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Appalachian Spring: Asheville and Blowing Rock, North Carolina
In his 1945 Pulitzer Prize-winning ballet, Appalachian Spring. Aaron Copland celebrated the spirit of the 1800s American pioneers. That spunky tradition thrives in Asheville, a year-round resort town tucked between the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. The populace is a mix of 73,000 or so old-timers, New Agers, and a happy hodgepodge of other folks from other places who made it to Asheville and decided to make it their home.
John Cram is practically a founding father, having arrived from the Midwest thirty-five years ago and helping jumpstart Asheville’s renaissance when he opened the New Morning Gallery in Historic Biltmore Village. “It was on the second floor, and pretty dingy. I had to scrub it down and paint my own cases and pedestals,” he says. Within a few years, he was able to buy his first building, which he uses to showcase American handmade furniture and accessories. Then he added Bellagio Art-to-Wear, where he offers clothing, handcrafted jewelry and unique art objects by American textile artists and fashion designers. He followed this with Blue Spiral 1, where he puts on annual exhibitions of fine arts and crafts by more than 100 Southeastern artists. Last year, Cram opened Bellagio Everyday, a women’s clothing boutique with high style but not-so-high prices.
It’s adjacent to Asheville's only downtown cinema, the art deco Fine Arts Theatre, which Cram bought and restored, and where he screens quality art and independent films. This is also the prime site for Asheville’s burgeoning film festival. Gregory Gardner, who is active in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, flies here from Los Angeles every year to help with the programming.
In August, Cram puts on a Village Art & Craft Fair that draws thousands of visitors to view the work of 125 artists from 18 states. Added to his artistic endeavors, he is involved in numerous environmental causes, such as flood-abatement, and he was so diligent about cleaning up a downtown site plagued by drug traffic that the Asheville Police Department presented him with a Community Service Award. Softspoken and modest, Cram didn’t need coaxing to make a hefty donation towards building a Habitat for Humanity house in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans.
Laurey Masterton is cut from the same mold, albeit in her case the mold is likely to hold something deliciously edible. She started a catering company in 1987 and opened a restaurant in 1997, when customers clamored for her company along with her food. “I use the best ingredients available, preferably from local sources,” she says, “and my staff is talented and interested in making a positive contribution to the community.” In addition to culinary and readers’ poll awards, and numerous TV appearances, the effervescent chef — her license plate reads “Don’t Postpone Joy!” — has been lauded by local business groups, serves on a number of local boards, works on farm-to-table and child-focused initiatives, and cycles long-distance events to raise funds for AIDS research.
Her “gourmet comfort food” — soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps, sweets, preserves and chutneys made and canned in the restaurant from the ripest produce — landed her in Ian Jackman’s Eat This: 1001 Things to Eat Before You Diet. She comes by it naturally, having grown up at her family’s Blueberry Hill Inn in Goshen, Vermont. Following in her mother’s cookbook-writing footsteps (the Blueberry Hill Cookbook), Laurey released Elsie’s Biscuits,a charming collection of her own reminiscences and recipes (i.e., a piece on Trout Fishing is followed by a recipe for Smoked Trout Mousse).
Owners Kevin Westmoreland and Executive Chef Joe Scully spent two months restoring an 1890’s cottage before they opened it as The Corner Kitchen in Biltmore Village. It’s a long way from Joe’s first restaurant job in Hackensack, New Jersey, but not far from George W. Vanderbilt’s 250-room Biltmore House, America’s largest private residence. Frederick Law Olmstead, the celebrated landscaper of New York’s Central Park, designed the original gardens. When the Moroccan leather breakfast room walls needed repair, the job fell to Michael Kilmartin, a craftsman with top credentials and a grandson named Joe Scully. By this time Joe had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America with honors and was working as a chef in Atlanta. “When my mom called to tell me about granddad’s work, I scheduled a weekend in Ashville to tour the property,” he says, “and was immediately drawn by the budding art and music scene, the urbanity, the excellent schools and affordable homes.”
One idyllic weekend multiplied into many until, one day, he got an offer he couldn’t refuse, and didn’t. Now he spends hours dishing up corn and crab chowder, sweet potato lobster hash, and pecan-crusted mountain trout in his open kitchen. When not at work or with his family, he sings with two choral societies, serves on the board of the local food bank, and works with the Eblen Foundation, a hands on community support group. Joe’s chef de cuisine, Josh Weeks, owns a farm and Joe buys everything he grows for the restaurant.
Another local supplier is Joe’s friend, Kevin Barnes, a social worker who liked to cook and was up for a career change. He found it in the Ultimate Ice Cream Company where he and his wife, Lucia, (when she isn’t working with foster parents or caring for their three sons) make 80 to 100 gallons of ice cream, sorbet and gelato each week. They use lots of local ingredients: Black Mocha Stout ice cream with beer from the Highland Brewing Co.; Haw Creek Honey; and ice cream sandwiches with cookies from nearby Sugar Momma’s Cookies. “We get the best of the best,” says Barnes, “and we source locally as much as possible. In summer, it’s 12 hours from the field to ice cream with strawberries and peaches. You’ve never tasted anything like it.” Each month, he creates a “Flavor of the Month” and donates all proceeds from the sale of that ice cream to a local nonprofit organization. In a year, that can add up to donations of more than $1,600 to local nonprofits.
