Meet Our Gardener: For Mary Beth Burner Shaddix, farm-to-table is only a matter of steps
You’ve already read about our garden project that’s underway for next year’s Summer Cookbook (catch up here). We thought you might want to know a little bit more about Mary Beth and what goes on at Maple Valley Farm, where she and her husband, David, raise heritage breed chickens and provide garden produce, eggs, fresh zinnias, and handcrafted artisan cutting boards and reclaimed barn wood harvest trays to local retailers here in Birmingham.
We first met when you worked for Cooking Light's marketing and research department more than a decade ago (whoa!). What got you to trade your Jimmy Choos for some cock-a-doodle-doos?
My roots are Cooking Light, through and through, but on my 10-year anniversary [in 2008], I decided to take a leap towards simplicity—that's when it was all the rage to reinvent yourself! I was seeking a different path in the world of gardens, the great outdoors, and try my hand at growing. I enrolled in a Master Gardener class and applied for a job at a retail nursery. Looking at my work history, the (handsome, serious) manager questioned why I was interested in working in horticulture. I babbled on about my wish to learn all of the Latin botanical names, my desire to grow my own vegetables and get my hands in the dirt. I thought the mysterious look on his face meant I’d lost him in conversation…only to discover later that he thought he just interviewed his future wife! And, we’ve not been apart since. Starting a new life with David at Maple Valley has brought everything full circle—appreciation of good food, growing, the "slow" life with all its spoils. But the Choos still do come out from time to time...!
What's your favorite part of your day on the farm?
The early morning is a special treat; it makes me feel like I’m getting a head start on the world while everything's cool and quiet and the birds are chirping. Of course, those who know me best wonder what on Earth could possibly make an "early bird" out of me, so I'd best fess up that sunset with wine in hand, harvesting dinner is about the best thing there is.
How has Maple Valley changed the way you think about food?
The way I cook has done an about-face. Much like cooking from a CSA or what's in season, our menu is dictated by what's fresh. That's the riddle and the fun of it, really.
I love searching recipes by ingredients to make the most of our harvests. I think, inadvertently, it's also made us eat healthier (though I'm not opposed to decadent homemade vanilla ice cream and cookies, still!). I married a meat and potatoes Italian guy who now has recipes like fresh Lacinato kale salad, baked kale chips, or poached eggs and asparagus in regular rotation!
We're so excited you guys are planting for us. Have you learned anything new during the process? Anything you would've done differently?
I've learned that it's truly more fun to "give than get." We've found it so rewarding and exciting to grow our own food and enjoy the whole seed-to-plate process. Watching veggies ripen and thumbing cookbooks for new ways to prepare the harvest brings such a neat experience to the dinner table. But, partnering with you all has made it exponentially more fun because we've been able to share the joy and surprises with folks new to pulling up tasty radishes or carrots fresh from the soil, and watching that satisfaction and smile.
And we know our desire of what to grow never matches the space we have—you just have to roll with what Mother Nature gives. It was unseasonably hot for radishes in March (85 degrees!) and some bolted to set seed. Seasoned foodies say radish pods are a delicacy in stirfry and salads, so why not make "lemonade" out of lemons?