By Karen Dill
Sunburst. The word evokes a magical image. Yet, in my childhood community of Bethel, Sunburst was simply a place visited on lazy Sunday afternoons in June. It was a mere section of land beyond Lake Logan, but in my childhood memory the place seemed both mystical and wonderful — a fantasy land.
As I drive the road from my old elementary school in Bethel to the Sunburst Trout Company this month, I watch the patterns of light from the sun dapple the road and play among the trees that line the two-lane road. I remember the trips taken up this rural road as a child and the stories told by my father of his own childhood in Bethel.
When my father was 13, his father died. His family was destitute, as were many other Appalachian families in those days. At the end of seventh grade, he left the small one-room schoolhouse that he dearly loved to work at Sunburst Logging Company.
The loggers stripped the mountains above Lake Logan of trees and sent them floating down the Pigeon River’s West Fork for several miles to the Champion Fiber Company in Canton for the production of paper. It was hard work with little pay for an adolescent boy, but it meant staying in his childhood community for a while longer and avoiding starvation.
When my father turned 16, he would join the Army and fight in Europe for his country in the conflict that was to become World War II. Becoming a man at 13, working at Sunburst, and being shot in the war would forever change his life.
Despite the injuries that he sustained, my father would come home to the mountains of Western North Carolina and attempt to live a normal life. He would recall the days growing up in a valley with a few humble houses and the river running with trout. He would recall working at Sunburst Logging Company. He would recall better times with a body that was not ravished by war wounds and nightmares.
Sunburst represented a small and simple escape from Bethel. It was a place to visit on summer afternoons when my father needed to remember a time of his youth when life (despite its hardships) was simpler.
Change, it seems, is inevitable in the mountains. Sunburst Logging Company closed in 1935. The area became national forest land. It is still mostly unpopulated and the trees have grown back on the mountains. Champion Papers hit hard times a few years ago and no longer used the trees from our beautiful mountains to make their paper. Following a couple of fires in the 1940’s, the trees grew back and the area is now known as the Shining Rock Wilderness Area
The quiet mountain area of Sunburst has little to offer to tourists seeking excitement. The private lake is beautiful but restricted. The trails are steep and the camping rustic. With the establishment of the Sunburst Trout Company (www.sunbursttrout.com), this rough mountainous area is now famous for another business. Almost every restaurant in the area — from the local Jukebox Junction diner in Bethel to the nationally renowned Bistro at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville — has a version of Sunburst trout on their menu.
I do not need an excuse to visit my beloved childhood community and reminisce. And so I once again travel the road to Sunburst to remember the past and to buy the trout for the main feature in a summer dinner.
The dinner, I’ve decided, should be served on our patio at dusk. I’ve convinced my husband, Tom, to string small white Christmas lights around the patio so that the magical rippling of sparkling light can be viewed as we dine. The evening is perfect — cool and clear. Stars sparkle in burst of white light. The patio table is set with linens, fresh flowers and candles.
We begin the evening on our front porch with mint lemonade and the heavy sweet scent of the magnolia trees. Our resident peacock, Percy, has welcomed our guests with his usual flurry of beautiful feathers and male posturing in case we have forgotten that he is the alpha male of the lot.
We sip a delightful mint lemonade drink as we sit in the wicker chairs on the front porch of our old farmhouse. The mint has been freshly picked from the tender crop in our back yard. Like Percy, mint tends to be invasive and difficult to ignore, and before we can protest, he has taken a bite of mint right from the glass. We also enjoy a taste of smoked trout dip that I purchased from Sunburst. It is delicious with crackers.
The rainbow trout has been skinned and grilled over charcoals. It cooks quickly over the grill and is basted with melted butter and fresh chopped herbs from my garden. I serve the trout with a lemon caper sauce that is optional for those who aren’t crazy about capers.
I have roasted fresh asparagus spears in olive oil and lemon zest. As they are removed from the oven, I sprinkled freshly shaved parmesan cheese over the spears. The risotto is cooked with heavy cream and herbs and is topped with grilled mushrooms and a few shards of parmesan cheese. Because this is a rich (in taste and calories) dish, I serve it sparingly.
Although the trout, risotto and asparagus are easily a full meal, I want to try an interesting recipe that calls for roasted beets and spicy pepitos (I soon discover that these are roasted and spiced pumpkin seeds). We have just harvested a spring crop of beets. These will be roasted in the oven with olive oil, then tossed in a salad of mixed baby greens, goat cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds and dressed with light vinaigrette. This makes a colorful and healthy addition to this twilight meal.
For dessert, I have utilized fresh peaches that are in season from the local farmer’s market as well as blueberries picked from our local blueberry farm. I’ve combined the two to make a fruit crisp topped with a crunchy topping made from flour, oatmeal, brown sugar and crushed pecans. After baking, it is topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and served still warm. I put on a pot of coffee and the smells of berry crisp and coffee permeate the cool evening air. We carry the dessert trays to the patio. As we slowly eat the dessert while we sip hot coffee, our little group breathes a collective sigh of contentment.
From our post at the patio table, we watch the stars compete with the sparkle from the strings of lights and the flickering candles. The stars win. The night is cool and my husband, always the gracious Southern gentleman, passes out sweaters to our guests. Percy bellows his goodnights from his perch in a nearby oak tree while a whippoorwill cries softly from the woods.
Nan, one of our guests, remarks that this evening is indeed magical. I think of my father’s childhood and the struggles he endured. Could he have imagined that the Sunburst of his memory would contribute to a meal on an evening such as this? While I honor the memories with a mixture of pride and poignancy, I know that joy and sadness, fantasy and reality, are simply shades of the contrasts and contradictions of life in the Appalachian Mountains.
Change is inevitable, even in our beautiful slow-moving mountain communities. A young boy’s father dies and his life is forever changed. A harsh logging camp gives way to a trout farm; trees are cut to build houses that line the ridge tops; we dine on simple patios with an exotic bird nearby. Life moves on and fantasy is intertwined with reality through a ribbon of brilliant color. Sunburst.