“When will we acknowledge that enough is enough?” Janisse Ray asked our carload as we headed past the Cumberland River, its banks flooded with weeks of winter rain, instead of the usual snow. Ray, whose first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was awarded for outstanding environmental writing, was preaching to believers again and she knew it, as she knows that the choir’s voice is too soft and the congregation’s sins pervasive. A chorus of yeses has risen to acknowledge the reality of the climate crisis, but even believers have not overhauled their lifestyles to halve personal waste, travel, and fossil-fuel dependence.
We were on our way to dinner rather than a protest, though, so Janisse shifted the conversation to ask each of us about our day.
“I can’t stop thinking about the cake tower!” she said when conversation circled back to her. Earlier, I had emailed the evening’s menu to her and Kelly Jo Beard, the two Georgia writers in the car with us, who had come to middle Tennessee to give a reading. Dessert would be a vanilla cake tower with lemon mascarpone and berry jam.
In part, thanks to voices like Janisse Ray’s, our city now has dining options that are as savory as they are conscientious. Kennedy and Shawn Voxe, the owners of our destination tea lounge and eatery, pride themselves on operating a low-waste facility, stocking their kitchen with organic and heirloom produce, and prizing small-batch producers from nearby Southern and Appalachian communities. They follow a different model than most American restaurants, which detail dozens of menu items with little to no consideration of the ecological communities that diners’ decisions will affect, or the food wastes expansive menus generate.
In contrast, The Mad Herbalist offers eight tea selections and a single main dish, which changes every few weeks in alignment with seasonal harvests. Given that we passed a supermarket offering dozens of cereal options alone, not to provide diners with multiple main dishes to choose from does seem a kind of madness. But, happiness studies have also indicated that more choices do not correspond to more enjoyment. Having one main dish eliminated the stress of that decision.
Located at the end of a gravel drive, which branches off a main artery leading downtown, the antebellum home-turned-restaurant is enfolded in a hardwood grove that sets it apart from the yoga studios, burger joints, and home improvement stores lining Madison Street. Even in winter, underbrush filtered the streetlights like lush veils. We entered the log two story as if walking into another world.
Inside conversation rose and fell like flames, although the stone hearth at the center of the dining room was unlit on that unseasonably warm evening. We slid into the last remaining wooden booth, which had at its center a caddy of test tubes corresponding to the house brews.
“Mmmmm!” Kelly said, pulling off a cap and passing around a tube of “Java Mama,” which plumed with cacao nibs, black tea, and cracked coffee.
Our hostess described the tea special, “Rosewater Chai,” a blend of nilgiri black tea, cinnamon, cardamom, rose, and black pepper. All tea selections come hot, iced, or sparkling.
Kelly ordered a hot tea sampler that arrived on a tray trimmed with herbs. Janisse and I selected a blend of rosehips, turmeric, and grapefruit. Triangles of sugar-encrusted ginger dressed our cups like lemon wedges. We dropped them into our cups before filling them from insulated bottles, which kept refills steamy throughout our nearly two-hour meal.
Kelly, who is married to the poet David Bottoms, opened a conversation about the role of poetry in a culture dominated by catastrophic climate news. Although better known for her eco-conscious prose, Janisse Ray has also published a book of nature poetry titled A House of Branches. The writers concluded that poets push back against apathy and overwhelm, like the counter-culture establishment in which we dined.
Because our dinner party included a trained entomologist, we also discussed plummeting insect numbers. An organic farmer, Janisse appreciates the importance of pollinators and lamented the use of pesticides that have also been proven toxic to humans. The importance of organic agriculture is clear. Subtler is the implication that we must also scale back on the amount of food we consume and discard daily.
The portion sizes on the tiers du jour reflect those recommended by the USDA and the American Heart Association, which suggest meat servings comparable to a deck of cards. Most restaurants, however, boast paperback-sized slabs of meat, poultry, and fish. The presentation of abundance is dramatic, but the two tiers had the same effect when they arrived. Plus, they created more interaction.
We shared a caprese dip served with a rainbow of heirloom carrot slices. The vegan alternative came topped with quartered grape tomatoes that drizzled juices into the black bean dip they garnished. We transferred onto individual side plates our turkey meatballs and raved over their oven-roasted grape vinaigrette. The sage-infused butternut squash was an unexpected favorite. The brightness of locally ripened produce makes a more immediate argument than sustainability.
Although portions were smaller than typical restaurants, none of us felt wanting. Insatiability results from depleted soils, Janisse explains in The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. Our bodies sense they are not getting nutrients needed to flourish, and we overeat to compensate. Thus, her family first strategizes soil health at Red Earth Farm to ensure appropriate levels of magnesium, potassium, calcium, and other minerals.
When we dug, at last, into our cake towers, they lifted our eyes to the top plate of the three-tier combo. The blueberries that spilled from the layered stacks of muffin-like shortcakes were so flavorful they reminded Janisse of huckleberries. The combined stimuli of flavors and textures twanged our taste buds and satiated our bodies. We reentered the night through the wooded parking lot, feeling truly nourished. As Janisse had hoped, a moderate feast had proven to be more than enough.