Megan Baxter’s series, “12 Last Meals in Greenville,” documents the food lover’s farewell to our city. Check back each week for the next installment.
By Megan Baxter
In 2015 I packed everything I owned, including my dog, into the back of my car and began a long drive to Greenville, where my boyfriend was beginning his four-year medical residency.
That night, after unloading my car, we strolled down to Falls Park. Main Street was illuminated by lights strung in the trees, and seeing the rows of restaurants, I knew instantly that food would be my connection to this city. It wasn’t just the quantity, but the variety! Greenville is a food lover’s dream.
Because our time in Greenville was fixed to Daniel’s training at the hospital, we knew that our stay was temporary, and this knowledge somehow sweetened our years in the city. From that first night, I connected to Greenville through its bakeries, cafes, and restaurants; through the late-night dinners we’d grab when Daniel got off call; through the cakes we’d share to celebrate anniversaries; and over late-morning weekend breakfasts. I knew Greenville through its food.
So, just as we started packing, I made a list of the places I needed to eat one last time before we left the city. This is the story of the 12 meals I had to savor before we moved on. These places made the list because they produce something greater than the sum of their ingredients, which is the secret recipe for community. Each tells a story through its food.
Meal No. 1 — Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery
Turkey pesto sandwich on stecca, iced coffee, chocolate chip cookie
I found Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery on foot, jogging along the Swamp Rabbit Trail one evening while the peachy sunset illuminated the spires of abandoned water towers like beacons. I passed over the Reedy River and under the graffitied trestles of the train tracks. Coming down a slight rise, I saw a small garden first, then a busy yard spread with picnic tables. Bicycles leaned against split-rail fences, and friendly dogs tangled their leashes together. The place seemed to me to have risen out of the banks of the Reedy, out of the kudzu tangle and abandoned land. A giant bicycle rested on the rooftop, its handlebars riding high in the sunset clouds. I slipped inside to use the bathroom and knew that I’d found a kind of haven.
There were flyers for cooking classes, flea markets, farm-share boxes, and dance parties tacked to a bulletin board. Local produce spilled out of coolers and crates. Behind a glass display at the bakery counter, stacks of scones and cookies tumbled. In a basket by the counter, crisp exclamations of freshly baked bread sprinkled with sea salt crystals and golden with olive oil rose out of brown paper bags. I wandered around, empty-handed, forgetting my jog. I came back to eat and shop the very next day.
Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery is aspirational in the best sense of the word. Being in the glow of its food, products, and staff makes you want the best of things. Having moved from a local food community in Vermont, I was thrilled to find a hub like Swamp Rabbit Cafe fostering the agricultural economy and turning out its own delicious food and baked goods. Chief among the delicacies at Swamp Rabbit Cafe is its stecca – those bread exclamation points sprinkled with salt. Stecca is a variation of ciabatta using olive oil instead of milk in the dough. Baked daily and sold by the loaf or as a thick sandwich at the cafe, the stecca is the only bread our Italian friend will buy in the city – the most, he says, like home. A sign on the trail reads, accurately, “Best Bread in Greenville.”
On my last visit to Swamp Rabbit Cafe & Grocery, it was a hot midday and I thought the place would be quiet. I was wrong. Businessmen in suits camped out at the tables indoors, drinking iced coffee and talking shop. A woman flipped through a novel at the cafe table outside while mothers stood in the shade watching kids clamor on the hot playground. I ordered a turkey pesto sandwich, an iced coffee, and a chocolate chip cookie. While my sandwich was prepared, I wandered the grocery section, eying the season’s first strawberries, clutches of gourmet mushrooms, blue and green chicken eggs, and a thick-cut medallion of grass-fed beef. When my buzzer rang, I collected my sandwich, cookie, and coffee and set myself up outside at a picnic table under the shade of the pizza area.
As I ate, I watched one of the owners pulling weeds from the parking lot as she talked on her phone. She did this calmly, and I could tell that she cared for the place as if it were her home. Another employee planted flowers in a window box along the bike fence. Two people walked up the trail and asked the mothers in the shade near the playground what this place was. The women pointed. They came out a few minutes later with a dozen of those pastel eggs and a loaf of stecca.
The turkey pesto sandwich was a masterwork of sandwich wizardry. The stecca appeared to be too crusty at first, but on biting, it compressed just enough for easy eating. A spread of dark green pesto slathered the bottom, creating a base for thick-cut turkey, sharp cheddar cheese, and crisp local lettuce. Like most perfect things, the turkey pesto sandwich is simple. You can taste each ingredient, but the whole is still greater than its parts. I licked the stecca salt off my fingers as I watched traffic ride the bridge over the Swamp Rabbit Trail. The iced coffee was bitter and chilled and cut the semi-sweet chocolate sugar of the cookie like shade on a hot day. I finished my last meal at Swamp Rabbit Cafe, taking a bite of one and a sip of the other until there was nothing on my table left to savor. Still, I sat a while longer, then headed back inside for a quart of strawberries.
Megan Baxter holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a Bachelor of Fine Arts in poetry from Goddard College. Her essays have won numerous national awards, including a Pushcart Prize. During her time in Greenville, Megan worked at Mill Village Farms, Swamp Rabbit Crossfit, and the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and she ran a small CSA out of her backyard. To contact Megan or to purchase a copy of her debut essay collection, go to meganbaxterwriting.com