Athens, Ohio goes the distance in the local food movement

Cleveland Plain Dealer
Wendy Pramik
May 21, 2011

It was spitting rain on an overcast, windy Saturday in mid-April when we reached the State Street exit to Athens, off Ohio 33.

We had heard that the Athens Farmers Market was one of the best open-air food bazaars in the Midwest, and despite our muted expectations for fresh produce this early in the season, my family and I decided to make the hour-and-a-half trek from Columbus.

We found the market in a strip-center parking lot along an uninspiring drag strewn with big-box retailers and fast-food joints that looked like Anytown, USA. There was an Arby’s across the road and a Walmart down the street, but nary a farm in sight. Yet we came to realize, while spending a couple of days in this Appalachian enclave, that one of Ohio’s poorest counties is a blossoming destination for food lovers and a glimmer of hope for sustainable living.

Thanks partly to an endeavor dubbed the “30 Mile Meal,” Athens County has fast become a shining example of local-food sourcing, making a visit a feel-good exercise in conservation.

Rena Loebker of Crumbs Bakery, a regular at the Athens Farmers Market, serves pizza topped with vegetables purchased from the market.
Rena Loebker of Crumbs Bakery, a regular at the Athens Farmers Market, serves pizza topped with vegetables purchased from the market.

It’s about a meal at Casa Nueva, a trendy restaurant in downtown Athens that sources most of its ingredients from nearby purveyors. It’s a drive through Southeast Ohio’s Appalachian foothills to a microwinery for a sip of organic elderberry wine. It’s a tour of Snowville Creamery, a local farm that produces nonhomogenized, fresh milk and cream.

But mostly it’s about the market, a colorful exchange featuring the bounty of nearby farmers and other merchants hawking fresh eggs, produce, honey, baked goods, meats and cheeses.

We pulled up on the paved lot near a Goody’s department store and strolled over to see two rows of vendors offering bunches of carrots and French breakfast radishes just plucked from the garden, pretty jars of golden, maple syrup and barbecue sauce made with local honey and peppers.

The 30 mile meal

Audubon Magazine named the market one of the nation’s best. It’s open every Saturday year-round and on Wednesdays during the summer.

“I like supporting the local farmers, and I love coming to the market,” said Elizabeth Atwell of Athens, who was carrying a box of spinach and kale plants for her garden. “It’s a great atmosphere, and it’s delicious.”

Our first market stop was a coffee kiosk and drive-through that exceeded our expectations for a hot cup of java. Brew du Soleil Espresso Cafe, run by Ken and Maria Jackson, had a chalkboard chock-full of espresso-based drinks, smoothies and teas. My husband opted for a Muddy Monkey, a double espresso laced with the cafe’s own banana syrup and topped off with chocolate sauce drizzled over a thick heap of crema made from milk supplied by Snowville Creamery in nearby Pomeroy. I had a Snowville Mud Puddle, a similarly rich concoction. We quickly downed the perked-up potions and joined the diverse crowd perusing the market stands.

We encountered a farmer selling free-range eggs from the back of a van, a barefoot patron walking on the rain-soaked pavement with a bouquet of broccoli in her hand, and a fellow playing harmonica while collecting donations in a flower pot. “Be a hero for $2,” he said, adding that the money is used to help provide healthy food to local school cafeterias, homeless shelters and food banks.

We packed a picnic at the market, which included a yummy vegetarian pizza from Crumbs Bakery. The business is located in the ACEnet Community Kitchen, where entrepreneurs share space, techniques and ambitions. Crumbs owner Jeremy Bowman told me he used ingredients he purchased from other vendors at the farmers market to make our lunch, like cornmeal from Shagbark Mill in Athens and feta cheese from Integration Acres in Albany.

It’s a prime example of the 30-mile meal concept, which highlights the advantages of local-food harvesting. Developed by the Athens County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet), and based loosely on the growing “100 Mile Meal” movement, it features foods from more than 130 local producers.

