A Matter of Taste

Behind the smiles, Mackensy Lunsford and daughter Lily are busy planning their next meal.
Photo by Karin Strickland

Mackensy Lunsford is not a traditional restaurant critic, and she’s not even particularly picky. She’ll try almost anything — “except I’d prefer not to eat canned baked beans,” says the award-winning food writer.

Lunsford has been the voice of Asheville’s surging foodie scene for the last 14 years, but nailing that beat requires more than just “spending lots of time eating and drinking in Asheville’s many amazing food establishments — which is what I think some folks picture,” she says.

Instead, she does everything from covering food trends, reporting the flurry of restaurant openings and closings, interviewing local chefs and culinary superstars — including the late Anthony Bourdain — and exploring Western North Carolina agriculture. A reporter with the Asheville Citizen-Times for the past seven years, Lunsford is also a cookbook co-author (12 Bones Smokehouse: A Mountain BBQ Cookbook, with Bryan and Angela King and chef Shane Heavner); a YouTube hostess (Dish with Mackensy Lunsford); and, occasionally, a celebrity handler: She recently shared conversation and barbecue at South Slope hotspot Buxton Hall with Harlem Globetrotter Chandler “Bulldog” Mack, for a Citizen-Times article and video.

A laptop, a saucepan, and a mixing bowl are the ingredients of Lunsford’s career. Her antique medicine bottles are from a family collection.
Photos by Karin Strickland

In another wow moment, on March 26, Merriam-Webster’s “Word of the Day” Twitter splash cited Lunsford for her use of the verb “decoct” (It means to boil down or concentrate.)

When she landed at local alternative newsweekly Mountain Xpress in 2005, Lunsford arrived in time to cover Asheville’s dizzying ascent to foodie stardom, as the city gained a national reputation for its craft beer, barbecue, family farms, and locavore mindset — and as a destination for the upscale experiments of world-class restaurateurs (such as Katie Button of Cúrate fame).

Lunsford’s Haw Creek home base is as eclectic and energetic as the world of tastes that occupy her career. She bought her split-level ranch house 13 years ago, and shares it now with her writer/English-instructor husband Eric Steineger and their three-year-old daughter Lily, who already comfortably recites the names of every herb in their garden.

The interior has a comforting yet uncluttered Boho vibe, made richer by one-of-a-kind pieces. The first floor’s focal point is a stunning antique Chinese kitchen cabinet, originally designed with airflow in mind, for storing root vegetables. The color of what one would imagine dragon’s blood to be, it’s now an ideal storage vessel for Eric’s LPs and Lily’s toys. 

As becomes an on-trend but no-nonsense foodie, Lunsford’s kitchen shows a rustic simplicity. Everything’s at the ready, from Instant Pot to the “just right” pan, but the counters are free of debris. 

She knows how to whip up pancakes from scratch if the mix runs out, and on the day Carolina Home + Garden visited, just before the Super Bowl, Lunsford was mulling over whether to make wings in her smoker.

Photo by Karin Strickland

How do you balance everyday cooking with work and feeding a family? 

Lately, I’ve gotten into Mother Earth Foods, a local delivery service that’s not a CSA, but they bring a box of seasonal vegetables every week, as well as local meat, milk, cheese, and coffee. I build meals around what I get, which I prefer over opening a cookbook and searching for a recipe.

You’ve done just about every job there is in the food biz. 

Since moving here 20 years ago, I’ve been everything from a dishwasher to a line cook to a restaurateur. But a funny thing happened on my way to realizing my dream of owning a restaurant [Cafe Azalea, which she opened with her ex husband in 2008 and ran for a year, during a hiatus from food writing]. I discovered it actually wasn’t for me. I had to find another dream, and not only was it OK, it led me to this work that I love. 

Who or what has been your biggest professional influence?

Food is everything to my family — we routinely discuss what we’re going to have for lunch and dinner at breakfast. My family’s roots are in Roanoke, Virginia, where my grandfather was an avid gardener. His family canned tomatoes under the Beechwood brand, at the turn of the 20th century. They were very, very poor; he was removed from school after fourth grade to pick tomatoes. Some of my earliest memories are picking and eating fresh peas with my grandfather, under a bright-blue spring sky. I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, in an old row house, and my father worked in the grocery business as A&P’s vice president of merchandising. We were his guinea pigs — we tried new products he’d bring home, and review them. Food has always been central. 

You love gardening to this day, as your yard attests.

I grew up gardening, and that shaped my interest in wanting to know where food comes from, and how local factors affect production and the environment. [Lunsford wrote a recent Asheville Citizen-Times piece that focused on how local breweries’ waste impacts municipal sewer systems.]

You did a phone interview with Anthony Bourdain in 2011, for Mountain Xpress, ahead of his appearance in Asheville (where he signed books at Cúrate and spoke at the US Cellular Center). Part of the interview was run on your podcast. Listening to it now is prescient and bittersweet. 

He was a wonderful person, and had so much passion. When I met him in person, he was warm and delightful, and remembered the interview in detail. He had listened to the whole podcast, not just his part.

You’ve talked about your love of Southern cuisine, from ham and grits to sliced tomatoes from your grandparents’ garden. But when you visited family in San Antonio, Texas, recently, the flavor profile was decidedly different.

We ate at a restaurant, Mixtli, housed in a train car, where just 12 dinner tickets are sold per day. The elevated fare was the result of the chefs’ travels through Mexico. Their dishes are sometimes rooted in ancient Mayan recipes, and one we enjoyed was Oaxacan braised short rib in carrot mole — it was unassuming and deeply flavorful. I’ve never tasted anything like it.  

You’ve even used the vintage Jotul woodstove in the middle of your living room as a cooking vessel.

True. When it snowed this past winter, the power went out and I threw eggplants and peppers in the coals. They come out beautifully and tasted almost meat-like. I cooked pancakes and sausages on the top.

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