Wild Gift Leader Sarah Bellos featured in The Tennessean

Young farmer lives off the land:Whites Creek resident Sarah Bellos gardens, raises chickens and creates naturally dyed fabrics

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Reporter Jennifer Justus gets together with one Nashville resident each month to talk about food and cooking.

May 2, 2012, The Tennessean.

Sarah Bellos says she’s not the type of person who can recall a long list of childhood memories, but she does remember the first time she pulled a carrot from the ground and tasted it.

“My mom cooked from scratch all the time, but because we weren’t getting stuff right out of the garden, (that carrot) was just so amazing,” she said.

Fast forward about 20 years, and Bellos, 29, stood in her kitchen surrounded by farm-fresh lettuces, onions with purple bulbs, scraggly fennel and carrots so muddy there would be no mistaking the origin. She invited us over to her Stoney Creek Farm for the latest installment of the Nashville Cooks series to show us how she prepares a healthful, fresh meal from scratch.

Even though some produce had come from farmer friends, Bellos is growing her own permaculture farm, an efficient, self-sustaining ecosystem, on the four acres behind her Whites Creek home — and she’s also been known to pull to the side of the road in her red pickup when she spies wild mulberries, persimmons or fennel. Who can blame her after having a taste? When she offered a chomp of wild fennel, the soft green fronds were so packed with licorice flavor they’d make a black jellybean taste as dull as a communion wafer.

“I’m into growing food a lot,” she said. “But I’m also into foraging.”

'The next frontier'

Bellos, to be clear, is into a lot of things.

A tour of her yard included a stop to gather eggs at her chicken coop, a look at her blueberry plants, a fig tree, vegetable garden, herb garden and beehives. Then we crossed a creek to a field where she plans to grow more plants for her natural dye business, Southern Hue. Bellos creates naturally dyed fabrics and keeps them on stock for designers or others who need them.

She admits it’s hard work, “but you’re doing something that could really help make a difference.” Crops for dye can be stored and sold when there’s a demand rather than wilting before your eyes at the farmers market. “Hopefully textiles are the next frontier,” she said.

In her exposed brick kitchen, a row of cookbooks rested on the window sill. Orange lilies added color to an heirloom table, and her mother’s paintings (she teaches art on Long Island) hang on the walls. From Bellos’ computer nearby, The Band drifted in softly.

Meanwhile, Bellos’ conversation flowed, and it’s packed with information. Between facts about natural dye, she offered tidbits on cooking.

She heated a dab of bacon fat in a cast-iron skillet. Then beef short ribs from Porter Road Butcher hit the pan.

“I asked them what’s the most undervalued piece of meat that’s awesome,” she said. “So I’ve been really into cooking them.”

Let them come to room temperature before cooking, she reminded. “The other thing I’ve learned about searing is it’s basically trapping a lot of the moisture.” And rather than poking with a fork, use tongs, placing the fattiest side down first.

After moving the seared ribs to a slow cooker, she added the carrots, garlic, onions and fennel to the skillet with a sizzle that soon perfumed the air with aroma so thick you’d swear you could bite it.

She deglazed with wine, and then added it all to the slow cooker with lentils and some stock. For dessert, she planned on making a syrup with foraged mulberries and topping them with soft sheep’s cheese called Brebis from the Bloomy Rind, where she works part-time. Or maybe she’d top it with whipped cream from Hatcher Family Dairy. Or maybe both. “I don’t really have a ton of rules,” she said.

Learning by doing

Though she’s at ease in the kitchen, she said cooking hasn’t traditionally been of primary interest. “I was always sort of a lazy cook,” she said. “Even this is in the Crock-Pot.”

But as she gained an appreciation for growing food, she cared more about how to cook it. “The good thing about eating fresh food is you don’t have to do much to it.”

These days she cooks nearly every day, and though she doesn’t always eat a lot of meat, she’s been learning about the different cuts by just diving right in to figure it out. “The only way you really learn is to just do the project,” she said.

Bellos took an interest in farming in college at Cornell. She switched majors from engineering to natural resources management after an internship on a farm in North Carolina. Then she ran Cornell’s farm before moving to Washington, D.C., to work in farming policy. But in Nashville she has found her way.

“There were actually people growing food,” she said of when she first decided to move here. “And I live 10 minutes from downtown.”

She hopes her farm can model how people can take better control of their food system. She blogs about her adventures at http://interdependencefarm.com, and she’ll soon hold a workshop with her farming partner, David Wells, on building a cob structure to serve as shed, greenhouse and coop.

And though she keeps her hands in lots of projects here, she also likes that she can spot a deer when she goes out for a run. She can snag a wild persimmon from the side of the road. She can have coffee down by the creek.

“What other city could I possibly choose?” she said. “I feel like I’m much more my authentic self being here.”

Contact Jennifer Justus at 259-8072 or [email protected].