Think Globally, Eat Locally 

For anyone wanting to eat local products, we've got a bounty of homegrown foods in Middle Tennessee—even caviar

For anyone wanting to eat local products, we've got a bounty of homegrown foods in Middle Tennessee—even caviar

Before 1997, Nashville's football enthusiasts based their loyalty to pro teams on any number of factors: proximity, where they grew up, who their father liked, a favorite player or coach. But once the Tennessee Titans finally started playing their home games at the Coliseum, legions of fans discarded their Falcons jerseys, Rams caps and Bengals jackets for Titans blue and No. 9. It's simply human nature to root, root, root for the home team; what else could possibly explain the devotion of Vanderbilt Commodore football fans?

It's the same reason I pledge myself and my dollars to locally owned businesses, from dry cleaners to auto shops, from produce stands to restaurants. Thanks to a trade show presented at The Coliseum by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture—"Pick Tennessee Products"—I discovered a wealth of foods and food items farmed, produced or made almost right under my unsuspecting nose. Some were as traditionally tied to Tennessee as sorghum and country ham; others, like caviar, were an eye-opener. Frequently the makers of these products have developed a large customer base out of state; it's a shame people closer to home don't know about them. Following are profiles of some of our regional treasures and how to find them. For more info about these and other local food producers, visit www.picktnproducts.org.

Freshwater prawns

Jane Corbin's husband and son thought she had gone off the deep end when she suggested that they look into the possibility of adding freshwater prawns to the other crops they grew on their farm in Springfield. So the former schoolteacher took matters into her own hands. Noting that there were 19 acres of bottom land on the edge of a stream that was sitting fallow on her parents' nearby property, she borrowed a bulldozer from her contractor brother and talked a friend into operating it. He dug out a one-acre pond for Corbin, and before long she had filled it with water and 16,000 prawn eggs.

"I had beautiful prawns that first year," she says proudly. So beautiful, her venture won over her husband and son, who pitched in to help. Harris Aquafarm now consists of three one-acre ponds, which she stocks with just 12,000 prawns now, with the goal of producing a bigger prawn. To that end, she also takes a boat out every day during growing season to feed them, rather than using an automated feeder as most aquafarmers do. The eggs go in the water as soon as it hits 65 degrees, which can happen anytime between the middle of May and the middle of June, depending on the spring.

The harvest—a process that drains the pond, collects the prawns, puts them on ice, then finishes with a "chill kill"—happens around the first day of October. People come from miles around with their coolers to purchase the fresh prawns at about $8 a pound; the chef from The Depot restaurant loads up as well and features prawn specials as long as they hold out. What isn't purchased fresh, Corbin takes to a processing plant for IQF: Individual Quick Freeze.

Freshwater prawns are touted as a healthier choice than marine shrimp, with half the fat, low iodine and sodium. They have a firmer, lobster-like texture and a mild sweet taste. "However you cook with shrimp, you can with freshwater prawn," says Corbin. "And they're a lot better for you."

To reach Harris Aquafarm, write to janecorbin@aol.com.

Fresh fish

Bob Lukens knows fish. In fact, he knows them from pre-conception to birth to the menu at some of Nashville's finest restaurants. Twenty years ago, he started Bob White Springs just outside of Nunnelly, a salmon and trout hatchery that raises five types of trout—rainbow, steelhead, brown, brook and cutthroat—as well as Atlantic salmon. They do it all at Bob White: spawn, incubate, grow, catch, then sell to seafood shops, markets and restaurants. They also stock trophy-sized trout and salmon (2.5 to 24 pounds) for catch and release, and offer fly fishing instruction for all ages.

Bob White Springs can be reached at 356-3474.

Caviar

I've seen "Tennessee Caviar" listed among appetizers of several local restaurants, but as a tongue-in-cheek description of some variation on black-eyed pea dip. Vickie Kelly's Savannah, Tenn.-produced caviar is the real thing. Not that it doesn't take some rigid taste-testing to prove it. In 2001, Kelly's Katch Caviar was among six mail-order American caviars, ranging in price from $9.95 to $51 an ounce, submitted to a test against a fine Russian caviar. The panel of six judges included four caviar junkies, a novice and the executive chef from The Breakers, a famed Palm Beach resort.

As noted in the findings, which were published in The Wall Street Journal, "caviar with cachet" still comes from three fish belonging to the sturgeon family (beluga, osetra and sturgeon) that inhabit the Caspian Sea. United States manufacturers obtain theirs from either farm-raised sturgeon or similar species in the wild. Though the testers named one from Stolt Sea Farm ($36 an ounce) best overall, chef Matthias Radits chose the $9.95 Kelly's Katch as his personal favorite, and, putting his resort's money where his mouth led, made an order the following day.

