality.” When you walk through the restored barns, corn cribs, and smoke-house, you’ll feel that very nostalgia gnaw at you until the noise of life gets quieted a bit. If you have children, you’ll want to visit the petting farm complete with roosters, goats, and a dapper donkey. If you're curious about antiques, take some time at the expansive farm and implement exhibit donated by the Pentecost family. Before leaving, stop in at the gift shop which is actually the relocated Reece Family home and snag a copy of Reece’s Better a Dinner of Herbs. Take his novel, and spread an old quilt on the grass where you can enjoy his writing to the clamoring chatter of Wolf Creek. Once your mind is refreshed, you'll be hungry and ready to head back to town for one final stop.
The Sawmill Place Restaurant stands on the site of the original sawmill where my father lost the hearing in his left ear as he shaved and planed many a log into smooth, workable lumber. After long hours next to the roaring saw, my father’s ear shut down. Since then, the sawmill did too, but Shawn and Amy Kight have given the land new life as they bring local farmer’s produce, meats, and cheeses to our forks one delicious, scratch-made bite at a time. In fact, on Tuesdays at the Market, you may catch Mickey loading up produce to deliver straight to the restaurant. To complete your farm-to-fork tour of Blairsville-Union County, you’ll definitely want to nosh on their tempura fried-squash and buttermilk biscuits. The meat loving traveler will relish the classic Farmhouse Burger topped with a local, free range, fried egg, house bacon jam, cheddar cheese and thin-cut onion rings. Or if you prefer lighter fare, try the Apple-A-Day salad featuring Springer Mountain free range chicken and farm fresh veggies. If you have to wait a few moments to be seated, enjoy the porch and rocking chairs or browse their Market and pick up a few early Christmas gifts featuring local artisans, growers, and crafters.
Life seems to move faster and faster, but here in Blairsville-Union County, we’ve held onto some of the most important things. We’ve kept the tradition of community gathering and sharing the bounty of our land and homes, we’ve kept our ingredients real and fresh, and we’ve held tight to the beauty of the written word that records today’s moments for future memories. Byron Herbert Reece said it well when he wrote, “I was bitten long ago by the spider that promises permanence. I am driven by the desire to preserve what I have enjoyed in tact for others.” Indeed what Reece enjoyed here is still intact in the mountains for others to enjoy one quiet, peaceful visit at a time. Whether, like me, you were born and raised here in Appalachia or you're a city-dweller looking to plant your feet in southern soil, plan a farm-to-fork day in Blairsville-Union County where the past has been preserved so well that it still stands beckoning you and I home.