Some people can't see the forest for the trees. But Carla Faw Squires, like her mother and grandmother, looks upon a bamboo grove and sees pickles.
"People think they look like calamari," Squires says. She will offer samples at PickleFest of the bamboo pickle recipe her grandmother developed after World War II. "If you like crunchy dill pickles, you'll like these."
Squires drives from Raleigh to her family's home place in Wilkes County to harvest bamboo each spring. The community gained the curious crop after a woman who served as a nurse during the building of the Panama Canal returned home with a few carefully wrapped plants. With a booming supply and a Victory Garden mindset, the women of Wilkes County were determined to use it to feed their families.
Squires' grandparents, who owned a small country store before her grandfather became chief of police, eventually moved to Lenoir but returned to North Wilkesboro in the 1970s. They planted their own bamboo grove, starting with just seven stalks. Pickling soon resumed, with young Carla at her grandmother's side.
"I was the only grandchild interested at the time," says Squires, who left a technology finance career in 2007 to start the Bamboo Ladies. Bamboo pickles first were processed in Asheville and then at The Cookery in Durham. She now produces about 500 jars annually at a processing center in Hillsborough. They can be found locally at NOFO @ the Pig and Southern Season.
Cooking Light magazine named her pickled bamboo among the winners of its 2010 Taste Test Awards: "Charming, odd, and delicious, they're a perfect gift for the adventurous foodie."
The product is entirely handmade, beginning with cutting and shucking young shoots and carefully slicing the bamboo to keep its concentric circles together. "It's more difficult that you might think," says Squires, noting that a mandoline or other rapid slicer pops the bamboo into unmanageable rings. "The whole process is hard work, but it's worth it to keep my family legacy intact."