Gardens, Quinces, and Nelson County

An Interview with Elizabeth Ferguson at JABA Nelson Center, March 12, 2012:

Elizabeth Ferguson is a native and life-long resident of Nelson County Virginia.  Now, as an aging African-American woman, she recalls being raised by her mother and grandparents.  Her earliest food memory involves the raising of gardens and livestock.  She, her mother, and grandparents raised most of their own food from a garden.  They preserved the fruits and vegetables from the garden by canning in the summer for the rest of the year.  They also raised livestock, some of which was used for meat.

When asked if she knows of any fruit or vegetable that once grew in Nelson County when she was a child but is now either rare or no longer grown, Mrs. Ferguson recalls the quince.  Her grandfather had a quince tree when she was growing up.  She describes the fruit as being like an apple, but the size of an egg.  Her grandmother used to make preserves and jelly with the fruit, but she does not see it much anymore.  In fact, there are many, including this filmmaker, who do not know what it is, and have never even heard of it.

Having only ever heard the name, but not knowing anything about the fruit itself, I set out to learn more about the quince and its connection to food heritage in Nelson County.  The quince is a small deciduous tree that originated in Southwest Asia.[i]  It is a relative to the apple and pear, hence its resemblance to both.[ii]  The fruit is bright and golden when ripe, but is rarely eaten raw because it can be hard and sour.[iii]  The fruit is high in pectin, which makes is better for use in preserves.[iv]  Its strong fragrance also ideally suits it for use in jams or jellies.  In fact, the word marmalade derives from the Portuguese word for quince, “marmelo.”[v]  The fruit is also commonly roasted, baked, or stewed.[vi]

Mrs. Ferguson continues to by saying that the families in Virginia who did have quince trees had quite a few in their yards.  So, the quince was relatively common in Nelson County.  However, it is now longer as prevalent.  What happened?  She recalls a particularly dry year, after which most of the quince trees died out and she has not heard much about them since.

In North America, the quince is now rare because of its susceptibility to fireblight disease.[vii]  The U.S. now produces only about 200 acres of the fruit commercially.[viii]  The quince is primary used today as a dwarfing rootstock for pears.[ix]  But in Central Virginia, the quince is beginning to back a comeback.  Vintage Virginia Apples has planted more than ten varieties of the quince, including the Champion, which is one of the few varieties that is sweet enough to eat, the Crimea, which has a pineapple and citrus fragrance, and the Havran, which bears a fruit that can reach more than two pounds.[x]  The strong fragrance and delicious jelly of the quince may someday soon be well-known again in Virginia due to the efforts of Vintage Virginia Apples and the people who understand the heritage of the quince.

The quince has a long and illustrious history both in American and abroad.  The acknowledgment of the heritage of the quince helps provide a wider glimpse into the history of Virginia, the United States, and the global environment.  The quince, though rare in Virginia, lives on in the memories of those who know its smell, uses, and taste, and will continue to live in the imagination of those to learn about it and, perhaps, seek it out in the future.  By actively reintroducing the quince into the food culture of Virginia, Elizabeth Ferguson’s food heritage can be preserved.  So, go out and eat a quince!



Vintage Virginia Apples:

Gardens, Quinces, and Nelson County Film:

[i] Quince. Wikipedia. Accessed April 9, 2012.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Marmalade” in Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2001 Douglas Harper apud

[vi] Quince. Wikipedia. Accessed April 9, 2012.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Quince Varieties. Vintage Virginia Apples. ©2001 Vintage Virginia Apples. Site updated on: 7/17/2007. Accessed March 9, 2012.

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Hot Rolls and History: An Interview with Mary Beth May

Mary Beth May grew up in her mother’s kitchen. She can’t remember the first thing her mom taught her to cook, because she’d been gradually learning to cook since she could hardly see over the counter. After their work on the farm was done, Mary Beth, her two brothers and two sisters spent their days in the kitchen, watching their mom work, listening to her sing and helping with chores. She was always singing – while she cooked, while she swept. It was the soundtrack to Mary Beth’s youth.

Often times her mother would make chores into games to keep the children excited about their tasks. For example, when shelling mounds of fresh, speckled butter beans, their mother challenged them to find a solid colored bean. Mary Beth and her siblings blew through piles of beans, eagerly hoping to “win.” Needless to say, variations of this game were made for string beans, black-eyed peas, and just about every other food item that needed prepping. “We didn’t think of it as work,” Mary Beth says. The kitchen was the heart of the home and she was happy to be there.

Even during the hot, humid Virginia summers, the kitchen was alive. As Mary Beth notes, “we had to can what we had.” And can they did! They canned fruits, vegetables and meats from their farm, including blackberries, apples, tomatoes, sausage and tenderloin. In fact, canned meats are one of the things she misses most. Grocery stores have replaced family farms raising pork and beef. People can now easily buy fresh meat from the store, but when Mary Beth was young, that was rare. Instead they raised their own animals, and preserved their meat by canning or drying them. She misses these salty, home-processed meats that they made during summer and savored during winter as a little reminder of seasons passed.

