A visit to Italy while studying volcanoes in the summer of 2001 changed the course of April McGreger's life.
Instead of settling into a career as a geologist, McGreger, 33, now owns an artisan food business, Farmer's Daughter. On Saturday mornings, she can be found selling spicy Napa cabbage kimchi, red wine caramel cherries, blueberry lemon verbena syrup and more at the Carrboro Farmers' Market.
While McGreger studied volcanoes in Sicily and southern Italy, she was struck by how the Italians ate only what was in season. When she was there, that meant lemons, tomatoes and eggplants. She recalls a menu that served five lemon desserts, a change from the dessert menu formula at most American restaurants, which typically offer a cheesecake, a fruit dessert and an outrageous chocolate concoction.
When McGreger returned home, she talked so much about the food that her husband said: "You seem a lot more interested in the food aspect than the geology. Have you ever thought about doing it professionally?"
McGreger dismissed the idea until, with only one semester left, she ran out of money to pay for her graduate studies. To turn this need into an opportunity to figure out whether a food career made more sense, she got a job at Lantern, a well-regarded fine-dining Asian restaurant in Chapel Hill.
McGreger started out prepping salads and plating desserts. After two years, chef Andrea Reusing asked McGreger to become the restaurant's pastry chef, which allowed her to develop recipes, order directly from farmers and cook seasonally as she had seen in Italy.
McGreger said she would go out to pick cherries, blueberries and wine berries, which are similar to raspberries, to turn into desserts.
That experience reminded her of picking figs as a child with her mother. When she was growing up in rural Mississippi, McGreger said, her family had a huge garden and was constantly canning and freezing squash, beans, okra, tomato relish and peas. That family tradition of preserving food, combined with an interest in cooking seasonally and supporting local farmers, got McGreger thinking.
She asked herself what the local food community needed. "I really felt what we were missing was small food producers using local ingredients," she said.
By 2007, McGreger had left Lantern to start her own food preservation business, intending to buy what farmers couldn't sell to turn into pickles, preserves and syrups. Farmers such as George O'Neal of Lil Farm are appreciative: "She can find a home for all those wayward vegetables."
In three years, McGreger's business has taken over the couple's 750-square-foot home. In the summer, she hires two part-time workers. She has been approached by A Southern Season, Whole Foods and Zingerman's, a Michigan deli and mail-order business, to distribute her products.
McGreger has set her five-year goal: to become a Southern specialty preserves company with at least regional, if not national, distribution.
Think of all the fruits and vegetables she can save from the compost pile and the local farmers she can help.
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