Small wonder that artists are setting up shop in the old factories and warehouses along the French Broad River in the River Arts District and the Smashing Pumpkins performed at the Orange Peel Social Aid and Pleasure Club. On weekends, street performers and shoppers mingle among the Art Deco buildings and grassy squares in the historic downtown. Street musicians play outside the Flatiron Building. Woolworth Walk, with its 1938 soda fountain, shows the works of 175 local artists. Kamm's Frozen Custard Shop dishes out icy treats at the Grove Arcade, which was one of the country’s leading public markets when it opened in 1929. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald stayed at the Grove Park Inn Resort and Spa, built in 1913, while his wife, Zelda, spent her nights in a sanitarium nearby. Over the years, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have all been guests.
The easiest way to get around is to hop off and on an Asheville Historic Trolley Tour, which takes in the Montford Historic District, the Asheville Museum and Art Gallery district, and the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. But, to make the most of your visit rent a car and drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to Shining Rock Wilderness area and Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi.
Keep going, and head for the charming village of Blowing Rock, about an hour and a half from Asheville (and driving distance from Charlotte, Atlanta and Charleston). Visit Horn in the West, Grandfather Mountain with its mile high swinging bridge, Moses Cone National Park, Linville Falls and Caverns, and Tweetsie Railroad, a Wild West theme park known for its Fourth of July fireworks. Year round events include Art in the Park; Main Street Gallery Strolls; the Blue Ridge Wine Festival; the Merlefest bluegrass and country music festival; the Valle Country Fair; the Woolly Worm Festival; the oldest continuous outdoor horse show in America; and events at the Hayes Performing Arts Center and the Blowing Rock Art and History Museum.
From spring through fall visitors and part-timers add to the 1600 permanent residents, many of whom are artists or artisans like silversmith Gaines Kiker, landscape painter Kevin Beck, and potters Mike and Janet Calhoun, whose families have been producing pottery for decades. Their galleries are clustered around Main Street, which makes for a pleasant stroll. Joan and Bernie Keele’s Storie Street Grill is an ideal spot for a lunch break. Try the fried green tomatoes with stone-ground grits and tasso gravy, that old British (and North Carolina!) favorite, fish and chips, or chef Chuck Nelson’s drunken pork chop made with Hickory Nut Gap Farm's bone-in pork chop, marinated in the house Sherry-Dijon Dressing (available online at www.storiestreetgrille.com) and served with "Bost Mill" grits, onion marmalade and haricot verts (finalist for "The best dish in NC 2007").
In July, 160 clans set up their tents at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, a gathering of Scottish Clans that features everything from sheep herding to weight tosses, bats to bagpipes, and owls to eyeshine. The end of the year brings the Lighting of the Town, when storefronts are adorned with white lights and garlands. There’s a Christmas Parade down Main Street and Santa drops into Christmas in the Park, with its hayrides, hot cider and hot chocolate. January’s Winterfest brings three days of ice carving, a Chili Challenge cookoff, and the ultimate winter sport, the Polar Plunge, when 25 or so brave souls dress in their wackiest costumes for an icy dip in Chetola Lake.
Whenever you go, there’s no more appealing place to nest than the rustic luxury of the legendary Chetola Resort, where you can stay in a beautifully furnished condominium, a room at the lodge overlooking Chetola Lake, or one of eight Bob Timberlake Suites. Check out the fitness center and the indoor pool and spa, brush up on your tennis and hiking, or sign on for a fishing expedition at North Carolina’s only Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing lodge.
Eschewing a successful corporate career, Michael Barbato moved to Chetola to be a hands-on chef. “I was tired of working 65 hours a week and spending only two of those hours cooking,” he says. “Here, we bake our own bread and pastries, we’re planning an herb garden and using sustainable seafood. I just found someone who grows the sweetest blackberries you’ve ever tasted and I’m hooking up with a local goat dairy.” These choice ingredients make their way into such mountain specialties as wreck, a local fish; almond crusted trout; filet Oscar, a juicy steak topped with crabmeat, hollandaise sauce and asparagus; and warm bananas and pecans over ice cream. These and similar dishes make up the menu at Manor House, Chetola’s elegantly restored 1846 estate house, which is a perfect place to end an evening, or a visit.
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, 828 257-4959; www.exploreasheville.com
The Biltmore Estate, 877-BILTMORE; www.biltmore.com,
The Corner Kitchen, 828 274-2439; www.thecornerkitchen.com NJ
Laurey’s Gourmet Comfort Food, 828 252-1500; www.laureysyum.com VT
New Morning Gallery (Cram enterprises), 828 274 2831
Ultimate Ice Cream Co., 828 296-1234
Blowing Rock, NC
Blowing Rock Visitor Information: 800-295-7851, www.blowingrock.com
Chetola Resort, 800-CHETOLA, www.Chetola.com
Storie Street Grille, 828 295-7075
Winterfest Information: 877-295-7801
Blue Ridge Food & Wine Festival: 877-295-7965
Photos Credits: Asheville Chamber of Commerce, Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, Maralyn Hill, Todd Bush Photography and Susan Rhew.
©Andrea Rademan, 2008