written by Matt Dihllon
Aaron Grigsby is the resident cook on an organic farm in Blacksburg, Va, and a scholar of where food comes from. He has followed the tortilla back to the kernel, the sauerkraut back to the cabbage and found himself on the dark soil of the farm where his explorations spawned an eatery called Tabula Rasa. There he bakes all of the bread he serves, promoting natural food from natural ingredients. Finding out how his bread is made has directed the structure of his growing business.
There are many reasons that his bread is so coveted, but the real patina on the crust that makes it glisten is the notion that it’s natural and organic. The very idea of going to a farm to eat feels natural. But exactly what that distinction means remains vague.
“I used to talk about that distinction more, but it was at a time that I was living it less.” he tells me.
Instead, to explain his bread to me, he shows me where it comes from. On a cool, damp morning we climb into his Ford Ranger pickup truck and drive into the dissipating fog, headed for the grist mill to get a load of flour.
It’s a longer drive than he would like, but the closest mill that shares his values is an Asheville based operation called Carolina Ground. As we wind through Virginia and North Carolina, our conversation is a patchwork stitched together with the sight of a few willows budding with new green fur, mountains that flash in the window, and the ever-present tape that weaves in and out of focus. If there is a consistent thread, it’s that whatever we talk about eventually comes down to a discussion of its origin. Going back to the beginning seems to be an essential part of Aaron’s way of understanding.
Aaron applies it practically, using tangible reasoning. He uses wild yeast because it has a distinct desirable flavor, he cooks in a wood-fired, brick oven because it holds heat really well, he serves on wooden slabs because they’re durable and reusable. If farmers are growing corn he’ll make tortillas, in the summer when there are too many tomatoes to eat fresh there will be sauce, when it gets too cold above but roots are safe in the ground borscht is on the menu. If it looks like a backward journey, trading machines for hand tools, steel for stone, refrigeration for root cellars, dry yeast for inoculated dough it’s not because people are trying to turn back the wheel but because they are searching for some lost essence. In this case, what Aaron says is, “food as nourishment rather than food as a commodity.”