In episode 5 of the Edible Potluck podcast we talk about indoor farming with Stephanie Hunt and travel with Edible San Diego’s Felicia Campbell.
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Recommended recipe: Mushroom Pate
Close your eyes and picture a family farm. Do you see crops growing in a green field, a tractor, a red barn, and a guy working the land wearing overalls? For generations, this has been the image of farming in America, but we all know agriculture is changing. Today the scene often looks very different. At Tiger Corner Farms in South Carolina, you’ll see repurposed shipping containers and a growing operation that relies on cutting edge technology. Writer Stephanie Hunt told this high-tech farm’s story in a recent issue of Edible Charleston.
It’s true that many food writers have done other things in their careers. Frequently the other gigs are food adjacent–like restaurant work, farming, or food retail. Felicia Campbell‘s resume is more colorful than most. One of her first jobs was as a soldier in the US army, a move she made soon after September 11th. There, her interest in food, travel, and culture flourished. She went on to write a cookbook, The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia, and work as an editor at Saveur magazine. Today she is the executive digital editor at Edible San Diego magazine.
Felicia Campbell on Instagram @hungryfi
Joy Manning: I’m your host, Joy Manning, and this is Edible Potluck, a podcast that gives food lovers a taste of Edible Communities magazines. Today, we’re making our way to Charleston, South Carolina, for a conversation with writer Stephanie Hunt, about a high-tech farm in her city and what it might mean for the future of agriculture. Then, we’re headed to California for a chat with Edible San Diego editor, author and former soldier, Felicia Campbell. But before all that, let’s go to the kitchen for a sec for some pate, mushroom pate.
Joy Manning: I personally never met a mushroom recipe I didn’t want to make and that goes double for this one from Edible Sarasota. You use a combination of dried porcinis and fresh wild mushrooms for a maximum mushroom flavor. A healthy dose of dairy makes this appetizer rich and satisfying and special. What you do is, first you soak and drain those porcinis, reserving your soaking liquid. Next, you heat up butter in a skillet and saute a chopped onion until tender. Then, you cook up your mushrooms until they’re tender. Now, you add a secret ingredient, a little bit of bouillon base. The recipe calls for a beef base, but I like the mushroom base for this one.
Joy Manning: You also add the porcini cooking liquid that you saved, a bit of dry Marsala wine and then you cook that all together until most of the moisture has evaporated. When that cools down, you puree the mushroom mixture in a blender or a food processor with the cream. Like a lot of pates and spreads, this definitely tastes better and has set up better after an overnight chill in the fridge. Obviously, this is a great party appetizer. It would really impress even your meat-loving friends. But, it’s also, I can tell you, a great lunch. You spread it thick on some nice toast and serve yourself some pickles on the side. I hope you will try it for yourself and let me know how it goes.
Indoor Farming with Stephanie Hunt
Joy Manning: Close your eyes and picture a family farm. Do you see crops growing in a green field, a tractor, a red barn and a guy working the land wearing overalls? For generations, this has been the image of farming in America. But, we all know agriculture is changing. Today, the scene looks very different. At Tiger Corner Farms in South Carolina, you’ll see repurposed shipping containers and a growing operation that relies on cutting edge technology. Writer Stephanie Hunt told this high-tech farm story in a recent issue of Edible Charleston and she’s here to talk about it today. Welcome to Edible Potluck, Stephanie. Thank you for joining us.
Stephanie Hunt: Well, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Joy Manning: So, Tiger Corner is really a different kind of farm than we usually think of. Your article talks about growing local lettuce, in particular, in these shipping containers using aeroponic growing techniques. Can you tell us a little more about what that is and how it works? How can you grow lettuce without soil?
Stephanie Hunt: Well, that’s a great question. I would not have guessed it was possible without having seen it for my own eyes. But, it’s a technique that’s used more broadly than you might imagine. You may have heard of hydroponic farming for tomatoes. That was popular when I was growing up. But, this basically just uses a mist environment so the nutrients are delivered to the lettuce root systems through water and the air and that’s why it’s called aeroponic. It’s climate-controlled and takes up much less space than farming in dirt would. It’s a highly-controlled environment, so they’re able to monitor all the variables that go into growing their produce and can yield really pretty phenomenal amounts by doing that.
