There is a lot you can say about Scott Peacock: James Beard Award-winning chef, engaging storyteller, companion to Edna Lewis, budding farmer, writer/filmmaker, experimenter with indigo—yes, you got that right, indigo.
Several weekends ago, my daughter Maggie and I took a road trip to meet Scott at his home in Marion, Alabama. We were joined by a lovely group of makers: Rinne Allen—photographer extraordinaire, Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors, Hunter Lewis and Liz Sidamon-Eristoff of Bois d’Arc Farm—a certified organic farm in the middle of Perry county, and Ozella Thomas—native to (and expert on) the Black Belt.
Booker T. Washington wrote of the Black Belt in his autobiography Up from Slavery:
The term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil was, of course, the part of the South where the slaves were most profitable, and consequently, they were taken there in the largest numbers.
The black soil of this fertile plain was formed during the Cretaceous period, about 145 to 66 million years ago. At that time, this part of Alabama was covered by a shallow sea where the carbonate skeletons of marine plankton accumulated into massive chalk deposits. That chalk eventually became a soil suitable for growing crops, this ancient shoreline creating the arc that came to be known as the Black Belt.
Three hours south of my home in The Shoals, the Black Belt has been home to some of the deepest poverty in my home state (and our nation). At the same time, it has also nurtured some of the most flourishing and prolific creativity (from natives and visitors alike) that defines the very best of the new south (Gee’s Bend, Rural Studio, HERO, photographer William Christenberry, Walker Evans, James Agee, Lonnie Holley, Emmer Seawell, Charlie Lucas, and writer Mary Ward Brown just to name a few). In fact, Mary Ward Brown is what originally brought Scott Peacock to Marion, Alabama—but I digress.
The weekend Maggie and I spent in the Black Belt was adventure-filled, and as I sit down to write about the experience, I’m not really sure where to start. I call Scott to reminisce and question him about some of the most fascinating moments. I’ve tried to create a transcript of our conversation; those of you who know Scott (or have eaten his food) will know that his agile mind finds connections between the most disparate topics and tastes, weaving together a banquet of food and story that feels (and tastes) like poetry.
NC: Friends who saw that I had visited with you sent me messages of astonishment that I’d actually “laid eyes” on you. It is rumored that you’ve become a hermit and that you’ve “turned your back on cooking.” I see this differently—to me, it feels like you’ve gone to the very root of cooking: the plants. Can you tell me just a little about that transition and how you got to Marion, Alabama?
SP: [laughing] I’ve heard that I was opening a cooking school, opening a bed and breakfast, lost my mind. Maybe I am a bit of a recluse at the moment but this isn’t a forever thing. I think of it as a cycle; I go in and out of this. I’m slow, it takes me time to understand things, to build my understanding. I came to Marion because, in my gut, I knew it was the right thing for me to do. And that sense was so strong—even without knowing exactly what I’d be doing once I got here—I had a feeling of certainty. We all have that internal compass. It took me a lot time to trust it, but I do now.
My oral history work led me here originally. I first came here to interview the writer Mary Ward Brown, the PEN Hemingway awarded writer. I was working on a book and film project interviewing the oldest living Alabamians I could find. I was really interested in people who were born and raised in Alabama. I wanted to record their recollections of food and the food culture of their childhood. As you know, we are running out of time. The oldest person I interviewed was 107. This is part of an evolving project.
I’d never been to the Black Belt, didn’t know anything about it. It was that process of falling in love with Alabama—this place I’d been so happy to have left. There were two places I was never ever going to live again: 1) Alabama 2) a small town.
Now I’m completely happy living in a small town in Alabama and secure in my decision to do this.
I’m as mystified myself, and I marvel at that every day. I’ve gained this appreciation through the older people I’ve met. It’s for an Alabama I didn’t know existed. As T.S. Eliot said, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
NC: And now you’ve got this gorgeous house and you plowed up your back yard, and you are raising rare varieties of plants. Your house even has a name; can you tell me about that?
