April McGreger is surrounded by sixty pounds of sunchokes. They are beige and knobby, dusted with earth, drenched in afternoon sunlight. It is Tuesdayproduction dayat Farmer’s Daughter headquarters, or McGreger’s home in Hillsborough. Here, there are blue skies and grazing donkeys and oceans of grass, a setting that’s surprisingly calm for what’s become one of the area’s most prolific, productive food artisans during the last decade.
In that span, McGreger has won seven Good Food Awards through Farmer’s Daughter. The prestigious national honor recognizes producers who demonstrate distinction both in taste and through responsible, sustainable practices. Her strawberry-honeysuckle preserves and “rosey” strawberry rhubarb preserves have both earned acclaim. This year, she won four prizes with four nominations for hot chili okra, ruby kraut, ramp-and-mustard-seed kraut, and “bourbon’d” fig preserves.
She has also made a name for herself through writing. In 2014, McGreger penned Sweet Potatoes for UNC’s Savor the South series. In 2015, she provided notable contributions to The Southern Foodways Alliance Community Cookbook. She now has her sights set on a Farmer’s Daughter cookbook. And she speaks of a cooperatively owned brick-and-mortar store, too, where like-minded businesses could share resources while maintaining the integrity of their craft. Indeed, after spending a couple of afternoons with McGreger, it’s clear that her mind is constantly churning, just like her hands right now.
“Sunchokes taste like dirt,” McGreger says. “But crunchy, delicious dirt.”
She talks as she works, slicing ends and bumps and lumps off the tubers.
“They’re one of my favorite North Carolina things,” she adds.
Before I can ask why, she starts telling me about how Native Americans cherished sunchokes and prepared them by burying them in ashes and roasting them until charred outside and creamy inside. They grow on the coast and are uniquely salt tolerant. She explains their root relationship to sunflowers and extols their bright yellow blossoms.
“They’re an amazing plant,” she says. “Completely on their own, growing wild.”
They sound a lot like her.
McGreger grew up in Mississippi on a sweet potato farm. The farmer in “Farmer’s Daughter” is her father, Earl, though he has since handed down the family business to his son, Preston.
But McGreger never intended to go into agriculture or the food industry. Instead, she came to the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill to pursue a master’s degree in geology. Toward the end of her program, her thesis research led her all over the world, from Italy to Japan.
“I was always more interested in the food than the geology,” she admits. “When I came back, everyone was like, ‘Oh my God! How was the volcano?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, but you gotta try this eggplant dish!’ My now husband, Phil, said, ‘You seem a lot more passionate about the food than you are about geology. Have you ever thought about doing something with that?’”
Eventually, she did.
If earning a graduate degree is climbing a mountain, McGreger reached the peak and leapt from it. “I didn’t go to school all this time to become a cook,” she thought. Her mother, Nita, wondered what she would tell her friends. In McGreger’s hometown, cooking is less a craft than a last resort. But it was what she wanted.
In 2001, McGreger started working at Chapel Hill’s Asian fusion landmark, Lantern. She moved from the kitchen to the pastry station, working her way up to the position of pastry chef. McGreger took advantage of the opportunity to expand her developing skill set. She read feverishly (she calls Nancy Silverton her mentor, though they’ve only met through Silverton’s cookbooks) and experimented with new recipes on weekends.
“I remember thinking, I’m just not that good at pie crust yet,” she says. “‘Well, I’ll just put pie on the menu, and then I’ll get really good.’”
McGreger’s time at Lantern enabled her to connect with local farmers and producers from whom she sourced fruit for seasonal desserts.
“I always wanted to have an excuse to buy more produce,” she says. “Farmers were constantly saying, ‘Are you sure you can’t take one more flat of strawberries?’”
McGreger especially loved visiting the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. To her, it is a center of community, a bridge between young and old, rural and urban.
“The farmers market was a place that felt really familiar,” she says. “It felt like one of the few places I could hang out with old country folks, who I really missed.”
As McGreger spent more and more time at the market, she started to notice somethingexceptional produce alongside lackluster, or just plain lacking, prepared foods.
“I kept saying I wish we had this and I wish we had that,” she remembers. “I decided, ‘Maybe I’m supposed to be the one who does that then.’”
In 2007, she left Lantern and established the ultimate excuse to buy more produce: Farmer’s Daughter. It began as a simple preserves-and-pastries stand. McGreger became known at the market for sweet potato scones, sunshine buns, chocolate babka, and other baked goods. But when her son, Moe Blank, was born in 2010, all-night baking sessions were no longer an option.