Joy Manning: Yeah, you wrote that each pod, which I guess refers to the individual shipping container. Is that right?
Stephanie Hunt: That’s correct.
Joy Manning: That each pod produces up to 7,000 heads of lettuce a month
Stephanie Hunt: For a growing cycle, right.
Joy Manning: So, what accounts for that? I mean, is it just that it’s in such a small space or is it the nutrient mist is super-powered? How do they get so much lettuce? Do you have any idea?
Stephanie Hunt: Well, I just know that it’s, as I said, really requires much less land and just space than you’re typically accustomed to seeing. I don’t exactly know why lettuce can still grow as full as it can in such contained environment, but they do it. It also is growing vertically, so this lettuce, if you’re looking at the container, it’s growing along the walls. Because lettuce is a fairly light product, the leaf is not a heavy leaf, it’s a perfect choice to grow in this format.
Joy Manning: Does the lettuce grow all year long? I mean lettuce typically has a pretty short growing season?
Stephanie Hunt: It does. That’s one of the reasons why Tiger Corner Farms chose to use lettuce, especially in this Charleston area climate, which is an extremely humid, hot, summer growing season. So, our lettuce, our fresh lettuce season is very short-lived in the late winter or early spring and that’s about it. But, the demand is year round. They have, therefore, been able to meet a growing demand with local product to the local market that normally would not have been able to be produced.
Joy Manning: Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. That is really a tremendous amount of lettuce and it is true that people want lettuce, especially, I mean, restaurants need lettuce all the time. Do you know, do they supply to restaurants?
Stephanie Hunt: They supply to restaurants. They’ve got a wonderful partnership with the county school system, which is also part of their educational mission. But, you’ll also … and, your listeners will certainly … this is not news to them that there have been real issues with lettuce recalls and disease, bacteria outbreaks related to lettuce. So, because it’s not soil-based, they are much better able to produce a healthier, safer product.
Joy Manning: Oh, that’s a great point.
Stephanie Hunt: Not only do you get lettuce year-round, you get lettuce that’s much healthier, safer
Joy Manning: And no worries that your lettuce is going to send you to the hospital.
Stephanie Hunt: Exactly. Right.
Joy Manning: That’s a very interesting point about that. Now, what about the environmental impact? Are there advantages to this kind of farming as far as the environment goes?
Stephanie Hunt: Well, certainly it’s yes, I mean, your land use can be much better allocated when it’s contained in such a tight environment. The energy required is much lower per output and there is no need to spray with pesticides or antibacterial things, chemicals or to fertilize the soil. So, the runoff issues are non-existent and the sustainability, part of it is really one of the things that was most attractive to these farmers.
Joy Manning: That’s terrific. And also, I imagine your food miles are cut down, obviously, if you live in Charleston and you’re eating locally-grown lettuce as compared to lettuce that is trucked in from California or something.
Stephanie Hunt: Exactly.
Stephanie Hunt: One of their initial test pods was literally on the campus of one of the schools that they serviced. So, it could get no more local than that.
Joy Manning: That’s great. I mean, we’ve talked a little bit about their involvement in education and I was hoping you could tell us a little bit more about the mission of the company because it goes beyond the fancy, technological bells and whistles. I thought, from reading your story, the heart of their mission is really similar to what we see in all the food businesses that we love and write about in Edible Communities publications. So, can you tell us why they’re doing what they’re doing?
Stephanie Hunt: Sure. Well, it’s interesting, actually, to note that the farm, the company, started as a branch out of a former tech entrepreneur in Charleston. A former tech executive, actually, of Benefitfocus, one of the larger and various successful companies here and what is becoming known as Silicon Harbor in Charleston. When he left Benefitfocus, he really wanted to still do something innovative in the tech environment. But, he also had some land and wanted to explore farming; had long been an interest, and just began tinkering and developing these systems that could yield such dramatically high and healthy output, but also create sustainable jobs, livable wages for farmers.
Stephanie Hunt: So, farmers who can give a consistent output to their clients, their sources, their markets, certainly are at a much better advantage than those who are at the whim of weather, especially in tropical and sometimes hurricane-prone environment here, like we are. So, it provides both healthy food, but a stronger economy for local farmers.
Joy Manning: That’s a great point. Farming is so scary from a financial perspective. I mean, over the past couple of seasons, we’ve really seen in the mid-Atlantic where I am, the farms have been hit hard financially by very unpredictable, very wet, very unseasonable weather.
