All Mixed Up: A Mid-Festival Report from Atlanta Food & Wine

 Arepa with Slow-cooked Local Pork, Arepa Mia, Atlanta

Arepa with Slow-cooked Local Pork, Arepa Mia, Atlanta

The arepa did not look like much. I watched as Lis Hernandez, the young proprietor of Arepa Mia, a soon-to-be-opened restaurant in historic Sweet Auburn Curb Market, undid little lumpy foil-wrapped balls onto a hot griddle. Ten minutes later, when I bit into the crunchy, chewy, umami, unctuous wonder, it singlehandedly undid some of my concern about the scarcity of local foods in my 2012 Atlanta Food & Wine Festival experience.

 Lis Hernandez, owner of Arepa Mia, Sweet Auburn Curb Market, Atlanta, Georgia

Lis Hernandez, owner of Arepa Mia, Sweet Auburn Curb Market, Atlanta, Georgia

I was lucky to meet Lis and her arepa. An hour earlier, as I walked up to the Loews Atlanta Hotel for day two of the Festival, I saw two men preparing to close the doors of a long black van. On impulse, I asked, "Market Tour?" and yes, one seat remained. I hopped in with my three bags of equipment, and away we went to the Market—which made this day just like any Saturday for me. Except the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, also Atlanta's Municipal Market, is not a farmers' market.

Our able Market tour guide, David Jones, host of EatBufordHighway, made it plain that much of the meat and produce in the appealing market came from outside the region. We learned that even the pork, which rules this market, typically comes from Colorado, Minnesota, or other states many hundreds or thousands of food miles way.

The Sweet Auburn Curb Market shares this characteristic with much of the food sourced for the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival 2012: both depend primarily on the prevailing, petroleum-based, widely distributed, commercial-industrial food system to feed their customers. That is surely, in part, because it is early in the growing season. Yet even non-seasonal foods like the meats at Sweet Auburn Curb Market and many Festival booths come from the great "wherever." Locally grown ingredients are scarce, even ones that I expected would come from nearby, including all the pork, much of the beef, chicken, some seafood, and other proteins at the Festival.

Arepa Mia's signs caught my attention during the Sweet Auburn Market tour precisely because they emphasized local sources.

 Arepa Mia signs about using local ingredients

Arepa Mia signs about using local ingredients

Lis Hernandez will open Arepa Mia in the Market as soon as the inspections are complete. I hope the opening—in a setting that has a track record as an incubator for successful restaurants—signals a turn toward a new food system.

My reasons: when sustainable Georgia farms are the main producers of the pork Georgians eat, Georgia communities and farm families will reap economic benefits. It's all mixed up to have Georgia, where pigs could live in hog heaven, importing pork from Minnesota.

Second, a shift toward local ingredients and seasonal eating, along with a concentration on preserving food, will make food better. Flavor, texture, nutrition, freshness, and visual appeal all increase when food comes from nearby.

It is surely possible to grow and cook tasteless local food. It may even be possible to grow food well and sustainably, and still have it lack flavor. It is just not likely. I have yet to have that experience. Instead, as I find ubiquitous bits of ramps in the Festival food, I wonder where all the spring onions are, the baby Vidalias. Where are the tender lettuces and spring greens? Would some south Georgia farms, in this particularly warm spring, have tender English peas, snow peas, and potatoes by now? What about broccoli, kohl rabi, turnips? Chard?

The arepa Lis Hernandez put in my hands this morning had three components:

  • a hand-made shell, built of a special pre-cooked corn flour, salt, and water
  • a filling of organic Riverview Farm pork, slow-cooked with onions for 12 hours
  • a pale green cilantro-laced aioli-like sauce

Everything is as local as Lis can make it, including the cilantro, when possible. I failed to ask about the corn flour, but I assume it is imported.

By the time I bit into Lis's arepa, I had tasted perhaps 100 bites and sips of carefully made food and drink since arriving at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival. Quite a few had been good, even very good.

The arepa wiped those other bites out of my head. The biscuit-sized cornflour "wrapper" tasted of salt and roasted corn from the hot grill. The texture, a cross between crunchy and chewy, seemed like something I always want, but rarely find. The slow-roasted pork could serve as umami's poster child. And the acid, pungent, silky sauce filled in all the remaining little niches I could imagine across an entire savory flavor spectrum.

Lis chose prime local ingredients, gave them expert care, and produced a marvel. Unfortunately, what she is doing is still rare.

As sophisticated as the food scene in the USA has become, it still fails to take full advantage of the best ingredients, grown well nearby, to boost flavor to the ultimate. I'm surprised that local is not yet the norm, even at one of the most elite food events in the country.

 Fresh ham on socca with smoked paprika cream, guanciale chip, and pickled mustard, from American Grocery Restaurant in Greenville, SC

Fresh ham on socca with smoked paprika cream, guanciale chip, and pickled mustard, from American Grocery Restaurant in Greenville, SC

Bonus: One more tasting bite stood out during this afternoon's edition of the daily Festival extravaganza called "Tasting Tents." American Grocery Restaurant of Greenville, South Carolina served "Fresh ham over ramp socca with smoked paprika cream, guanciale chip, and pickled mustard seeds." Chef Joe Clarke told me that all the ingredients are local. His restaurant manages to find and use about 85 percent locally sourced ingredients year-round. Because the mainstream food system most easily delivers food from anywhere, building such an individual local supply system takes amazing work, relationships with growers, flexibility, planning, and persistence.  Wonderful!

I looked up recipes (not American Grocery Restaurant's recipes, please note) for some of this delicious dish's components:

Socca: a crepe made from chickpea flour

Guanciale: cured pork cheek or jowl

Pickled Mustard Seeds

Final word from the middle: In mid-festival, I'm seeing some signs that we may be in mid-change toward building and sustaining food systems that are primarily locally sourced. It is early. We aren't there yet, but some fine leaders like Lis Hernandez and Joe Clarke are pointing the way.

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