Tami Schwerin looked out over Great Meadow Park in Briar Chapel, one of Chatham County’s newest neighborhoods, and marveled at the crowds gathered for the eighth annual Pepper Festival.
Not only had the rain subsided right before the festivities were to begin, but chefs, brewers and distillers had also come up with many creative ways to show off the variety of peppers grown in North Carolina.
Angelina’s Kitchen served mocha cayenne brownies with locally roasted coffee.
BreakFAST and Beyond offered pepper pimento-cheese pita chips topped with pepper jelly.
Several chefs highlighted the peppers with pork dishes.
People raved about the ham, padron sour-cream donut with tobago icing that Rise Biscuit and Donut of Morrisville kept putting out under its tent.
“I’m super-thrilled,” Schwerin said while sipping a scuppernong and jalapeno drink.
Schwerin is a founder and executive director of Abundance NC, a 10-year-old organization borne from her interest in cultivating and celebrating community resilience and a sustainable lifestyle.
She leads a six-person Abundance team – the Women (And One Man!) of Wonder, they call themselves.
They work to foster a community that takes care of the environment, provides for its own sustainably grown food, renewable energy and other basic needs.
It was eight years ago, Schwerin recalled, when farmer Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofarm came to Abundance NC with a request.
Jones had developed some new pepper varieties that he thought were well adapted for the North Carolina climate, but he needed some tasters to tell him what they thought of them.
Schwerin pulled together about 40 people in the backyard of the Abundance home base. The event was such a success that the group vowed to make it an annual gathering. It has blossomed into a love fest for the chefs, distillers, beverage makers and others who love to show off the pepper – from its flesh to its ribs and seeds.
“The chefs that are here, they love it because they can stretch what they usually do,” said Gary Phillips, a former Chatham County commissioner who co-owns Weaver Street Realty in Carrboro. “Some come here because they want to surprise people.”
Lisa Piper, chef and owner of the Small B&B Cafe in downtown Pittsboro, dished up small samples of pepper soup for the festival-goers.
“It’s a lot of fun to try and plan a sample for the season around the farmers,” Piper said.
Stephanie Campbell, outreach coordinator for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said the Pepper Festival and events like it help highlight the local and organic farms in North Carolina and South Carolina.
“The festival helps us connect with the eaters,” Campbell said Sunday afternoon.
The eaters, as she called the crowds sampling the many dishes and drinks transformed by the peppers, become interested in the farm to fork movement and seek out information about local farms in the area.
That is one of Schwerin’s goals in continuing the festival. Schwerin, a Raleigh native who graduated from Broughton High School, believes in accomplishing a lot with a little.
Before coming to Abundance, she was president of the board of Chatham Marketplace, a popular local coop grocery store several miles from the festival site.
She comes to the ventures with broad experience in other fields. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in industrial relations, she has traveled the world working in the software industry. She has been an art broker, a house renovator and a land developer.
She is a mother and married to Lyle Estill, founder of biodiesel Fuels, a grassroots biodiesel cooperative, and a critic of “business as usual.”
Schwerin, many say, is a community-minded doer.
The festival that took place Sunday under gray skies not only highlighted the pepper and the many ways it can be transformed into delicious treats, but it also highlighted Schwerin, a fun-minded woman who loves a good challenge.