M artha Stamps is a native Nashvillian who grew up at her parent’s home near Radnor Lake and graduated from Harpeth Hall. Stamps’ education about food and land began when she was a child.
“We had all of these trees and all of this shade so there wasn’t a whole lot of gardening to do,” says Stamps, “but we spent a lot of time in the woods. My mom knew where the pawpaw trees were, and it seems like I was always learning about where to find things and when things were in season. So that education about how food is connected to the land began early on for me.”
After Harpeth Hall, Stamps set out to study art and English at the University of Virginia, eventually setting her sights on a future law degree. It was a good plan for an ambitious young woman, but it was soon derailed once Stamps took a job in a small restaurant and got bit by the food bug for good.
“I loved everything about it,” she says. “It was this tiny little place that was run by this really artsy couple—they’d serve a different menu every night. Of course, my mom and dad were wondering, ‘What happened to law school?’”
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Stamps returned to Nashville and to the legendary Belle Meade gourmet grocery/to-go stop, the Corner Market. “I’d worked there before I’d gone to culinary school, so it was a great place to come back to,” she says. “It was awesome. We had so much fun there.” It was at the market that Stamps’ slow-food crusade began in earnest.
“I knew that you could find watercress in the local creeks, and I asked my suppliers about it,” says Stamps. Her supplier replied that there was no local watercress available, but that it could be imported at a luxury price. That’s when Stamps began dealing directly with farmers and doing outreach and education, providing an entryway for everyday Nashvillians to begin asking questions about what they were eating and where it was coming from.
Stamps’ progressive efforts in the early 1990s make her a way-out-front early adopter of now-ubiquitous ideas, such as eating organic, sustainable growth, buying local, connecting directly to farmers via CSAs and co-ops, and from-scratch cooking.
Through the 2000s, Martha became one of the region’s most important chefs during her tenure at her restaurant Martha’s at The Plantation. The setting was ideal for Stamps, lending the perfect atmosphere for her New Southern cuisine and providing her with space to grow a garden that allowed her to source ingredients from just outside the restaurant’s back door. It was the garden that brought those menus to life, but also saw Martha’s tenure come to an end.
“The Plantation had a problem with the garden,” says Stamps. “They didn’t like the way that it looked in the winter so I decided it was time to try something new.”
Stamps’ latest project finds her cooking fresh and healthy meals for the elementary school classes at West End United Methodist Church. That’s also where Stamps hosts her Wednesday night “A Place at the Table” meet-ups, where ten bucks gets you a Stamps-prepared, farm-fresh meal, along with a film or lecture that connects back to issues of food and community impacting us right here in Middle Tennessee.
“I was asked to teach some classes,” says Stamps, “but then I decided I wanted to feed these kids and it all grew from there.” Stamps’ work at the church gives her access to their kitchens for her catering business, which has always been an important aspect of her food career.
“The thing I miss most about having a restaurant is playing hostess,” she says. “I used to love to sit down in the dining room and chat with my regulars. But catering is great because you get to transform these places into an entirely different setting. For the Wednesday-night meals, I bring in my own tablecloths and we eat off of real china.”
Understanding Stamps’ cooking and career depends upon understanding her ideas about nutrition, conservation, sustainability, gardening, community, and caring for one’s soul. When you do, her winding path looks perfectly direct.
As Stamps herself explains, “When we eat, we miss all of these opportunities for relationship: We can relate to the ground that provided the food, the animal that gave its life, the farmer, the people we’re eating with, and that higher part of ourselves that we honor and sustain when we eat healthy food, grown and raised in a responsible, thoughtful way.”
Eating is a fundamental activity, and its community proponents, like Stamps, remind us that it’s one we can choose to do with a mindfulness and integrity that can nourish much more than just our bodies.
Of course, “slow food” also has its critics, and nowadays it’s easy to feel that the “local” label has become little more than a marketing buzzword.
“I was talking with Margot McCormack (co-owner of Margot's Cafe) the other day,” says Stamps. “We got on the whole subject of ‘local’ as just a marketing term. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t want to even have it on my menu. Why say it’s local? Of course your food is local. It had better be local.”
“It’s in my bones. This (Tennessee) land and its food was something that was instilled in me long ago.”