On Tuesdays, Madge Eggena can be found at Meeting Street Farmers Market in Morrison Plantation. Other days, her truck with the "Herb Farm" license plate is parked at the Statesville, Hickory or Charlotte markets.
Sundays are for classes at Mills Garden Herb Farm.
Eggena and her sister, Jane Abe, welcomed six women into the kitchen on a recent hot July afternoon.
Basil, marjoram, mint and other herbs were spread on counters as preparations for a summer meal began. Advocates of eating local food in season, the sisters conducted a cooking class that emphasized the use of fats and oils.
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Guests found seats at a table laden with a basket of summer produce. Striped tomatoes and Japanese eggplant were arranged among more traditional vegetables.
For Eggena, an organic gardener, the centerpiece represented lots of work: "People don't appreciate what a hot job farming is," she said.
Abe's expertise is medicinal uses of herbs. She has a degree in holistic nutrition.
"Summer fruits and vegetables are high in potassium," Abe said. With today's processed foods, most people lack sufficient potassium.
Some participants were surprised to learn about changing attitudes toward fats. The low-fat approach of the early '70s has lost favor. Many experts recommend a return to traditional fats.
Emphasis instead is on choosing "the right kind of fat." Abe said our bodies need fats to absorb vitamins.
"Most people don't think of fat as having a function," she said. The problem is achieving a balance.
Consumers must educate themselves and read labels, she said. Abe suggested reading books such as "Know Your Fats," by Mary Enig.
"Use the best-quality fats you can afford," Eggena said. She advised buying oils in dark-colored glass bottles or cans, because those in clear, plastic containers are affected more by light and heat.
As part of a year's experiment, Eggena cooks with coconut oil. She passed a can around, and participants tenuously dipped their spoons for a taste. Amid puckered expressions, comments ranged from "It looks a little like lard," to "I can't taste the coconut."
Refreshing sips of herbal tea cleared palates. While Eggena and Abe prepared the meal, conversation flowed.
Three Davidson College students, interns at the Charlotte-based Know Your Farms local-food initiative, talked about their work. One part of it is educating children about healthy eating habits.
The interns gather food for distribution during weekly farm visits. As liaisons between farmers and the community, the young women use fresh produce to prepare three community dinners a week.
Eggena had purchased berries for melon salad and blueberry sorbet from a farmer down the road. Goat cheese for her award-winning cucumber spread and grilled tomatoes came from a farmers market vendor.
While guests ate summer squash soup, the chefs ran dough through a pasta machine and made pesto.
"Preparing Medicines from Your Garden" will be offered Aug. 15. Another "Eating with the Seasons" class is scheduled Nov. 7. A description of classes is at www.millsgardenherbfarm.com.