by Ronda Birtha
When I Google “Farm to Fork” I get “About 13,700,000 results (0.24 seconds).” Thanks to Google’s new search algorithm, these top-ranking hits reflect my general location so I get an idea of how popular this trend is in my neck of the woods. Give it a try and see what your results look like where you are. This article isn’t about Google search and algorithms though, but Farm to “Fork”ing” itself, especially as Mary Frances Lawrence, owner of Blue Mountain Grill and Coffee, in Murphy, NC does it.
Every Tuesday starting at 4:30pm, Mary Frances serves up a menu featuring dishes made exclusively from local fare. This past Tuesday customers had to make tough decisions or just indulge themselves to excess with Eggplant Parmesan (River’s Edge Farm, Murphy, NC), BBQ Beef Brisket (Ridgefield Farm, Brasstown, NC), Fried Trout (David Allen’s Trout Farm, Andrews, NC), Chicken Livers and Fried Chicken (4 Sons Farms, Andrews). I chose the Eggplant (for aesthetic purposes – as you will see in the pictures), and almost every side on the menu, which included roasted corn, cream corn, cucumber and watermelon salad, and the cucumber and red onion salad. I leaned toward indulgence.
“Keep it Local”
“Keeping it local” is Mary Frances’ objective because it employs the locals, locally circulates dollars, and helps keep costs for her and prices for us reasonable.
“I’m not trying to get rich. I’m just trying to make a living.” Seven years into owning her first restaurant, both statements still hold true. The prices are exceptionally reasonable – a perk to working with local growers. She says it’s very important to “keep as many people employed, to try to get everyone involved.”
“Keep it Fresh”
And she wants her foods fresh, which is why the quality of the food is outstanding, and customers can’t stay away.
Left: Blue Mountain Coffee and Grill, Murphy, NC; Center: Stephanie prepares the sign featuring the Farm to Fork menu; Jeffrey brings in freshly picked corn from River’s Edge Farm, Murphy, NC.
As the board gets drawn up first thing that morning, and while the breakfast crowd is being served, many ingredients for the evening menu start coming in the back door: Peaches and cream corn, Cherokee Purple and “Tasty Leaves” tomatoes, Neon Eggplant.
Left: Sample pickings from Billy Bruce’s River’s Edge Farm; Center: Mary Francis Lawrence, owner of Blue Mountain Coffee and Grill sorts through a variety of Cherokee purples and other heirloom tomatoes to be used in the Roasted Tomato soup; Right: Mary Frances shows off a unique Neon eggplant.
Getting farm fresh produce in early that morning for the Tuesday evening ritual is also the only way Billy Bruce, owner of River’s Edge Farm will have it. He delivers several bushels of peaches and cream corn picked early that morning so that the taste can be as peak as possible.
“He will not pick it and deliver it before the day it is served,” Mary Frances says watching her brother Jeffrey tote in a basket of fresh picked corn.
I join Billy outside at his truck just before he hauls in more tomatoes. He says that unlike Mary Frances who “can do things [I’ve] never seen with a tomato,” he doesn’t know what else to do with one other than cut it and put salt on it. But just like Mary Frances, he is passionate about the quality of his produce. Mary Frances says that Billy chose the seed plants for her garden at the restaurant because he knew he could pick out the best for her.
The other factor that keeps Mary Frances’ business healthy is no secret. “I like to eat,” she admits freely.
While it may be true that she “likes” to eat, spending time in the kitchen with her reveals how much she “loves” to cook. “If I come to work and don’t produce anything I feel like I haven’t done anything. The kitchen … that’s where the action is.”
Standing at a safe distance while photographing her was like having a backstage pass to a concert where I got to watch a stellar performance and then afterwards got an exclusive interview.
At one moment she’s wielding knives over the grill like a samurai warrior, then she’s simultaneously stirring two pots of sauces on the stove, moving the stirrers like a conductor’s wand during a symphony. Her attention may be divided between taking orders, filling orders, and managing the activity of everything in the kitchen (while leaving the activity of everything on the floor to a very capable crew who quickly serves a steady flow of customers), but her attention to detail in preparing the dishes is not lost.
Left: Roasted Tomato soup; Roasted corn on the cob, cream corn, a samples of cucumber & watermelon, and cucumber and red onion salads; Right: neon eggplant parmesan.
When 5 o’clock came I returned to enjoy the fruits of Mary Frances’s labor. The corn that was delivered that morning, delivered on taste that evening! I had never tasted corn so perfect, naturally sweet and tender. The tomatoes, Cherokee Purples and other varieties, made for a roasted tomato soup with a hearty texture, wonderful color and an unexpected, but pleasant bite. The hybrid Neon eggplant that sported an “elegant” pearly-violet skin that morning was now draped with Parmesan cheese and a rich homemade tomato sauce. (I know that sounds like a strange way to describe an eggplant, but the color was magnificent.)
And long after I had left, Mary Frances worked far into the night because “that is where the action is,” especially on Farm to Fork Tuesday at Blue Mountain Coffee & Grill in Murphy, NC.
Ronda Birtha is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer residing in far, far western North Carolina. She has been an instructor for the Community Folklife Documentation Institute/NC Folklife Institute; and as Project Consultant for the Mountain Work: A Social Commentary documentary, partially funded by a grant from the NC Humanities Council.
Samples of her photography and videography can be seen at www.rondabirtha.com.
In the five or ten minutes that she has for herself in the course of a day, she continues to work on her first novel – Solace.