What is it that makes agritourism work? Is it a special kind of twinkle in someone’s spirit or a general spark in a certain locale? In our July edition of “Good Roots,” we’re exploring some of Arkansas’s unique operations to take a closer look and see if we can uncover the magic that makes this type of production possible for producers and communities.
A Foodie Castle in the Sky
“I was using a habanero and then somebody said, 'You know? I have a hotter habañero!'
And they brought it. And it was hotter! Was nice!"
The gleam in his eye when Father Richard talks about these little jewels! You'd think he is reminiscing about his high school sweetheart, but – obviously – as I sit here talking to this devout monk, that's not the case.
Subiaco Abbey is sometimes recognized as a "castle in the middle of nowhere" in Arkansas.
Before this trip, the only real connection I made with Subiaco was when my high school alma mater met their football team in a few state play-off games. (Nod to the Nashville Scrappers.)
But there is so much more than a solid, talented sports team up on that Paris, Arkansas, hill. Subiaco supports a whole lifestyle, a whole community, a rich history and a promising future in a campus where 30+ monks make it their life goal to live out their calling – all the while sharing their world with visitors, students and tourists who cross their paths.
One way they share their lives with the community around them is through the culinary treats they create. Peanut brittle is a holiday staple many people can't get enough of. Their brewery, now open to the public, has home-brews on tap and in six-packs to go.
But the Monk Sauce – a spicy, rich, deep pepper sauce made and bottled right there on the mountain using peppers picked just a half-a-mile away in their garden – may be their biggest claim to fame.
The recipe for this magical elixir? It's pretty simple, but it actually came from the mother of a young boy who was visiting a monastery in Belize. "I got it, yes, but I didn't actually make it up," Father Richard says, drumming his hands on the table as he waits for the cameras to roll.
Smoked, thawed habanero peppers sit there in a bowl in front of me, and their aroma is a distinct one, to say the least. They – just like this gentleman sitting in his habit, with a sparkle in his eye – are unique. Of course, that twinkle could be due to the peppers nearby, since Father Richard said they make his eyes and nose water. But I have a feeling that the look in his eyes is something much more than that.
Next Stop: Urbana’s Oasis
When I pull up to Urbana Farmstead, I know all of our senses are in for a treat. As I park near the greenhouse, Margie comes out as she's finishing up a gardening task, but she still looks camera-ready. I see vertical veggies, perennials, herbs and roving chickens.
Mr. White is a rooster – appropriately named – who comes close enough for a photo but not close enough for a pet. Touché.
The tinctures, extracts, teas and herbal blends that await us inside would make any witch doctor jealous. Do you know how many things you can do with a rose? Have you ever had a sip of fire-cider? Would you ever think of pickling your watermelon rind?
Margie has been working on and growing the produce for these recipes for years – and she has a great gift for educating the consumer about what-the-heck is in that jar and what-the-heck you can do with it. My tastebuds felt like they'd died and gone to a rave with olive oil, salt, peppers, herbs, vinegars and who knows what else!
Funny thing: Margie had a gleam in her eyes when sharing all these concoctions with me similar to Father Richard’s when talking about his peppers.
Okay, I'm guilty, I admit ... during the pandemic I totally started making sourdough bread. And I am not ashamed! I still make it regularly and perhaps may never stop. So, when I see the two jars of starter on her table, my eyes light up. Something I actually recognize!
A closer look reveals they are two very different products: one jar from her father's side of the family and one jar from her mother's family. Now that is a cool sourdough story. I can only hope the foamy, white goo on my kitchen counter will someday have a special place in great-great-great-grandkids' kitchens.
The place Margie has created just outside the city limits – a former junkyard turned urban farm – has a storefront, a showroom with lots of windows and a kitchen that is just waiting to house its own cooking show. That's where we end our visit, in Margie's kitchen, where she gives the crew and me some of the bread she'd made earlier that morning. She kept wanting to hug us and feed us and entertain us, but she laughs and waves it off, attributing all this to her Italian heritage. Yet, in her space, she made me feel welcome and made me feel inspired. Margie made me want to return to this space again, and I know that “soon” just will not be soon enough.
Perhaps these two people in their own unique yet very similar ways are more aware of what we could all use more of: an appreciation of where we come from, a chance to share our stories with neighbors and an embracing all the ways we can use the fruits of our labor to benefit the world around us. Maybe that's where that gleam comes from!