Kelly's Katch comes pretty far from the Caspian Sea, and not from the sturgeon family. Vickie Kelly's father was a commercial fisherman, and subscribing to the waste-not, want-not theory, she felt that there might be a use for the roe from the paddlefish he caught. She did her research, developed a process and in 1987 began offering tins of Kelly's Katch. The caviar is described in the company's brochure as pearl-gray in color, with a firm texture and a lightly salted flavor. Quality-control guidelines are assured through their own boats, facilities for processing and packing, and FDA and HACCP certification.

A caviar dealer in New York tried it, liked it, got the word out, and now Kelly's product is sold all over the United States—though, she admits, "very little in the state of Tennessee." Caviar lovers on catfish budgets who want to put Kelly's Caviar to the test can call (888) 681-8565 or log on to www.kellyskatch.com.

Bottled water

Eight years ago, Tom Edwards was wrestling with a problem: how to make the 50-acre tract of land he and his wife Jane had purchased near the town of Vanleer pay back their investment, but without cutting the trees that were inherent to its natural beauty. The answer, it turned out, was right under his feet. "This land had been in my wife's family for more than 200 years. Her ancestors had settled here because of the natural spring that ran through it," he explains. "The basin is solid limestone, and the water is a constant 58 degrees; they hand-cut troughs to use as a refrigeration system. People would come from miles around to fill jugs with the water."

It occurred to Edwards that he was sitting on top of a business opportunity. He contacted a geologist, who analyzed the water; then he researched the bottled-water industry, purchased equipment and went though all of the procedures for certification and quality control. Six years ago, he began bottling the centuries-old water under a brand-new name: StoneClear Springs. "We chose that name because the water actually goes through stone; it is nature's own filtering system. Our water is so pure, without nitrates or chloroform. It is filtered and bottled straight from the source. It tastes just like it did when our grandparents were using it as their water source."

The judges at international competitions must think so, too. At the last annual bottled water competition, in the four categories they were eligible to enter, StoneClear won three bronzes and a gold. To meet the growing demand for their water—which is sold under the StoneClear name and bottled for others, including the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan—new equipment is being installed at their plant that will dramatically increase production.

To find out more about StoneClear Springs, call 763-1000 or visit www.stoneclearsprings.com.

Stone-ground grits

Martha Stamps, chef, cookbook author, restaurant owner and renowned practitioner of regional and seasonal cooking, is a grits purist. Mention the words "instant grits" in her presence and risk being whacked with a wooden spoon. That she purchases the slow-cooked grits for her restaurant, Martha's at the Plantation, from Falls Mill in Belvidere is as good an endorsement as owners Jane and John Lovett could possibly hope for.

Originally a textile factory, the 132-year-old mill was later converted into a cotton gin, then a woodworking shop. Utilizing the original 32-foot waterwheel to power the antique grain milling equipment, the Lovetts put the building to use for stone-ground cornmeal, grits and flour. Their product first gained notice when it was included in a book called True Grits, which caught the attention of professional chefs and home cooks all over the country. They now mill 20,000 pounds of grain a month—mostly white corn—and package it with no preservatives in 2-, 5- and 25- pound sacks. They take orders by phone or mail and ship via UPS (10-pound minimum). Nashvillians can get their true grits at the Loveless Cafe's Hams & Jams store and both area Wild Oats stores.

Falls Mill can be reached at (931) 469-7161, or visit www.fallsmill.com

Shiitake mushrooms

If you enjoyed the shiitake mushrooms in your dish the last time you dined at mAmbu, Zola or Margot, thank Jim and Sharon Day, who have taken a hobby and turned it into a growing business. The couple live on a five-acre tract of standing timber near Ashland City. A few years ago, Jim's brother-in-law was taking in the lush woodland and said, almost as an aside, "Maybe you could try growing mushrooms."

Jim did what many budding entrepreneurs do: he went online, researched, found that shiitakes are wood-grown, got himself some logs and shiitake spores, and tried his hand at growing mushrooms. The process takes time—six to 18 months from the time the spores are placed on the wood until harvest—but TimberTop Farm is now producing about 50 pounds of shiitakes a week. The business is environmentally correct: the logs are taken from the tops of trees, which he obtains from loggers.

With a successful shiitake operation under his belt, the accidental farmer is now experimenting with sunchokes, a.k.a. the Jerusalem artichoke, which is neither from Jerusalem, or an artichoke at all, but a variety of sunflower with a lumpy, brown-skinned tuber that is eaten raw in salads or cooked and served as a side. Coming soon to a menu near you.

TimberTop Farm can be reached at 792-9306 or www.TimberTopFarm.com.

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