Life Stories

Her fresh food drew friends


Ristin Cooks longed to share her passion for fresh, organic food with everyone.

That meant everyone from the chefs who turned her chickens and tomatoes into high-dollar entrees to customers who used food stamps to buy her greens and garlic at the Carrboro Farmers Market. Her free-spirited personality allowed her to build bridges between people who might otherwise be strangers.

"Cooks loved Ristin," recalls chef Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill's Lantern restaurant. "She was one of those people who knows that dinner can be the most important thing. Not for the food but for what we share when we eat."

Ristin Cooks died in May. She was 41.

Her partner, Patrick Walsh, is taking some time away from working Castle Rock Gardens, the Chatham County farm they owned together. He and Cooks began farming after they got together seven years ago. Both had worked in construction and remodeling, and both were interested in working with their hands and growing food for themselves. They were committed to raising livestock and growing vegetables using sustainable methods, without commercial fertilizers or chemical weed and pest control.

"When we met each other, we decided we would ramp things up, and we did," Walsh says. "It was our way of life."

Walsh says Cooks learned to love growing things when she was a child and her parents, both European-born, tended kitchen gardens for the family. Her father was in the military, and she graduated from high school in Fayetteville. Cooks attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then moved around a bit before returning to the area. Walsh described her travels in England as a sort of vagabond existence that included telling fortunes on the street. She also lived in Costa Rica and Chicago.

Once the couple set up shop at Castle Rock Gardens, Cooks tended to stick close to home. Walsh plays with the band Kicking Grass, so he travels frequently. He says Cooks preferred to have friends come to her.

"Ristin lived for the potluck," Walsh says. "It was a chance for her to grow things, sell them to her friends and have her friends cook with them."

Supper with a story

Reusing recalls a dinner she put on at Lantern that featured food grown at Castle Rock Gardens. Ingredients included Delaware chickens, old-variety okra and tomatoes, which Cooks had grown before, but also foods she had never tried -- sesame, shishito peppers and a pig.

"Just before the last meat course, she told a funny, harrowing story of how her pig, whom she had named 'Big Pig,' had escaped to the woods as she loaded him in the trailer to go to slaughter and how she had finally managed to get him back," Reusing says. "It was a tough story for people who were about to be served that pig, but she did it with her usual no-nonsense guts and compassion, and the room was with her all the way."

That personality came through in Cooks' writing, which was another of her great passions. She contributed pieces to The Independent Weekly, but fiction was her real love, Walsh says. A friend is working on publishing a collection of her nature-oriented short stories, to be titled "Hopeful Monsters."

Cooks, who had suffered for years from ovarian cancer, died at Castle Rock Gardens. She is buried there, in the apple orchard that she and Walsh planted when they first began farming.

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