A visit to 30milemeal.com reveals an interactive map to locate food purveyors of many types.

“As citizen eaters, we make choices of what we put on our forks each day,” said Leslie Schaller of ACEnet and a Casa Nueva co-founder. “It’s really essential for our economy, our planet and our social cohesion in our communities to be more conscious of where that food comes from.”

We then headed to Shade Winery, Athens County’s only winery, where owners Neal and Oui Dix produce wines from vidal blanc, chardonnay, cabernet franc and syrah grapes. Neal Dix is especially proud of his elderberry wine, which, as he describes, is “a serious, dry wine — not Kool-Aid.”

Dix, originally from Westlake, opened a tasting room last fall in a newly built, comfortable lodge. He offers cheese and crackers made by Integration Acres and welcomes visitors to bring along their own meals to his “simple and original” winery.

After our lunch, we checked into our room for the night at a local B&B. It took some patience and expert navigation by my husband, Mike, to find Sand Ridge Bed and Breakfast in Millfield, but it was worth the effort.

Owner Connie Davidson showed us around her restored 19th-century farmhouse set on a seven-acre plot landscaped with native plants and a butterfly garden. She offers two bedrooms with full baths and a library, and she serves a breakfast boasting local ingredients.

We headed back into town for dinner at Casa Nueva, amid the hopping strip of nightlife that Athens, home of Ohio University, is known for. A crowded bar on one side of a dividing wall melds seamlessly with a narrow, lively restaurant on the other. Schaller calls the Mexican-inspired cuisine “slow food,” built around ingredients from about 50 local producers.

Casa Nueva opened in 1985 as a cooperative owned by its workers, who serve a seasonal menu. In the height of the growing season, they flash-freeze local produce to preserve its taste, color and nutrients. All the entrees and baked goods are made from scratch, and the bar features several brews from Jackie O’s, a microbrewery a couple of streets over.

Laid-back people, unhurried food

The establishment’s unhurried pace reflects the careful preparation of the food as well as the laid-back attitude of the people who live in the area. Athens, after all, is a college town in rural Appalachia, and there’s evidence of the ’60s back-to-the-land vibe.

“Now you can’t really tell the hippies from the fourth-generation farmers,” Schaller says.

Our meals had locally grown black beans and cornmeal. Most of the ingredients in my refreshing rice salad, with vegan soy sesame dressing, also were grown locally. Berries used in some of the salsas were frozen at ACEnet’s facilities.

Schaller says many of her suppliers belong to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, a statewide group of organic farmers. The quality is evident, and it’s easy to see why Casa Nueva has such a dedicated local following.

After dinner we drove back to Sand Ridge, where a chorus of peeping frogs on the property’s pond interrupted the country quietude. Their shrill filled the nighttime sky as we entered the house.

We climbed under quilted covers, and before long awoke to the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee. Davidson, dressed in a colorful, apron-topped outfit punctuated by spunky cowboy boots, greeted us cordially and offered us cups of Silver Bridge Coffee, produced by a mom-and-pop company based in Gallipolis.

Davidson cracked brown eggs — “from the farmer down the road” — into a frying pan and began to scramble them. She topped them off with her own homegrown herbs and goat cheese from Integration Acres. The cheese is made of milk produced by a herd of grazing goats on a farm known for its pawpaw trees, which are native to the area.

Integration Acres lays claim to producing more pawpaws than anywhere else in the world. It ships pawpaw products around the United States and sells them at the local farmers market. Athens celebrates the papaya-like fruit each September during the Ohio Pawpaw Festival.

I spread some spicy pawpaw jelly on a piece of bread that Davidson purchased the day before at the farmers market. Delightful.

Before heading back to Columbus, we visited the Village Bakery and Cafe in downtown Athens to take a bite of Appalachia home with us.

Inside is the Undercover Market, bulging with local farmstead cheeses, grass-fed meats and Snowville Creamery milk — tastes that are well worth the drive. Just don’t forget to bring along a cooler.

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