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The Living Pantry

By May 31, 2024No Comments

A conversation with Jen Naylor of Mama Bird 

WORDS | Lisa Archer PHOTOS | Sofia Alarcon

There’s a cacophony of bird calls as I park the car outside the modest barn. A woman, early sixties, in bog garden clogs, wearing a fleece jacket over a blue work apron, comes out to give me a hug in greeting. “My husband warns me about the way I speak all the time, because I tell it like it is,” says Jen Naylor, owner of Sussex Farm in Esmont and fondly known as Mama Bird by her staunch following of customers.

She ushers me into the barn and opens the door to her walk-in cooler, pointing out shelves containing rows of fermenting kimchi. “Once I run out, I run out. So every season you have a different kimchi. I used to just make napa kimchi in the beginning because that’s what people know, right? … There’s literally hundreds of different varieties of kimchi,” says Naylor. “I don’t like all of them, but the ones that I really like, I make. I had it my mission to just start educating people.” Naylor lives out that mission by making kimchi, kimbap, soup, sauces and a plethora of other dishes and banchan. Originally selling at three farmers markets in the greater Charlottesville area, Naylor now pops up at her daughter’s restaurant, Umma’s.

Naylor, who has a background in engineering, has always known she had another purpose: she feeds people.

“The first four years, [at] the farmers markets, all I did was giving samples because people just didn’t know … I literally — I just shoved it in their mouth … ‘Oh, this is kimchi. Oh, it’s different.’ And so I had to explain because this is made with the right ingredients. It’s not something that was just, you know, factory-made. … One person at a time, I gained their interest.”

If Naylor could change one person’s mind at a time about kimchi (her customers now number in the thousands), perhaps, too, she can convince them of the importance of growing something, anything, to feed themselves. A strong opponent to the traditional lawn with its immaculate green grass and a believer in living by your values, Naylor is often frustrated by people who call for environmental action yet don’t utilize the growing space they have.

Originally I reached out to Naylor about giving advice for items to keep in your pantry this spring, but, as Naylor remarked while we walked among rows of spring onions and dormant goji berry bushes, “this is my pantry.”

From a young age, Naylor understood the importance of local, seasonal food. Having grown up in Seoul, South Korea (she moved to the U.S. at age fourteen), Naylor would spend summers at her maternal grandmother’s farm. “What she did was regenerative farming, no chemicals, no fertilizers. She believed if you trust in nature that it will provide you what you need … everything that she grew was just … I was in heaven,” says Naylor.

Her mother also instilled in Naylor the belief that everyone is capable of growing their own food, no matter the size of your living space. She moved in to help with childcare when Naylor was pregnant with her third daughter and planted a 10 x 12 foot garden that took up most of the small backyard. That garden provided enough produce to to feed three children and four adults for the entire growing season. Later in life, Naylor’s mother grew Korean chili peppers, herbs, greens and tomatoes on her tiny Baltimore apartment balcony.

“That’s how we all should live,” emphasizes Naylor. “You know, if all of us grew something, even if you have just a pot to grow something, then you would have something that is fresh. You can just pick right there and use it for whatever dishes that you make.

“We’re in a society where [people are] so dependent on, you know, who can do something for me that they become very complacent and lazy about what they can do for themselves,” says Naylor. “You talk about, ‘Oh, we need to save the environment.’ Come here. I’m just going to go out and sucker punch you. … It’s just that you have to do what you preach. You have to live what you say. So if you truly believe in saving the environment, then grow something. I don’t care how much space you have.”

And Naylor does just that. In 2012, Naylor fulfilled a lifelong dream when she and her husband John moved to Virginia. She immediately started turning over the soil of Sussex Farm. The farm isn’t large — Naylor hesitates to even call what she does farming (though it certainly is) — yet she lovingly raises over a hundred guineas, chickens and turkeys for meat and eggs. Fruit trees line the back of the house and her garden not only supports her own family and business but provides the majority of the produce to Umma’s as well.

Naylor’s pantry isn’t a collection of cans lining a cupboard. Instead, it’s a collection of beliefs put into practice. Wisdom from generations of women who grew food for themselves and their family and shared it with their community.

Yes, of course, there are items we all buy and cannot grow or make (olive oil and lemon juice come to mind). But we can all have a living pantry. Whether it is grown in a pot on a windowsill or you have a patch of asparagus that returns every year, a balcony with cherry tomatoes or a bit of land upon which to garden, there are so many rewards to growing your own food. It connects you to your environment, to your community and to yourself; there’s a deep satisfaction that comes with consuming something that you grew.

“Once you find a purpose of why you are who you are, it becomes very clear and very energizing,” says Naylor, “… it becomes like the meaning of [a] life.”

This article first appeared in our 2024 Spring Issue, HOME.

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