by David Cecelski
My son and his pal and I visited UNC-Asheville last week. Our timing was good. We arrived on campus on a lovely morning: the dogwood were blooming and the North Asheville Tailgate Market was having its spring opening day in one of the college’s parking lots. Probably 40 farmers, craftsmen, and bakers were there.
Now in its 31st year, the tailgate market was full of little springtime treasures. Among our favorites: A lady from Three Graces Dairy, in Shelton Laurel (in Madison County), had brought goat cheese seasoned with the Appalachian wild onions called ramps. I thought the slightly green tinge to the cheese was a little off-putting, but one sample taste and the boys begged me to buy a container for our lunch.
A nice lady from McConnell Farms, in Hendersonville, was also there, along with big boxes of rhubarb and asparagus. Beginning in the 1940s, the McConnells ran a diary and grew burley tobacco in Henderson County, south of Asheville, but now raise strawberries, blackberries, and other specialty crops. Their asparagus and rhubarb were the first I’ve seen anywhere this spring.
A tray of tiny, brown speckled quail eggs also caught my eye. They belonged to an older couple from Yancey County. They had big jars of dried apples from their orchard for sale, too, but the quail eggs were just irresistible. They had fresh quail eggs and jars of pickled quail eggs, something I had never seen before.
Two gentlemen from Sunburst Trout Farm in Canton also got my attention. They were selling rainbow trout fillets, smoked trout, trout caviar, and even trout jerky. Founded by a WW II veteran named Dick Jennings in 1948, and later run by his daughter Sally, Sunburst was the first commercial trout farm in the South. Now you can find its trout at tailgate markets, restaurants, and groceries all over Western North Carolina.
After we left UNC-Asheville, we headed west into the Pisgah National Forest looking for a place to picnic. At Wagon Road Gap, we drove down off the Blue Ridge on US 276, stopping to pick up an old man walking down the road with a quail in a box. He said he raises quail as a hobby and releases them into the wild, but that she was his special pet. She sat on his shoulder in my front seat on the way down the mountain—a lovely bird. And a nice way to end a beautiful day in the mountains.