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Cooking as conversation

Photo by Ava Barlow. Carrboro resident April McGreger makes sauerkraut in her kitchen by fermenting shredded cabbage with sea salt and juniper berries.Kirk Ross

Already, the aromas swirling around in April McGreger’s kitchen were pretty overwhelming to a first-time visitor.

Slices of chunked pumpkin were in the middle of a long simmer in copper pots on the stove, the scent mixing with lemon juicing in progress. Then the sweet potato yeast rolls came out of the oven.

McGreger knows from sweet potatoes. Her brother and father grow hundreds of acres of them back home in Vardaman, Mississippi. She really is what the label on her desserts and jars of preserves, chutneys and slaws states: a farmer’s daughter.

It’s a label with growing popularity in part because her unique approach of using seasonal, locally grown food has struck a chord with frequenters of the farmers’ markets. The main reason, however, is that she’s just that good.

Right now, she’s trying to figure out how to grow her business.

“There’s the problem of larger distribution when you’re doing small-scale seasonal stuff,” she said. “I don’t want to just do thousands of jars of pumpkin-chip preserves. The fun of it for me is to be able to see what’s out there — what’s in season — and to get inspiration from the actual product.”

McGreger’s bond with her grandmother, cooking with her and learning the food cycles of a family farm with large family gardens, was her entry into the arts of cooking and putting up food.

Graduate school at UNC brought her to this area and although she enjoyed her master’s work researching the volcanic activity on the Italian island of Stromboli in the Aeolian Sea, her passion for cooking began to eclipse a career in geology.

Eventually, she took a job at Lantern just as that now top-rated kitchen was getting rolling and was staffed by the self-dubbed mujeres en fuego — women on fire. One of her preferred tools remains a wok spatula she got used to working with there.

Though she had no formal training as a chef, she’s taken what she learned growing up and pursued it further with a researcher’s eye. She’s studied Appalachian and Native-American dishes — her sour corn is a direct result — and taken short courses in sustainable agriculture at Central Carolina Community College and bread baking at the San Francisco Baking Institute.

Last year, McGreger decided it was time to take a break from restaurants, make the leap, and start Farmer’s Daughter. She took course work at N.C. State to become certified in pickling and set up a kitchen in her Carrboro home.

There, she and assistant Jessica Sandford keep McGreger’s booth at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market and her small network of retailers stocked.

She’s developed a wide-ranging repertoire. The pie list in preparation for this year’s pre-Thanksgiving
Farmers’ Market includes pecan, fig cake, chocolate pecan, persimmon, pumpkin and maple pumpkin. McGreger is especially proud of her work to develop a good chestnut paste. The use of chestnuts in this area disappeared in the last century along with the trees, and her effort to revive the ingredient is an example of her fascination with recapturing traditions. Her technique was adapted from an old French recipe and last week she turned 25 pounds into a rich, creamy paste, most of which will go into tea cakes.

“I have a huge interest in history in general,” she said, “and that’s why I really wanted to bring out these old recipes and reintroduce them to people.”

Her research into local foods led to a regular column in Grist magazine, and her active participation as a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance has gotten notice.

McGreger’s Muscadine Meringue Tartlette — her variation on a low-country grape-hull pie — was recently named by Garden & Gun magazine as one of the South’s 100 must-try foods.

As much as she is a student of traditions, McGreger does not claim to be a purist and makes an educated effort to put her twist on recipes. She credits Bill Neal, Joe Dabney and other Southern chefs and researchers for pointing the way. Her sweet potato rolls are a variation on a well-known Neal yeast roll recipe.

She is a purist about one thing — kimchi: “It’s not my culture to mess with. I don’t feel like I have license, so I try to stick close.”

When it comes to working within her own food traditions, she feels a lot more freedom. Her spiced muscatine — the cranberry sauce of the South — includes a little ginger, and vanilla-bean shavings are stirred into the pumpkin chip preserves.

“I’m in conversation with my own traditions,” McGreger said. “I try to make small changes to make things mine. I don’t want my changes to be arbitrary but I also don’t want them to be stodgy.”
You can find some of April McGreger’s thoughts on cooking and food traditions online via Grist magazine, where she writes a monthly column. This month, she’s posted her sweet potato rolls recipe. Visit grist.org/advice/daughter/2008/11/20/

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