Rural Foodways, Old and New, Draw Rural Communities Together
Across generations and different family traditions, the thoughtful production and consumption of the countryside’s harvest creates a tasty connection.
Many families and friends will reconnect on November 23 as Thanksgiving tables are prepared and massive servings of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes are devoured. Some Thanksgiving food traditions have changed recently as American views toward food have changed as well. It has already been 10 years since Time Magazine ran a cover publicizing the “local food movement” on March 12, 2007. The popular, commercial attention to good, healthy food and the language of local, slow and organic is new to some Americans. Yet there are others whose lives have been immersed in the cultivation of good food for generations. Let me tell you about a family who is welcoming this rediscovery.
I visited with Chas and Rosalea Potter one early November Tuesday morning to talk with them about their family farm in Rockbridge County, Virginia. We met in the office of their newly opened Cattleman’s Market in Lexington, Virginia, and the meeting was a family affair as their two young daughters, Riley and Andi, played in the background. Chas’ father, Charlie, joined us as well and 30 minutes later, Charlie’s brother, Stevie, dropped in too. I should note for full disclosure that they are all active members at their rural Presbyterian church where I serve as pastor.
Chas is the seventh generation of his family farming the rich Rockbridge County lands where an intricate system of creeks drain nearby House Mountain. He and Rosalea bought the 18th-century farm and farmhouse built by the first generation of their family tree. Their Buffalo Creek Beef is a well-loved operation for people seeking the best quality meats. Chas and Charlie tend approximately 350 head of cattle and they harvest six to eight a week. Much of the beef is sold in their market and sent via their one delivery truck to restaurants and butcher shops not far away in Staunton, Harrisonburg, Marshall, Charlottesville, and Richmond. Charlie remembers as a kid delivering the beef to the butcher shop in town, the building which is now Nikos Greek Restaurant. The Potter family local food tradition has been around for a very long time and as people awake to its value its creativity is flourishing.
As we talk, I am distracted by the wonderful aromas coming from the kitchen, where Collin their chef is preparing food. Rosalea is describing all the new things that they have added since they opened the market. Not only is there a stunning selection of choice cuts of beef, pork and poultry, now you can buy prepared meals to take home for dinner. There is spicy kimchi and brisket stew, beef stroganoff with mushrooms and white wine, skirt steak Jamaican style curry, smoked brisket cheesesteak, whole smoked turkeys and shepherd’s pie. Collin used to be a chef at Lexington’s Red Hen Restaurant. Now he is trying to stay ahead of the demand for these delicious prepared meals. Rosalea notes that these meals appeal to people across a broad spectrum from young mothers rushing home from work to feed their families to retiree widowers who are not very skilled in the kitchen.
The broad spectrum is what I have observed before in people purchasing the fruits of the Potter family’s labors. Rosalea talks about it not only as the farm girl that she is but as a creative and clever entrepreneur. Now she is making a point as she changes Andi’s diaper. The clientele is a fascinating mix of people who buy a wide range of their products. Faculty and administrators from local Washington and Lee University and the Virginia Military Institute frequent the market to purchase beef without hormones or anti-biotics, beef that is aged 14 days without the use of high intensity lights. People ask questions about the Potter’s farming techniques because they read about new farming trends but do not always understand what the language means since few have hands-on experience. One day a customer wanted to buy a grass-fed turkey. Rosalea sees consumer education as an opportunity rather than a hassle. But the crowd in the store are not just academics and millennial locavores. It is a cross-section of Rockbridge County and Lexington. Hard working locals come because the food is wonderful, the Potter family is well-known and trusted and there are price ranges in the store that make their products accessible to everyone.
At the end of our visit I ask a question that I know will be a hard one to answer. “How do you see the farm and the market being related to your faith?” There is a pause. I am tempted to answer my own question. Fortunately, Rosalea starts searching for the words that she wants to use. That morning as they left their farmhouse driving to the market, Riley said from her car seat, “Look, mom there’s our church.” They drove past the homes of family and friends that are connected through both work and worship. They are connected to generations of family in this place and Rosalea says that she hopes that her children will be able to continue farming if they wish to do so. They are also connected to people in Lexington and beyond who live very different lives but who come together to enjoy good food. Her thoughtful answer reminds me that my faith tradition always links understanding of God to good relationship to neighbors.
As people gather around Thanksgiving tables this year, Americans have abundant opportunities to share good local food in creative ways. Yet I suspect that we gather not only for food or for the chance to express gratitude but for the possibility of connecting with other human beings. I am thankful for people whose work and whose lives build these deeply needed connections.