Mary Beth’s favorite food when she was growing up was her mother’s hot rolls. She loved them when they were fluffy, fresh and hot. By the time she was nine she could bake them herself and she did so regularly. Every week Mary Beth would bake a batch of her mother’s hot rolls and walk them to the elderly couple next door. Her community was close knit and neighbors looked out for one another.

Mary Beth still bakes those hot rolls. When she does, she can again hear the eager chatter of her siblings, can feel the heat of the old wood stove, and can hear her mother softly singing as she worked. With each bite, she reaffirms her connection to that old farmhouse kitchen in Fluvanna County.


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Local-Washing and Little Kids

Listening to farm owner Gail Hobbs-Page was educational and eye opening. It is evident that she works hard and has a good head for business, so it was disheartening to learn that after five years in business she is yet to make a profit. She revealed that in order to keep doing what she’s doing locally, she’s had to go national. Caromont now ships to places as far away as Washington State. How can we hope to build a resilient local food system when local producers can barely break even? As someone who daydreams during class about leaving all of this behind and just working on a farm, this was a rude awakening.

Gail also shared some scary tales of local-washing. Thoughts from this conversation were still fresh in my mind when I was placing my weekly order with Relay Foods (which is wonderful and I’m not trying to defame). I noticed that I had a couple of options for “local” eggs, one of which was a farm in Lancaster County, PA. Maybe I’m being small-minded, but I’ve never really thought of Lancaster as local. As a 4.5-hour drive from here, they’re definitely within a day’s drive. Is that local? Or is everything in VA local? Or everything within 100 miles? Where do we draw the line? While no one seems to agree, it is interesting that the US Farm Bill describes “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as being “less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced.” By that logic I guess Lancaster is local. But so is NYC; Mt. Sterling, KY; Knoxville, TN; and Greeneville, SC. None of which I’ve previously described as local…

I initially had some reservations about this until I found out that mega-corporations like Starbucks are trying to grab a slice of the local market too. Suddenly I didn’t feel so bad about eggs from Lancaster. In 2009, Starbucks reopened one of its Seattle stores with a different, local-sounding name (15th Avenue Coffee and Tea), and different décor. This was a company pilot project to see if this new “local” approach would be a success. The good news? They have since changed the name of that store location back to “Starbucks,” though I’m not entirely sure as to why. The bad news? Two other test projects around Seattle still persist, including Roy Street Coffee and Tea.

It may be getting harder and harder for us to tell what “local” is, but it’s still plain to see what “cute” means. The definition? Baby goats. Period.

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Great Great Grandma Culver’s Molasses Cookies


1 c. Crisco

2 1/2 tsp. ground ginger

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1 c. sugar

3 eggs

1 c. molasses

4 c. flour

2 tsp. baking soda


Mix crisco, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and sugar until creamy. Add eggs and molasses. Beat well. Beat in flour and baking soda, mixing well. Drop by tablespoons onto cookie sheet. Bake at 350 F for 12-15 minutes.

Notes: Unlike chocolate chip cookies, which seem to spread out a lot more, these seem to need a lot more dough per cookie, so be VERY generous with your proportions, perhaps almost twice as much. Also, what distinguishes a gingersnap from a molasses cookie (besides the molasses…) is how soft they are, so monitor them closely until you get the timing down. There’s nothing worse than a dry molasses cookie, some of the ones I brought to class were on the borderline of acceptability in this respect.

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Reflections on JRGBC Luncheon

I missed last week’s trip to Caromont Farms in order to attend a Luncheon at City Space, sponsored by the James River Green Building Council. I thought I’d share my experience with whoever might be interested because, hey, that’s what blogs are for, right?

JRGBC, is the Richmond-based chapter of the US Green Building Council. I think that they are mainly composed of builders and manufacturers who obviously have an interest in “green” building practices. The topic of the luncheon was “Historic Preservation and Green Buildings.” My interest was piqued because I saw the guest speaker, Jean Carroon, present at The Getty in Los Angeles last year. Having really enjoyed her presentation and her perspective, I jumped at the chance to hear her again and speak with her. 

Jean heads up Goody Clancy’s preservation division. Goody Clancy is a prestigious architecture, planning, and preservation firm located in Boston, Massachusetts. They are currently working on a $50 million dollar renovation of UVa’s Cabell Hall. Goody Clancy is renowned for its successful integration of historic preservation and LEED approaches to building construction and renovation, disciplines that sometimes do not see eye-to-eye.

 Some of the highlights of her presentation, with my comments inserted, follow:

  • Sustainability is a lifestyle approach.
  • The General Services Administration (our federal “landlord”) reports lower energy use in its historic buildings than in new construction. This is a compelling figure because energy (to heat/cool, etc.) is frequently cited as an argument AGAINST preservation and historic buildings.
  • Older buildings use less energy/sq. ft. and have higher levels of occupancy for their relative function.
  • New Construction is the #1 source of toxicity in the US (more than electricity/coal)!
  • Historic preservationists ask people to look at “true costs” of our building practices. The best example of this, that I can I can think of replacing historic wood windows with vinyl replacement windows… even if they are triple-glazed low-E blah blah blah. Why? Because of the environmental COSTS involved in the manufacture, transportation, of the vinyl AND the WASTE of building material (wood) that goes into our landfills. The greenest thing to do is to repair existing.
  • If it is easier to buy new or replace, however, historic preservation always “loses.” And this got me thinking about our FOOD SYSTEMS… there are definite parallels that can be drawn in regards to the need for a ECONOMY STRUCTURE CHANGE. Is the nation’s rising obesity rate a “true costs” associated with industrial agriculture and genetically modified food?