Stephanie Hunt: Right, and that’s only getting worse.
Joy Manning: Yeah. It’s not likely to get better. This might be a real way forward for farming to have more economic security or for farmers and their families.
Stephanie Hunt: Right. It’s also really sexy to anyone who sort of comes in, takes a look and they do a lot of outreach in education to interest their students, whether in grade school or at the college in Charleston in the computer fields. I mean, their team is not just the overall-wearing farmer, but these are software developers and coders and high-level marketers because the concept is growing so rapidly and the growth of control is really high, so that education and outreach component is really a big part of their mission, as well.
Joy Manning: Are you seeing other high-tech indoor farms popping up in the Charleston area?
Stephanie Hunt: I would imagine we are. I’m not as well-versed on that specific question as I should be. I know that this outfit is growing rapidly. I follow them on social media and we welcome you, too, as well, and your listeners, too, as well. It seems like every other week, they’re posting new job opportunities on to grow with Agricon farms. So, it’s certainly taking root, one might say, and if we’re not already seeing a lot of similar aeroponic and container farms, I’ve no doubt that we will be soon.
Joy Manning: Well, I have certainly seen a few stories in the Edible Communities magazines about similar farms, indoor farming with a tech element. I do think that we’ll see it more and more all around the country and hopefully, it’ll mean more fresh, local food and better environmental footprint for that food. Well, thank you for telling us all about Tiger Corner. I really enjoyed reading your article and talking to you about this today. So, thank you.
Stephanie Hunt: Well, thank you. Just excited to be able to write the story, to learn more about it and I’m happy to share with your listeners.
Joy Manning: That was Stephanie Hunt, Edible Charleston contributor and a freelance writer. We’ll have a link to her article on Tiger Corner Farms in today’s show notes. You can follow her on Instagram @stephhuntwrites.
Travel with Felicia Campbell
Joy Manning: It’s true that many food writers have done other things in their careers. Frequently, the other gigs are food adjacent, like restaurant work, farming or food retail. Felicia Campbell’s resume is a little more colorful than most. One of her first jobs was as a soldier, in the U.S. Army, a move she made soon after September 11th. There, her interest in food, travel and culture flourished. She went on to write a cookbook, The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia, and work as an editor at Saveur Magazine. Today, she’s the executive digital editor at Edible San Diego. Welcome, Felicia, and thank you for joining us today.
Felicia Campbell: Thanks so much for having me.
Joy Manning: One of the most fascinating things that I read about you was that you dropped out of college to be part of the first wave of troops in the Iraq War. Before September 11th and making such a big life-changing decision, what were you studying and was food a part of your picture in life then?
Felicia Campbell: I was 17 years old. I had started college early and I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do. I was pretty lost. I really enjoyed sociology and history because people really fascinated me. But, I was looking for some adventure and a little bit of direction in my life. So, at 17, the Army felt like a good outlet for all my teenage angst. Food was, actually, pretty peripheral. I wasn’t very adventurous. I didn’t like to try a lot of new things. Ironically, it was my deployment to Iraq that changed that.
Joy Manning: That’s definitely not a typical story of falling in love with food. I’ve talked to so many people about how they developed a passion for food and this is really the first time I’ve heard this version of it. Can you describe for me one of the early meals that you had in Iraq that captured your attention around food?
Felicia Campbell: Well, for the first few months of the deployment, we were living exclusively on MREs. Those are meals, ready to eat. They’re these freeze-dried food products that come in plastic bags and after a few months of eating those, we were desperate to eat anything else.
Joy Manning: Yeah, is it fair to say that those are pretty famously untasty?
Felicia Campbell: Absolutely. I don’t think anyone actually enjoys an MRE.
Joy Manning: So, you were really ready to eat something good.
Felicia Campbell: Definitely and a small Iraqi café opened on our base in Q-West and when it opened, all the superior officers, they had put up signboards saying, “This is not an authorized eating establishment. Eat at your own risk.” All of us ignored it. I’m not sure if I would have thrown caution to the wind like that before, but when you’re starving for something real and hot to eat, you’re willing to do a lot.
Joy Manning: Right. Could you smell the cooking? I mean, that must have had a big effect on you if you could smell actual food cooking after eating like, purees in plastic bags.
