As part of our Finding Roanoke conversation series, we’re digging deeper into role of local foods on Monday, November 13. For the event, our host, Maureen Best, director of the Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP), has pulled together some interesting food folks, including blogger and freelance journalist Christina Nifong. We spent a little time with Christina as a bit of a preview.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: You’ve got a particular niche that combines journalism and teaching with your love of local foods. Is there a particular point when all of this came together for you?
Christina Nifong: I began as a writer and only later folded my foodie inclinations into the mix. The place where it all came together was my year as the food writer for The Roanoke Times. That was when I realized people were hungry for tips and recipes to help them cook with the food they had grown, picked or found at area farmers markets. That was also when I discovered that the most interesting food stories revolved around advances in the local food movement. Fermentation has recently seen a resurgence, in part, to preserve locally grown food. Foraging has taken center stage because the textures and flavors of foraged food—like ramps and chicken of the woods mushrooms, for example—are ripe for exploring. So while I believe in the benefits of eating local, I also am interested in writing about where this movement takes the food scene in general.
BCR: You’ve worked in a number of East Coast communities. What inspires you most about Roanoke in this arena?
CN: The inspiring thing about Roanoke is its sense of possibility. There are so many people here who have great ideas and the energy to turn them into action. Whether it’s starting a handful of new farmers markets because the existing market doesn’t have space for new farmers (which was the beginnings of LEAP) or creating a curriculum for healthy food in school classrooms (Happy Healthy Cooks) or finding a way to bring big city dining to Roanoke (Lucky and Fortunato)…I love Roanoke’s can-do spirit!
BCR: I agree completely. What do you see for us next for us in terms of the community food scene?
CN: I think the food scene in Roanoke—like so many of the city’s scenes right now—is on the cusp. Will more eaters continue to support farmers markets and restaurants featuring local food? Will the various organizations working on educating and connecting eaters colloborate and grow stronger? There’s so much potential. One topic that’s hot in the food world right now—and Roanoke is right there in the midst of it—is preserving food diversity. Think heirloom seeds (the incredible rainbow of tomatoes or green beans), all-but-forgotten local plants (pawpaw) and heritage livestock. I just wrote a magazine story about Bramble Hollow Farm in Montvale, which is raising heritage chickens in part to keep them from going extinct. This idea of appreciating and keeping around a wide variety of plants and meats is one to watch, for sure.
BCR: We’ll get to learn more about Bramble Hollow Farm when Anna Wills joins us in conversation on Monday. Do you have another piece of your own journalism that you use as a touchstone for the kind of work you do?
CN: I’ll share one of my favorite blog posts, one I wrote last spring. It’s all about why I eat local and what that really means. Sometimes words become a catch phrase and lose their meaning. “Eat local” can feel like that at times. This post gets beyond “fresh tastes best” and really explains how eating local shapes so many of my life choices in a really positive way. As with everything I write on my blog, I’m hoping it will inspire readers while giving enough nuts-and-bolts details to help someone who wants to make a change to do it.
BCR: Let’s talk a little more about your writing. Years ago, a nursery owner said to me, “Of course you’re a writer. You love plants. Plants and words go hand in hand. I’m a writer too.” I keep finding it to be the case. Why do you think gardening and writing make a good pair?
CN: My creative writing professor in college talked about how some of her best ideas came while she was knitting or washing dishes, because doing something repetitive with your hands frees your mind. Gardening — and cooking — are like that for me. As I pick and shuck and chop and stir, my brain lets go of the endless details that can consume me. My thoughts are free to wander, imagine, problem solve. I actually think this is something we’re losing as a culture. We order meals that come pre-cut and pre-measured; no one sews their own clothes anymore; we contract out our yard work and send our pets to doggie day care. So we can rush from moment to moment. Gardening is a slow activity that allows for a different kind of thinking—and so is writing.
BCR: I agree. Its in those activities that I’m in my most creative. Do you have a favorite piece of someone else’s food related journalism that you look to for inspiration?
CN: I can’t say enough about Michael Pollan. The Omnivore’s Dilemma (published in 2007) laid out with such clarity how our food system had become dangerously industrialized and actually poisonous. His work inspired so much of the progress that’s happened around food systems in the last decade. And he continues to write about how to eat ethically, environmentally, healthily. I loved Cooked, his 2013 book that is now a Netflix documentary. It tells the story of Pollan’s journey to become a home cook—because eating ethically is just not possible without making your own food—and shares some of his delightful childhood food memories.
BCR: How about fiction? Do you have a favorite fictional grower, gardener, food based small businessperson, or chef?
CN: I’m not sure I have one fictional food hero. But I can say that Barbara Kingsolver’s characters speak to me years after I’ve read of them — and as I think of it now, they often do walk through the world of food. I’m thinking of the scene in The Poisonwood Bible where missionary Nathan Price is teaching the Congolese locals how to farm properly (which turns out to be terrible advice in the land where they are all now living). Or in Pigs in Heaven when Turtle’s mother insists she drink her milk, when it turns out she is allergic to it. Or in Prodigal Summer, when neighboring farmers duke it out over chemical over-spray. Of course, Kingsolver details the facts behind these fictional scenes in her memoir of eating local food, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which is one of my favorite books of all time.
BCR: I bet that just sent some folks back to their shelves for another helping of Kingsolver! What are you reading now?
CN: Alice Waters’s Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook. Pure Charcuterie: The Craft and Poetry of Curing Meats at Home by Asheville writer Meredith Leigh. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I’m finding to be both heartbreaking and eye-opening. And Dar Williams, of course!
Read more from Christina Nifong at her blog, www.christinanifong.com. And join the local foods conversation of Finding Roanoke. We’ll start with chapter 6 of What I Found in a Thousand Towns. But you’ll enjoy the conversation even if you haven’t read it yet. ★