SP: My personal name for my home is Alabama House—all the old houses around here have those historical markers out front but not mine. So Alabama House became my affectionate name for the house when I was still in Atlanta. I would say, “I’m going to the house,” They would ask, “What house?” I’d answer, “Alabama House.” But then it resonated.
It all started with Mary Ward Brown, and then this house, and then I started hearing about this man Hunter Lewis. I’d been in Marion a few months. Out of the blue, I heard about this man who had purchased Reverie—a Greek Revival mansion in Marion—and was restoring and had purchased land and that he wanted to farm organically. I was skeptical, as much as anyone is. You know, you hear all sorts of things and you take them with a grain of salt until you know it to be true. I had heard things about myself that weren’t true. But it turned out to be absolutely true about Hunter.
Hunter and I met for lunch, had lots to talk about, and I realized that he was serious about farming. He was assembling a herd of Piney Woods cattle—the oldest breed of cattle in the country and one of the rarest—with an important history in the Black Belt. I was fascinated by this all-purpose breed. In the 1800s, they were the meat cow, dairy cow, work cow. There are lots of noble things about this cow and their relationship to the Black Belt, and the ecology of the Black Belt is astonishing. There aren’t that many of them left. So Hunter and I had this idea to track and discover what attributes of the cows are best. There are so many questions: figuring out the impact of the different forages, understanding the right age to slaughter, discovering how the cow is best hung for aging. There is a talented young butcher in Atlanta named Brent Lyman working at Spotted Trotter who is working with us to develop the potential of the breed. We’re working and experimenting with age, forage methods, ways of curing—evaluating the full potential.
A friendship developed between Hunter and I—we were interested in one another’s work. It’s been the last year and a half that I became more involved in the farm. The whole farm is an exploration. We don’t have all the answers.
Sometime in this process, it occurred to me that I wanted to learn about indigo (more on this later). So I called Glenn Roberts. Glenn has been a generous friend and mentor to me; he is also changing the landscape of seeds and heirloom strains of all varieties of plants. Glenn and I began our conversation about indigo but wound up talking about the history of the Black Belt and the plants that would have been grown in this region. After one of these conversations, Glenn sent me 3 tablespoons of Purple Straw Wheat (called Alabama Blue Stem Wheat in Alabama). And yes, 3 tablespoons, which was incredibly generous given its remarkable scarcity.
I felt such a responsibility to Glenn Roberts for giving me these rare seeds, so I didn’t want to take my eyes off of them—and that’s how the decision came to plow up my back yard to see what could be gleaned from it planting wisely, harvesting wisely.
So I planted 2 teaspoons of the 3 tablespoons and those produced about 8 cups of viable seeds after the birds ate half the crop—greedy bastards. I wound up having to put up two layers of bird netting to keep them out. We’re now in the process of planting those 8 cups on a test plot at Bois c’Arc Farm.
NC: Hunter has a miraculous certified organic farm in the very center of the Black Belt. Can you tell me about the farm and what you’ve been working to do?
SP: There are 80 acres set aside as test plots at Bois d’Arc (pronounced Bo’dock in the Black Belt), and I will keep planting some of the seeds in my back yard plot as a sort of insurance policy for the seeds. Just to make sure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket (or seeds in one plot).
Bois d’Arc is the largest certified organic grain farm in the southeast. Bois d’Arc is the French word for Mock Orange or Osage—at present 5300+ acres of certified farmland.
Glenn [Roberts] uses the word “repatriate.” I like that. And it is Hunter who drives the experimentation, he once said to me “not to go in this direction would really be to miss an opportunity.”
NC: For me, the most beautiful part of the weekend was Sunday morning (just before we were leaving) and what Maggie and I have come to call the Plant Safari. Tell me about the purpose of that day and what you hope develops from it:
SP: Botanist Brian Keener who is from the University of West Alabama – The Center for the Study of the Black Belt joined us on this adventure. The purpose of the Plant Safari was to go with Dr. Keener who is so knowledgeable about The Black Belt and to assess the native plants for botanical pigments with Kathy Hattori from Botanical Colors. And we really just started to scratch the surface. There is perhaps the thought of growing indigo on a larger scale—for production. But also, Osage Orange (known as Mock Orange in the southeast) is very prevalent at the farm—all over the Black Belt.
