The Big Cook: A TR Farmers Market Experience

Travelers Rest extends a big handshake to those hunting social engagement, entertainment and much more. The Farmers Market held in one of our town’s cornerstone spaces, Trailblazer Park, is put together with just that in mind.

It’s an inviting, well-used tract of dirt. Bright and colorful sidewalk murals artfuly remind observers of the detriment pollution can push through waterways, like the Reedy River (one of the filthiest rivers of the region). A community garden plot encourages nearby and willing residents to break a sweat with an involved sense of communal labor, then enjoy the fruits of it. Growers and makers from around the upstate and beyond begin organizing the first week of May each year in and around these covered and open air spaces providing visitors with unique wares and regional harvests. That first Saturday in May, my family and I were part of that convened mass when market coordinator Maranda Williams approached me with an unexpected opportunity.

Williams and a dedicated team of facilitators tend to out do themselves each year with new features and additions. Whether it’s acquiring new vendors, enlisting a variety of musicians, or creating fun and engaging themes for attendees to experience while cruising the options, their efforts at sustaining a memorable market experience are easily noticed and tastefully done. One of those concepts recurring weekly is the Market Cooks space. Market Cooks provides an individual or group the opportunity to prepare and share something special with coming and going guests. The landscape for it is as wide or narrow as the vision of the participant.

When Williams approached me that morning about coming out one Saturday to give it a try, I immediately obliged her request with no reservation and without fully knowing what I’d find myself in. Cooking for folks is a beloved hobby of mine and something I am good at. However, I have zero knowledge of anything remotely service industry related or customer service. Figuring on how I’d bring it up to scale didn’t register until well after my yes and a small leak of intimidation started creeping in my head.

A month slipped passed me with no real idea of what I’d do, still. Two more weeks moved on out of the way; nothing coming to mind. A whole pig would be a no for something like this considering time, space and logistics. The thought of doing tomato pies surfaced for a taste of old school Timmonsville up here in the foothills, but that wasn’t going to happen either. Our tomato plants were just beginning to push out the tiny, visible fruits from the bottom of their blooms. The distance between a decision and myself was closing and I needed to squeeze the trigger. Then, one night at the table with my girls, I landed on Mantu.

The Big Cook

I became acquainted with this simple, hearty dumpling style dish going back and forth between home and Afghanistan for nearly four years. Crisscrossing all regions of the country during my trips, I developed a love for the preparation, the taste and the fellowship when the opportunity to learn the dish came along in Kandahar. The following day, I messaged Williams with the idea then got to work lining out what the process of preparing close to one hundred samples for visitors of the market would look like.

Travel has certainly bound tight my love for food and has given me a tangible way to take some of the pieces of these places with me when I leave them. Even if it ignites a random moment of thought detached from the experience of physically being there, it is an open channel when I need it to be. Bringing recipes like Mantu home to my family and loved ones helps to aid in preserving a wide bank of invaluable memory. Observing and living with other cultures is the big needle on my compass. I put effort into letting it guide me through the human experience of living and feeling.

The Friday night prior to the market in our home kitchen, I obsessed over the portion sizes, focused on the uniformity of folds and pinches on each individual meat pillow while drinking a few beers. My own quasi-laboratory of real time R&D for a large crowd food prep was in full swing powered by the sounds of Judas Priest and Blue Oyster Cult. Each tiny dumpling got stuffed with a beef and lamb mixture spiced with lemon zest, fresh garlic, pepper, fresh chopped parsley and a dash of salt. A traditional rendering of washed chickpeas stewed down in oil, onions, coriander, tomato and salt cooked low through the evening. This process weaves a deep and rich flavor as a complement to the dumpling. The third, final and personal favorite palate dancer is a concoction of a thinned yogurt. Combining a slurry of garlic with tons of fresh chopped mint, pepper, salt, lemon zest and a little water to thin it out creates a unique flavor tying the dish altogether with a drizzle over them. In a cheating fashion, I have found using a microplane to break down the raw garlic cloves instead of a fine chop by knife is a time saver while also lending a more pleasing texture. It incorporates better, too.

I treated that Saturday morning like I was going into work. Got up early, did my morning thing around the house then went to town. By 7:30, vendors were dragging up coolers, arranging product and preparing to greet the slam of morning guests. It was cool to take a peek at what goes into making the wheel turn. It’s certainly more than I imagined. Shortly after 9:00, I had my first samples coming out the steamer and on to sample plates. My wife and child arrived about 30 minutes before that to help arrange a display on the origins of the dish and a few pictures. My mama and stepdad even drove up to hang out then shopped around the vendors for themselves. I found my stroke by the third round and finally began to engage inquiring folks about the lovely cuisine and culture of a place that I posses a very complex, yet abundant love for.

The Big Cook

The last sample of Mantu was gone a little before 11:00 that morning. Shoppers came and went while some even circled back to converse again.

Market Cooks was a cool way to share with my community what’s typically publicized as just some inconvenient war, a side to pick to signal your side or a question mark of sorts in mainstream American conversation. It was a platform offering an opportunity to bring home a different shard of a shadowed culture.

The Big Cook

After all, I’d consider it quite the foolish act not bringing these elements home to secure posterity for my own as mine did for me with rites like cooking hogs and frying seafood. Food has a way to transcend general gripes, differences and barriers of entry – it opens us up, often speaking the words we can not but the ones that we do understand. Maybe it’s the calming of the primal parts in our heads, something affirming that calories will soon be processed while slowing one of our many need drives. Whatever it is, I tend to free myself up, be better as a person and listen a whole lot more when food is involved.

Story by Clint Keels

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