My apologies for the CAPS– historic preservation gets me pretty riled up.

Image from

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Local Washing: A Dirty Business

So I couldn’t contain myself any longer.

I’ve posted a bit of a rant and call to action:

See you all tomorrow!



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Economies of Scale: Small Farms and Local Food Economies

On the trip to Caromont Farm earlier this week, I expected to play with baby goats, walk around some beautiful farmland, and enjoy hearing a goat farmer proud of her operation and praising this area for making her operation viable.  I got everything but the latter.  Since Monday, I keep thinking about Gayle stressing that just being local was not enough for her operation to remain profitable and sustain her livelihood.  When it comes to goat keeping and cheesemaking, the equipment and investments required to keep an enterprise profitable and passing stringent health regulations bring economies of scale into play.  The rational ‘locavore’, local food champion, conscientious consumer (take your pick) must understand the needs of a proper market for high-quality, carefully produced food like Caromont cheese must go beyond our geographically-defined foodshed and tap into major markets.  A stall at two farmers markets for 30 weeks a year was not going to be sustainable for Caromont Cheese.  We’re not even talking about getting rich, but sustaining a business and growing a food economy.

I took away a new respect for economies of scale and was reminded that we can’t have all of the changes we desire simultaneously.  We shouldn’t be discouraged by fossil fuel consumption when a local producer needs to ship pounds of incredible product to upstate New York because in order to keep her business in the black.  We should be pleased that a New Yorker vacationing in Saratoga Springs gets the pleasure of treating her palette to Caromont cheese.

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Number of Goats

I really enjoyed spending a relaxing afternoon at the farm learning about how goat’s cheese is made, processed, and sold.  Gail was a wonderful person to meet, and I was amazed to hear that she began as a chef and later moved on to making her own cheese.  I think that this is pretty interesting and I’m curious if this is common.  It seems that one of the larger buying groups of these local and heritage products would be chefs, so it does make sense that she would have begun as a chef and later moved on to food production.
This shift that Gail has done in her career shows that there is a value to these foods, and that the current system is not meeting the needs of people who value local, flavorful, quality products.  She said that many of the other choices in food product is bland, white and boring, and I completely agree.  I’m happy to see that she is trying to change this, and create quality, delicious ingredients for chefs to use in their cooking.

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The difficulties of making happy goats profitable

After touring Gail’s farm and cheese making operation, I couldn’t believe she started her voyage into cheese making only 5 years ago. As with any new and complicated artisanal process, I was overwelmed at all there was to know. The complexity of the art itself, layered with health regulations and an understanding of goat happiness, seemed like too much to learn in 5 years. However, Gail’s done it and she has plenty of cheese and cute baby goats to prove it.

It was interesting to hear Gail talk about how Caromont came into existance. Her background as a chef in fine dining establishments gave her a heightened appreciation for good locally grown food, and after deciding to take a break from cooking, she decided to use her land in Albemarle to raise goats and make goat cheese.

Gail brought up a lot of practical physical and economic details that we might overlook in planning without first hand knowledge. She had great ideas for creating a ‘food corridor’ by using the areas rich resources in clever and resourceful ways. She emphasized the amount of local foods that could be grown if the land were cared for properly. She also pointed out the difficulties in bringing farm fresh food into retail (i.e. if you want to open a restaurant to sell your goat cheese and Virginia wine, you’ll need a very very expensive parking lot, not to mention permits from all sorts of federal agencies). Her interns, (who were getting better and better every year), had benefited from food processing classes and other internships- which related directly to a few of our potential planning policy suggestions and the importance of educational programs.

She also told us a story about a well know restaurant that claimed to sell her cheese, although they had never bought from her before. After confronting them, they claimed that they thought they were doing her a favor. Apparently ‘local washing’ is more common than I thought. There is an obvious problem with the integrity of business claims: is there a way to know whether what you’re eating is what is advertised?

While Gail acknowledged the difficulties of starting an enterprise like her own, she remains hopeful about the situation and said some counties, like Nelson, were doing a lot to encourage producers like herself. Thats at least one encouraging sign for future farmers and food lovers in Virginia.


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WalMart – does it or doesn’t it hold the key to local food?

Class –  a colleague from VA Tech sent this link to Tom Karst’s blog, “WalMart holds the key to local food.”

Karst may be right that WalMart’s decision to source food more locally will be the game-changer.  But hasn’t he missed something?  Something BIG?  What is driving WalMart to make this change?  Do you think WalMart would be as interested in this shift if 40% of its customers weren’t interested in it?  And what is driving the interest of its customers?  To me, this is truly the power of the grassroots food movement: it is driving change from below, not above.  So who, then, really holds the key to local food? Food for thought….



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