food essay curb appeal
photograph by Charles Harris

Most of us are familiar with farmers markets, but not every green-thumb grower with a little extra to sell is a farmer, and not every sales venue is a market. In North Carolina, some folks set up shop right on the side of the road.

If we drive any distance along a route that once served as the backbone of a small town, we’re likely to come across a produce stand. Sometimes the location sneaks up on us, but most of the entrepreneurs draw our attention, and us, to them. They post hand-lettered signs along the road’s shoulder, guiding us to the spot like lights along a landing strip. Some savvy marketers add extra signs to inform us that we missed them — but it’s not too late to turn around and try again! More things in life ought to offer that sort of second chance.

The signs also hawk the wares. Maters! Peaches! Lopes! Cukes! When read in order, like Burma-Shave signs, we can have our supper menus planned by the time we arrive.

I’ve noticed that the preferred media for the sign makers is spray paint on plywood. They often start writing too far to the center, so that single words occupy two lines:

CO-
RN!

Or my all-time favorite:

OPE-
N.

The stands themselves are designed for utility. Simple walls, if any. Cement floor. Wooden tables to hold produce boxes and bushel baskets with brown paper sacks wedged between at handy intervals. A scale dangles from a rafter. There’s a rickety stool where the purveyor sits between helping customers. A radio plays low and staticky. The amenities are sparse, but the ambience is abundant.

Once, on a road trip Down East, I passed through a tiny town whose bank, on the town square, had shuttered shortly after the trains stopped stopping. That didn’t mean people no longer needed fresh produce. They never needed it more. A couple of neighbor ladies decided to go around and buy up the odd bits of leftovers folks might have when their gardens were coming in faster than they could use up the produce. A mess or two of green beans, a sack of tomatoes, a dishpan of squash, and the like. They got permission to use (or at least a key to) the empty bank building and set up shop a couple of afternoons each week. Buyers pull up to the teller window, speak into the mic to place an order, and put their money in the drawer. The ladies inside put the produce and any change in the cash drawer, and push it out to the car window. Folks, that’s enterprise.

At some stands, there’s never a shopkeeper on site. They instead operate on the self-serve honor system. The prices are marked, or left up to the buyers, who select what they need, tally up the total, and slip the payment into a cash box. Sometimes the cash boxes are locked, but more often they’re left open, so that folks can make change. Despite cash money sitting en plein air, shortchanging and theft are rare. I guess anyone who appreciates the value of a homegrown tomato can’t be that low-down and trifling.

Not all produce stands stand still. In some communities, the seller drives to a chosen spot and lowers the tailgate. He or she might fashion some shelving with two-by-eights and cinder blocks. When we drive around a curve on a mountain road and come upon these stands, we might see the sun sparkling through jars of honey and jelly, casting beams of light that rival the stained-glass windows in the finest cathedrals on earth.

Pull over and pay a fair price for something homegrown, homemade, or heartfelt? I believe I will. I saw the signs.


Sheri’s Shopping Tips

1. Bring small bills. Most stands are cash-only operations.

2. Strike up a conversation. No one is prouder of or better informed about the products than the person who grew or made them.

3. Make plans to make tracks. It’s fun to randomly stumble upon a stand, but you can also find guides online at gottobenc.com and ncfarmfresh.com.

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Sheri Castle hails from Watauga County, but came down off the mountain to go to Carolina and now lives in Fearrington Village. She is a writer, recipe developer, cooking teacher, and popular public speaker. She is fueled by mountains, excellent bourbon, farmers’ markets, and searching for the right word. Sheri believes that stories happen only to those who can tell them. Check her out at shericastle.com.