Felicia Campbell: Absolutely. The smell of this grilling chicken just permeated the base. I mean, we basically followed our noses up to this little shop where they were grilling chicken and making fresh flatbread, called tandoori bread. There was no menu. You just gave them $2 and you got your half a chicken and this bread. It was the best thing I had ever eaten.
Joy Manning: Wow, that was sort of the thing that turned you on to the wider world of food.
Felicia Campbell: More than that, it was the fact that we started going to this café regularly, because it was the one place to eat. The other women that I had become friends with in my platoon would come with me and the place itself became kind of this haven where we felt really safe and respected and able to be ourselves. The men who worked there were the only Iraqi men that we had direct contact with, in kind of a non-combative environment. It slowly, over the months that we spent going there, it started to break down some of our preconceived notions of each other and our defenses. I think it was that unexpected human connection that really made me fall in love with food, beyond just the pleasure of eating it.
Joy Manning: Right. Today, you are interested in all of the foods of the Middle East and you went on to write your book about Oman, which is actually very far away from Iraq. So, can you tell me a little bit about how you went from your exposure to that one Iraqi café to writing, I believe it was the first English language book about the cuisine of Oman.
Felicia Campbell: Well, after I got out of the military, I spent some time working in restaurants and in business. Then, I went back to school. When I realized I wanted to work with food, but not in a kitchen, I went to NYU and got my Master’s Degree in culinary anthropology with a focus on the Middle East and then I ended up getting a job at Saveur Magazine which, really, at that time, focused on the culture of food. So, the Middle East was my beat. I had gone frequently to Lebanon and Dubai and I loved like, the common sense of hospitality there.
Felicia Campbell: But, none of them really gave me the same feeling that I had had in Iraq. So, when I kind of stumbled upon a story about Oman, I had the opportunity to go there. I was intrigued by all these unusual foods that they had there. I arrived and immediately was struck with this familiar sense, far more so than anywhere else I had been in the Middle East. I think it’s because it’s a bedouin culture, similar to what they have in southern Iraq. That culture is all about family and hospitality and it’s very traditional. I completely fell in love with the country and I wanted to learn more. The more I learned, the more I realized there was very little written about it. So, it became kind of my passion project to write a book and kind of share that piece of the world with people here.
Joy Manning: You had mentioned some of the unusual, unique foods they have there. Can you maybe tell us about one or two of them?
Felicia Campbell: Sure. I think most people associate Near Eastern food with the Middle East, like hummus, olive oils, a lot of fresh herbs and Oman couldn’t be more different. It’s in a desert region on the Indian Ocean and historically, it was one of the major ports for the spice trades. So, you have these foods that have a lot of the influences from Africa and Persia and South Asia. So, you’ll have lots of rice dishes that are very pumped full of spices like cumin and cardamom and cloves and savory porridges. One is called madrouba. You use tumeric and you slow cook the rice until it kind of melts in with the chicken, then it’s drizzled with a cardamom ghee.
Felicia Campbell: That was something I’ve never encountered in other parts of the Middle East. Then, the East African connection is very strong. They have fried triangular breads called mandazi from Zanzibar and coconut-cream spinach and lots of dishes with dates. So, it’s really exciting to kind of discover this whole new world in a part of the world I thought I knew a lot about.
Joy Manning: That does sound quite different than what we think of when we think of Middle Eastern food. How long did it take you to research your book?
Felicia Campbell: Well, I went to report a feature there and then returned with a photographer to get some more shots for that story. On that trip, I realized there was more of a story to tell, so I put together a proposal and Andrews McMeel bought the book. I spent the next year going back and forth between New York and Oman. So, it was a very intense year.
Joy Manning: Were the recipes ones that you got from home cooks, for the most part? Did you visit restaurants?
Felicia Campbell: When I had first started traveling to Oman, they had almost no Omani restaurants because Omani food was eaten at home. They had one kind of small-town celebrity Omani chef who had a small restaurant. So, we went and visited him. But mostly, it was just building relationships with different people and being invited into their homes to cook with their mothers or grandmothers because most of the women in my generation there don’t cook. They have domestic help who comes in and learns the recipes from their mother or grandmother and cooks it for them. So that actually inspired me even more. It was a big motivation to go and get these recipes written down because in that way, they were being lost.