The wood is so hard that it is difficult to mill after it is dry and the farmers aren’t crazy about Mock Orange because it has very large thorns and takes over the farm. But it makes a beautiful color of yellow dye. Mock Orange renders a lightfast yellow pigment when dying fabric. Depending on what mordant is used, you can develop a range of colors. So, it would be interesting if something considered to be a pest could be turned into a cash crop.
So we set off around the hedgerows of the farm to look at Mock Orange and try and discover any other dye stuffs that might be prevalent. And then we went back to Reverie and created dye baths and colors.
NC: And then there is the Indigo—which is how this whole story started. Let’s talk about that:
SP: Indigo is one of those things that happens with me where something just pops into my head. I was in Atlanta and thinking about Alabama House and how an old crumbling house needs something new. A new crisp cocktail napkin would make this all right.
But I couldn’t find the right thing one day as I was avoiding something that I should have been doing, and I started Googling organic indigo and found Kathy Hattori. I called her and she offered to walk me through it. Kathy had read an article in the NY Times about Ms. Lewis and me—it’s a moving piece and Kathy had remembered it. She asked me if I was that Scott Peacock. I remember that both of us weren’t having the very best day and it felt affirming to just speak about this plant. And I realized that I was on the right path. She was getting ready to go to Charleston to visit Donna Hardy who was harvesting and making dye baths from indigo that she was growing.
So all of this started with those cocktail napkins, and they are still not dyed even though everybody was here two weeks ago with their arms in the dye vats.
From census records, indigo was grown here in the 1700s—crop records…indigo and rice. I started researching different kinds of indigo and where I could get seeds. Glenn told me that by 1780 anything that was being grown in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas was being attempted in Alabama because those were the crops that the settlers brought with them. We found records of people moving into Alabama and growing indigo.
NC: There are several people doing great work of indigo. There is Donna Hardy of the Sea Island Indigo in Charleston, South Carolina, Sarah Bellos of Stony Creek Colors in Nashville, and Kathy Hattori of Botanical Colors in Seattle, Washington, who joined us for the weekends Plant Safari and indigo test.
SP: Sarah Bellos, Donna [Hardy], everyone was incredibly generous and gave me seeds and put me in touch with contacts. I got seeds from several different sources and all have grown and behaved a little differently from one another. There are several varieties of indigo from tropical to Japanese. The Japanese indigo is just now going to seed.
Next spring, I’ll be planting again in my back yard but also at the farm on a larger scale. Increasing seed stock and experimenting with what grows well, what thrives, and once the plant is harvested, what kind of color does it produce that can be applied to textiles. There are so many variables. Isolating variables: environmental, mistakes, when to harvest, what sort of vat to use to maximize potential. In most circumstances, we’re just figuring out how to make it survive.
You know, Glenn inspired me and guided me towards the books and sources I need to learn about growing wheat and indigo and now sugar cane and rice. This is so much like cooking it’s always humbling. You are always learning and always evolving. Happy to discover that gardening is a lot like cooking and the closer I stick to that, the less daunting it is. At the end of the day, it is alchemy.
And that is what drew me to cooking as a young child: the miracle of transformation.
Images courtesy of Rinne Allen
Sarah Bellos and the team at Stony Creek Colors have dyed up a round of limited-edition indigo for The School of Making. Those fabrics (while they last) are available here.
Scott and I will be hosting a Piggy Bank Dinner for the Southern Foodways Alliance @ The Factory in April 2017 as part of our Friend of the Café Dinner Series. Tickets go on sale in January—you won’t want to miss this one.
Look for more on Eliza Lucas and Sea Island Indigo in the coming weeks.
P.S: Anyone who has any information about the history of indigo in the state of Alabama please let us know in the comments section. And if you just happen to have seeds from the past, we can connect you to Bois d’Arc farm. You never know, the seed you save might just be the most important one.