McGreger found herself in, well, a bit of a pickle.
McGreger puts a plate of pickles in front of mefull sour cucumbers, brined with garlic, dill, and coriander, she explains. Sliced into thick slabs, they are bright and crunchy and concentrated. I feel as if I’ve been eating blurry pickles my whole life and suddenly found one in focus.
Cucumbers are just the start. There are Korean pickled radishes with jalapeño, taqueria-style carrots, spicy watermelon rind pickles, and spicy green tomatoes.
McGreger walks to the fridge and pulls out a jar of fermented beets with rutabaga and horseradish. She slices a crusty loaf of sourdough, toasts the pieces until the edges char, and spreads blue cheese on top. Next come the beets, plus a few shards of bacon and tufts of green pea shoots. I take a tartine tentatively, like it’s a still-wet painting. She eats one nonchalantly on her way back to the fridge.
“Does anyone want a wild-fermented strawberry rose soda?” she asks.
Expanding the Farmer’s Daughter concept around pickles and preserves sharpened its mission: to “preserve” the South. As it approaches its ninth anniversary, the brand McGreger has built from the soil up not only supports local farming but also cultivates heirloom recipes and gives them new growth.
Though the business name pays homage to McGreger’s father, it was her mother and grandmother who taught her to preserve. By the time she was eleven, McGreger was already sorting through cookbooks for chutney and relish recipes, experimenting in the kitchen, and preparing supper for the household. The recipes that really stuck like jelly to toast were those of her relativesher grandmother’s “chili sauce,” for instance, which inspired Farmer’s Daughter’s smoked tomato and onion jam.
From her mother, McGreger learned how to macerate fresh, seasonal fruit in sugar overnight and cook it slowly and gently, so as to reduce and thicken it via evaporation, not supplementary pectin. This humble but meticulous method results in a concentrated flavor that reflects peak-season produce like a mirror in an orchard.
The deliberate approach to jam is perhaps the clearest difference between Farmer’s Daughter and its commercial kin. Industry standards rely on cheap, frozen fruit (or even fruit juice), loads of sugar, and added thickeners, all to decrease cost and increase yield. But Farmer’s Daughter has different, even defiant priorities.
“I want to scale up, while maintaining that craft, that quality,” McGreger says. “I don’t want to take shortcuts and degrade the product in order to expand.”
Come summer, Farmer’s Daughter will buy four to five hundred pounds of strawberries every week. McGreger processes them as soon as possible after picking so as to avoid refrigeration and ensure flavor. It is a mammoth operation to tackle by hand, especially since Farmer’s Daughter’s other staff comprises just two part-time employees. The business has blossomed by roughly fifty percent every year, but she still cooks every jar of jam.
Cooking fruit is a far cry from geology, but it’s easy to detect McGreger’s advanced degree in her relentless research and creative energy. The determination to develop and discover seems to define McGreger. Just as when she forages honeysuckle for her strawberry preserves in the summer, she’s always searching for Farmer’s Daughter’s next resource or approach.
Hence, she soon ventured past familiar fruit preserves into traditionally salt-brined pickles, kimchi, and a rainbow of krauts, not to mention hot sauce, wild-fermented soda, and, most recently, kombucha. McGreger has made it a point to unearth classic, regional recipes and revitalize their charm.
“By doing preserving work, it allowed me to pull from my own family and cultural experience, highlight Southern specialties, and dig deeper into some other ones,” she says.
Take collard kraut, an eastern North Carolinian tradition. Locals layer frostbitten collards with salt in a barrel, leave that to ferment for a month, then eventually cook the kraut with smoked pork and cornmeal dumplings. McGreger invigorated the idea by including cabbage for a crunchy, textural contrast.
Sometimes, the inspiration hails from farther away, and becomes reinterpreted through southern ingredients. Her Atlantic sea kraut, for instance, can be traced all the way to Sapporo, Japan. When McGreger traveled there for school, she visited an open market where a vendor was selling dozens of pickled seaweeds. She updated the memory to feature local fare: seaweed, which she sources from an oyster farm in Virginia.
McGreger may work day and night to preserve Southern culture, but somewhere along the way she started to create it, too. If that’s not thinking outside the Mason jar, what is?
By the time I leave Hillsborough, the sunshine has sloped to a different side of the kitchen. McGreger is pushing sunchokes through a roaring Robot Coupe. Soon they will be brined in salt and dyed turmeric-yellowa classic, Southern relish, done slowly and thoughtfully.
This article appeared in print with the headline “In Good Brine”