Joy Manning: Right. This was, I believe, the book came out in 2015. Is that right?
Felicia Campbell: Yes.
Joy Manning: So, it’s been several years since you did that. Does it still affect your home cooking? Do you make Omani food at home regularly?
Felicia Campbell: Not so much anymore because it’s very time-intensive food, so I usually keep it a little bit simpler. But, when I have a project, I cook more Persian food because my husband’s Persian.
Joy Manning: So, you had this big influence in travel with being at Saveur and working on this book. Now, you are working with Edible San Diego, which all the Edible magazines have a focus on their own local communities. What was that shift like for you to go sort of from being so expansive in your beat to being very specific, I mean, very close to home, very American, obviously. How was that?
Felicia Campbell: Well, I had a little bit of a transition period. I ended up staying in Oman after my book was published and taking over the magazine division of the local publishing house there. That was really my first experience doing local coverage. I fell in love with it because when you’re telling a national story, you have to be a bit broad. You have to get a lot of information in because you don’t have time to go really, really deep into a place. That’s what’s so great about local publications is that you can tell these intimate stories that maybe there’s not space for in larger national publications that need to pack in a lot of different topics.
Joy Manning: Are you from the San Diego area?
Felicia Campbell: I was born in L.A., then I moved around. I was in the Army by the time I was 17, so most of my adult life was spent on the east coast.
Joy Manning: Oh, I see. So, do you feel like a California girl covering California topics now or is it not quite like that?
Felicia Campbell: Not yet. I’ve only been in San Diego for two years, so it all still feels very new to me, which I love. Obviously, I enjoy discovering new places and there is a lot to discover in San Diego County.
Joy Manning: On your website, you say some of the favorite pieces that you’ve done for Edible San Diego have focused on ethnic markets. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Felicia Campbell: I feel like ethnic markets, when you go and visit them, it’s like stepping into another country because that’s where you can really get to see the intimate way people cook and shop for their families at home. So, whether it’s just perusing the aisles and checking out new ingredients, there’s just so much to learn through that experience. So, it’s been really fun for us. We do short Instagram videos where we walk people through the various, different ethnic markets around the county. Then, we follow that up with kind of an annotated shopping list where we explain a little bit about the cooking traditions of the particular country and then go through about 10 different ingredients and what they are and how you use them.
Joy Manning: That’s so helpful. I think there’s an intimidation factor sometimes when you’re talking about shopping at a market whose audience is sort of outside of your own culture. So, I bet all that helps a lot of people walk through the door and know what to put in their basket.
Felicia Campbell: That’s our hope because I think the thing that makes San Diego so exciting are all these little micro-communities that we have here. People think of it as just kind of a surf town but we’ve got amazing diversity here. Those are the stories that are really exciting to share.
Joy Manning: Do you have a new cookbook in your future or is there any new part of the world you want to explore through food?
Felicia Campbell: Well, my focus for the last couple of years has been actually on a very different type of book. I just finished a memoir about the year I spent in Iraq, so I’m in the editing stages of that now. That was a hard one to write, so I’m really excited to find a new project to work on. I’d love for that to be another culturally-focused cookbook.
Joy Manning: When will your memoir come out?
Felicia Campbell: Hopefully, next year.
Joy Manning: That’s exciting. Do you have a title you can share with us?
Felicia Campbell: The working title is, Mission, Men, Me.
Joy Manning: Mission, Men, Me. Well, we’ll have to keep our eyes peeled for that. Is there a food component?
Felicia Campbell: There’s a big lack of food. But there’s definitely the food that we had at the cafes and the food we did eat was definitely in there.
Joy Manning: Interesting. Well, we will definitely look for that when it becomes available next year. Thank you, Felicia.
Felicia Campbell: Sure.
Joy Manning: That was Felicia Campbell, Executive Digital Editor of Edible San Diego. You can read many of her articles at feliciacampbell.com and you can follow her on Instagram @hungryfi. Thank you for joining us today on Edible Potluck. Our podcast producer is David Wolf. If you liked this episode, please subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to leave us a rating or a review. You know it helps other listeners find the podcast. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of your own local Edible magazine. If you don’t know where to get one, find out at ediblecommunities.com. You can find links to everything we talked about today in the show notes for this episode at ediblecommunities.com/podcast. Until next time, remember, eat local.