Vegetable Kingdom: Preserving Tradition and a Way of Life
Author: Lucy Rosen | Photographer: M.Kat Photography
Pat Gallagher and Ann Gassenheimer work in their garden in Beaufort, South Carolina
The universe works in mysterious ways, and some people seem predestined to meet their ideal match. This is certainly true for Ann Gassenheimer and her husband, Pat Gallagher, owners and creators of Vegetable Kingdom, an artisanal food company based in Beaufort, South Carolina. Nine years ago, the couple created and launched the unique concept behind Vegetable Kingdom—an idea born out of necessity but built by a common love: the joy of creating delicious foods.
A wonderful Yiddish word, bashert, meaning “soul mate” perfectly describes the partnership Ann and Pat have, in both marriage and business. They answer questions in stereo, finishing each other’s sentences like a practiced duet. You immediately sense that they are each other’s best cheerleader.
The couple has not always worked in the specialty food industry. When they met, Ann was working as a Reuters photographer, assigned to cover the White House and Camp David during the George H.W. Bush years. A friend introduced her to Pat, an architect and documentary filmmaker. The two connected instantly. Both were raised in the deep South yet ended up in Washington, D.C., which felt like kismet. They married, moved back South, and raised a child together. In 2008, they created Vegetable Kingdom.
“When we decided to change careers and re-invent ourselves, it was a natural leap to go back to what we both knew and loved: healthy, homemade food,” Ann said. “Preparing and eating good food was a huge part of life for both our families.” Her great grandfather was known for having the “best victory garden in Shreveport, Louisiana.” Her great grandmother was known as the “tomato pickle lady.” And her grandmother created the now-famous recipe for quince marmalade, the inspiration behind Vegetable Kingdom’s own Kumquat Marmalade, which is still made by hand.
If you’ve ever seeded a kumquat, “labor intensive” doesn’t even begin to describe it. But doing it the old-fashioned way is the essence of what makes Vegetable Kingdom products so special. The Kumquat Marmalade is also unique because of the hidden kumquat tree Pat and Ann discovered in the yard of a Beaufort neighbor. They asked the owner of the house for some of the fruit, explaining that they wanted to carry on a long family tradition of jam and jelly making. Ann and Pat are so particular about their craft that, to this day, this is the only kumquat tree they will use for their marmalade. Pat calls it “a magical tree.”
Kumquats are a seasonal fruit, so once the batches are made for the year, you best be in line to buy it. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Kumquat Marmalade is available (along with many other VK products) at a number of Lowcountry locations, including Whole Foods on Hilton Head Island and Johnson’s Urban Farm Market. You can also find Vegetable Kingdom at the Port Royal Farmers Market, which is where the company officially began.
Green peppers and celery line up at the chopping block; Ann adds a spice mix to large pot of Gumbo.
Pat washes off a fresh batch of celery in Vegetable Kingdom’s production kitchen, located in Sheldon.
Creole and Gumbo are just a few of the offerings, made from scratch with love by Ann and Pat.
Ann and Pat launched their brand with homemade baked goods and breakfast sandwiches, but it was the Kumquat Marmalade that sold out within the hour. They took the hint and started producing the spread on a larger scale. Pat and Ann continually add and subtract products. They still use farmers markets to debut new products and get in-person feedback from their customers, which they find invaluable. Ann even occasionally creates new products based solely on a customer’s request or suggestion. In addition to the Port Royal market, you can find a Vegetable Kingdom booth in Charleston (at Marion Square), in Columbia (at Soda City Market), and in Savannah (at Forsyth Farmers Market).
The company hit a major milestone when, after years of hard work and persistence, Vegetable Kingdom is finally on the shelves of every Whole Foods in the Southeastern United States. These Whole Foods stores offer a rotation of Vegetable Kingdom wares, selected from a master list of 15 products. Goals for 2016/2017 include expanding their Whole Foods presence into other regions and adding to the growing list of local specialty food stores carrying Vegetable Kingdom.
The Vegetable Kingdom production kitchen, which Pat designed, is housed in an old industrial building. It’s so well hidden from any main road that when you get there you still might not be sure you’ve arrived. But once you sniff the air, the spice-laden aromas will lead you. Today, they’re making gumbo.
Ann labels a jar of Gumbo.
Vegetable Kingdom’s gumbo has become their signature product and number-one seller across state lines. Based on old family recipes, it’s true Louisiana-style gumbo. The key to its classic, rich flavor lies in the roux, the soup’s base and one of its essential elements. When asked about their recipe, Pat smiles. “I can tell you that it has okra and file [ground sassafras leaves],” he said. He prefers to keep the rest of it a secret.
The Vegetable Kingdom line is completely developed from original recipes like this one. The quality of their locally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients, is unparalleled. All of the products, including soups, chutneys, sauces, jams and pepper jellies, are home-cooked and hand-jarred at their peak of flavor.
Ann and Pat call their products “in jar experiences.” Their customers call them amazing and simple ways to enjoy delicious home cooking. All agree that with each new jar, it’s “love at first bite.”
Ann and Pat have certainly come up with a way to provide the community with a unique product, while preserving their cherished family traditions. However, the couple is also committed to ensuring the highest levels of food quality and safety. Ann has attended numerous classes in Food Safety Education and Training for Professionals, which she refers to as “pickle school.” Since there are no preservatives in Vegetable Kingdom products, she has learned about moisture contents, pH levels, and all the various procedures necessary to guarantee shelf stability for their products. Ann is as dedicated to these aspects of the process as she is to the final product.
Vegetable Kingdom’s, “roots” will always be with the local farmer. Nearly 80 percent of their veggies and fruits are grown throughout the region. Ann and Pat grow many of the herbs themselves in their large garden, and they plan on keeping it that way. “We grew up with ‘farm to table’ long before it was a movement,” Ann said. “In our families, everyone cooked. The motto was, ‘If you’ve gotta eat, it’s gotta be good!”
Pat and Ann were listening. And trust me, everything that comes out of the Vegetable Kingdom kitchen is more than good—it’s truly spectacular. From Kitchen Noodle Soup and Massaman Curry to Ghost Pepper Jelly to Burnt Sugar Pear Butter, each jar is a culinary adventure that will keep you coming back for more. Shop their website and see for yourself the unique and wonderful flavors of each preserved season, and prepare yourself for an “in jar experience” unlike anything you’ve ever tasted.
For more information, visit vegetablekingdom.com.