Durham, a Tobacco Town, Turns to Local Food

Source: New York Times

Watts Grocery, near Duke, offers braised rabbit, polenta and seasonal vegetables.

Published: April 20, 2010

TEN years ago, Matthew Beason’s duties as a restaurant manager here included driving to the airport to retrieve a weekly shipment of duck confit and pâté from New York.

“We couldn’t even buy anything like that around here,” said Mr. Beason, who went on to open Six Plates Wine Bar, now one of many ambitious restaurants around Durham. “Now, virtually every place in town makes its own.”

Of the rivalrous cities that make up the so-called Research Triangle — Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham — Durham 10 years ago was the unkempt sibling: scruffy and aging.

“There was no one on the street at night, just the smell of tobacco drying in the warehouses,” Mr. Beason said.

Now, a drive around town might yield the smell of clams from the coastal town of Snead’s Ferry, steaming in white wine, mustard and shallots at Piedmont restaurant; pungent spice and sweet fennel from the “lamby joe” sandwich at Six Plates; and seared mushrooms and fresh asparagus turned in a pan with spring garlic at Watts Grocery.

The vast brick buildings still roll through the city center, emblazoned with ads for Lucky Strike and Bull Durham cigarettes. They are being repurposed as art studios, biotechnology laboratories and radio stations.

More important for food lovers, hundreds of outlying acres of rich Piedmont soil have “transitioned” from tobacco, and now sprout peas, strawberries, fennel, artichokes and lettuce. Animals also thrive in the gentle climate, giving chefs access to local milk, cheese, eggs, pigs, chickens, quail, lambs and rabbits.

“You can see the change, just driving from here to the coast,” two hours away, said Amy Tornquist, the chef and an owner of Watts Grocery, a restaurant near the Duke campus. Ms. Tornquist, 44, has lived in the area all her life. “You never saw sheep when I was young, you never saw cattle in the fields — it was all tobacco all the time,” she said. Ms. Tornquist’s restaurant isn’t blatantly farm to fork: it’s simply a given in Durham these days.

“One of our farmers said that at this point, it would make more sense for us to list the things on the menu that aren’t local,” said Drew Brown, a chef-owner of Piedmont, a restaurant a few steps from Durham’s farmer’s market and more...

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Comment by Earl Mardle on April 23, 2010 at 9:14am
Brilliant. All it takes for for the collective MIND of the community to change.

And I suspect that all we can really do is create examples and let it be known. When communities are ready, they will come to it.

Or, to quote the Late Charles Hoy Fort, "when it's steam engine time, it steam engines"


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