Blue Ridge Country - May/June 2018 - 53
from small-scale farmers located
nearby," he says. Furthermore,
Boden's emphasis on seasonality
and the use of non-traditional ingredients like a garnish of fried pigears or roe harvested from West Virginia brook trout got him thinking.
"I thought, well, if he's looking
for stuff that's local and in-season,
maybe he'd be interested in what's
really local-the foods that grow
out there in the woods without anybody's help," says Marion. Phoning
Boden, he discovered he was right.
Boden gave him the green light to
bring by whatever he could find.
That spring, Marion launched
Digger Jays Wild Edibles. To accommodate his day-job as a supply manager at Lowe's, he started
out foraging on weekends, hunting well-known and sellable staples
like ramps-a kind of wild cross
between garlic and green onions-
and mushrooms. Camping near his
grandparents' old homeplace in
Bartow, West Virginia, he'd spend
Saturdays and Sundays gathering
what he affectionately refers to
as his "goodies." On Sunday afternoons, he'd head home, clean
what he found, and take it over
to Boden. Whatever Boden didn't
take, Marion drove to Charlottesville and sold door-to-door.
"It sounds counterintuitive, but
when you get that knock on your
backdoor and find out it's Jay, as a
chef, you get this pang of excitement," says Curtis Shaver, chef de
cuisine of Charlottesville, Virginia's oldest farm-to-table restaurant,
Hamiltons' at First & Main. "His
stuff is so amazing. And there's this
surprise factor involved-so, it's
kind of like a miniature Christmas.
You immediately start thinking
up ways to incorporate it into the
Shaver's response was not uncommon. As the farm-to-table
movement took off, and Marion introduced himself to more and more
restaurateurs, his catalog expanded
to around 100 wild-food products.
In addition to limelight offerings,
he began offering niche items like
Jay Marion's grandson, Cole, here standing
beside a great find of wild mushrooms (chicken
of the woods), is learning the secrets of the
forest from the grandfather.
redbud blossoms, water-lettuce,
birch sprouts, sassafras root, beach
nuts, spruce tips and more than a
dozen varieties of wild mushrooms.
Launching a professional website in 2013, Marion began fielding
inquiries from chefs all around the
country. Subsequently, his client
network has increased to 200 restaurants. To keep up with demand,
he now employs nine part-time foragers in the spring, and has built a
shed for packing, shipping and refrigeration in his backyard.
"The culinary community is
pretty insular and word spreads
fast," says Boden of Marion's success. "The thing about Jay is he's
reliable and he knows what he's do-
"They were born in the late-1800s.
Their families were mountain
homesteaders. They'd been raised using
this knowledge to survive." -Jay Marion
ing. His stuff is high-quality, and as
fresh and local as you can get."
However, the differentiation
between Marion and his competition runs deeper than reliability. In
fact, you might say it's in his blood.
Marion's grandparents knew what
plants and fungi were useful, how
and when to find them, and what
to do with them.
On one hand, Marion offers
guided beginner and intermediate foraging courses. On the other,
there's his 16-year-old grandson,
Cole. "He comes out with me most
of the time," says Marion. "He's
been doing this since he was a toddler and is always hungry to learn
more. Who knows, he may end up
taking over the business one day."
This fact, and seeing the foods
he supplies headlining the menus
of the region's most notable restaurants, gives Marion a sense of
deep satisfaction. "It's hard to express how happy it makes me to
know people are experiencing these
foods," he says. "We all love a good
meal. And food is the best way I
know to introduce people to these
mountains and the beauty that nature provides."
May/June 2018 53