From "Say Cheese"
SC Farmer, Fall 2018
South Carolina’s cheese-making culture is creating a remarkable array of tasty products.
“A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou singing beside me in the wilderness . . .”
One poet’s idea of a picture-perfect life centuries ago sounds today like a passable picnic that would have been better with cheese – if cheese had existed back then.
These days it abounds, and most things are better for it, says Chris “Wishbone” Walker, one of the real people behind South Carolina’s growing production of cheese and all things cheesy. His folksy, poetic concept of picture-perfect is that “the flavors marry together and go on a little honeymoon.”
Walker’s Blue Moon line of 100 or so specialty food products made in Spartanburg includes a lot more than cheese – sauces, rubs and marinades, dips and dressings, salsa, compound butters, ready-made casseroles and meals to heat and eat at home. But when it comes to cheese, Walker can do remarkable things. And he believes in throwing in a lot of it, usually more than one kind. In fact, it’s hard to count all the reasons he’s devised to say cheese and smile.
Walker puts a twist on old Southern favorites like mac and cheese by adding flavors such as blue cheese or lacing in his signature pimiento cheese spread. In fact, he finds lots of uses for his delicious pimiento cheese – incorporating it into dishes such as his heirloom tomato pie, cheese grits and mashed potatoes. And of course, he couldn’t just stop at one flavor – he makes pimiento cheese spreads with fresh jalapenos from his garden, another with blue cheese, and one with mixed olives for a punch of flavor.
Walker’s quiche, which features at least three different cheeses, along with his dessert pies and tomato pies, have quite a following around the South. Specialty food stores, boutiques and even hardware stores are selling them all over the Carolinas and into Georgia. He earned the business in Georgia through a cutting contest featuring every tomato pie recipe the shop owner could find in South Carolina and Georgia. The Blue Moon pie won. Winning another taste test made Blue Moon’s pimiento cheese a house spread for the Fatz restaurant chain.
Walker is a Spartanburg native whose granddaddy won a contest and a $50 check for coming up with the “Hub City” nickname a century ago. Growing up, he watched his mother cook, but didn’t realize how much he’d learned just watching – or how much he really enjoyed cooking – until a formative year between high school and college when he got a job at a dude ranch in Wyoming. Leading pack trips into the Bighorn Mountains, Walker’s boss discovered he’d hired a young fellow with an innate ability to feed a crowd. As for Walker, he discovered a passion that has never dimmed.
It was his first real job and it set the tone for a future with food. Walker also liked the absence of strictures other jobs might impose. He grew a burly beard and “looked like I’d been rode hard and put away wet.” He no longer looked like a Chris and acquired the nickname “Wishbone,” which has followed him close to 50 years.
He did go to college off and on, working his way through at restaurants and increasingly certain that industrial management was not a calling. For a while he drifted between the western states and the East Coast. Eventually, he and an English setter named Sparerib set out hitchhiking from Montana to Spartanburg. When they got separated, he thought he’d lost his dog. But Sparerib made it to Atlanta, lucked into a scent he recognized, and hitched a ride back to Spartanburg with a friend of the Walker family.
Wishbone Walker says that might not have much to do with cheese, but it says a lot about good luck. And possibly a penchant for naming critters and other things.
His current pet is a yellow lab and pointer mix named Chili Dog. And his product line includes “Yep!” – the answer to common questions about whether this or that sauce would “go well with” a long list of foods. The word appears on most bottled products, including his most popular seasoning, “Yep! Shake Original, and Parmesan “Yep”-Percorn dressing and dip.
The café at Blue Moon’s new flagship store serves a “No Can Do” plate that consists of all fresh produce, nothing canned. A signature sandwich is the “Wishboneless,” ribs slow-roasted until the meat falls off the bone, served on a Brioche bun with “Hail Yeah” slaw.
In some ways, Blue Moon was a long time rising. Back in Spartanburg, Wishbone met and married Mary Pat. They bought a piece of property with enough room for a garden, where they grew their own herbs and vegetables, including lima beans so tall they had to be harvested from a 10-foot ladder.
Their philosophy was “from seed to sauce,” and it has continued into the family business, using local ingredients and homegrown herbs and vegetables as much as possible. But for years it was simply how the Walkers lived with the best parts of their lives played out around the dinner table. As the family grew, Wishbone supported them with a corporate job in sales. Cooking became a hobby but a serious one indeed.
As a couple, Wishbone and Mary Pat cooked together and fine-tuned his best ideas, especially the pimiento cheeses. They sold Wishbone’s original sauces and other creations at local farmers’ markets. They sold well. Really well. But it was the pimiento cheese that fired the future. When all four kinds of pimiento cheese sold out week after week, “I started to see this thing has legs on it,” Wishbone says. “I knew we were going somewhere.” In 2006 he quit his day job.
The business has grown like those giant lima vines. Daughter Molly Cashman is a partner who runs the business end, and the new flagship space includes a bakery, deli, grab ‘n’ go freezer and fridge, gift shop and direct sales space for the sauces and such. Largely as a result of all these improvements, sales have tripled over the previous year.
This is the first year in 40 that the Walkers were too busy to have a garden at home, though they tend six raised boxes in a community garden behind their store. Six people work fulltime in the Blue Moon kitchen, where “the magic happens” from scratch. Two ice cream machines hum in the background while the baking and bottling and packing goes on.
Life is good. Wishbone doesn’t owe it all to cheese, but it’s fair to say that cheese has had a lot to do with the taste-good, feel-good reputation of Blue Moon Specialty Foods from its Spartanburg niche, not far from some other key connections to cheese making in South Carolina.