words: Marla Cantrell
Images: Jade Graves, Jade Graves Photography
Mary Adams doesn’t see the sense in changing things that have always worked. She orders the herbs and supplements that line the shelves of Olde Fashioned Foods in historic Fort Smith, Arkansas, over the phone. Send her an email, and you’re up a creek. Mary uses snail mail, the telephone, or better still, face-to-face interactions.
As she’s explaining her philosophy on sticking with the tried and true, she’s smiling. The afternoon sun from the wide windows of her natural foods shop is pooling around her, and in this light, she could be twenty years younger than her sixty-two years. Maybe twenty-five.
Mary lives in much the same way she grew up, the eighth and final child of progressive parents who believed in organic food long before it was cool. “They met at twenty-eight years of age, and had eight kids in eleven years,” Mary says, describing a household that was always bustling, always in motion.
She remembers the school years particularly, unwrapping her lunch at the cafeteria table, unveiling the two slabs of homemade brown bread that drew stares from the other kids. This was at a time when convenience foods were the rising star of the American lifestyle. Tang, for instance. TV dinners in metal trays. Soft pillows of bright white bread. “When other people had Cheerios, we’d be eating millet cereal. Buckwheat pancakes with blackstrap molasses.” Mary makes a face. “I could hardly stand those pancakes,” she says.
Back then, Mary felt different.
Rightly so. Her parents, Bill and Louise Bruce, both born in 1912, made the family home on two-and-a-half acres on Free Ferry Road, in a house that is long since gone. She remembers certain books in the house, such as Let’s Get Well, and Let’s Have Healthy Children, by Adelle Davis, whose belief that you could improve your health through better nutrition may have seemed revolutionary at the time.
Mary’s parents used their plot of land vigorously, planting a big garden in the back of the house, a plum and apple orchard. There were goats and chickens. There was a big, glass greenhouse where Mary’s father would raise papayas, pineapples, avocados. “In the winter, one of us would invariably leave the door open and kill something,” Mary says, the memory of that time as vivid as ever.
“The brothers had paper routes. The girls babysat. We mowed the grass. We worked the garden; we shucked corn together in the backyard. Our parents had land north of Dyer, and they farmed there. That’s where we had watermelons.”
When Mary was still a preschooler, her parents started Olde Fashioned Foods in their garage, ordering staples like whole wheat flour and brown rice in bulk. They’d divide the order with people with similar interests, such as fellow members of the church they attended. Mary says it was one of the earliest co-ops around.
When she was somewhere around eight or nine, the business moved to this location at 123 North 18th Street. It is a lovely old dormered house with stained-glass, a fireplace surrounded by muted green tile. It smells the way great natural food stores do, like exotic spices and fresh-from-the-earth produce.
For Mary, it feels a lot like home. In fact, it was her great-great uncle’s house, Edgar Bruce. His entire married life, he lived here. After his wife passed away, though, he wasn’t able to live alone. Mary’s family took him in, and when he died, the house became theirs. “When I think of him,” Mary says, “I always remember what a sweet, kind man he was.”
When she was sixteen, she started working at Olde Fashioned Foods, like three of her siblings had done before her. (Her brother, John Bruce, now owns Squash Blossom Company in Van Buren.) She took to it immediately. But when she graduated from high school, she headed to Texas State University where she earned her teaching degree. She took inspiration from her mother, who taught at Darby Junior High for years, and Mary taught for about four years while she lived in the Longhorn State. But then she came home to visit when her oldest son was born, and the allure of Olde Fashioned Foods pulled her back in. At first, she worked part-time, but twenty-nine years ago, she and her then-husband bought the business from her parents.
At this spot in the conversation, Mary changes course to relay an unexpected story from a woman whose life screams “clean living.” She says, “Not that I didn’t stray. There was a time when I ate anything that didn’t run away. Twinkies, bologna sandwiches on white bread, soda pop, potato chips. We’d go to White Spot and get a dozen burgers. The last Big Mac I had was about thirty-three years ago when I was pregnant.”
Part of her departure from the straight-and-narrow might have been a bit of a rebellion from that unconventional upbringing, that feeling of missing out on something other kids took for granted. Whatever the case, her foray into this processed diet was merely a fling.
Looking back, she can smile about her indiscretion. She also has the distance she needs to realize what a gift her parents gave her, teaching her about organic foods, the taste of a fresh plum, a ripe avocado, a tomato sun-warmed from the garden.
Today, Mary is a vegetarian leaning toward veganism. She smiles her sparkling smile and recites what she’d eaten the day before: barbeque tempeh, homemade coleslaw, a green salad with radishes and turnips, and butternut squash and sweet potatoes. “I eat tons and tons of vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are key.”
Part of Mary’s success in business is likely that she has so much faith in this way of living. Organic produce, specialty teas—she’s fond of hibiscus tea, for example—veggie entrees, she loves it all. As for the supplements she sells, she’s quick to say she never dispenses medical advice. She has a wealth of knowledge about her products, however, from study and life experience. There is also much information online and in books.
Customers often come in after finding that information. Those following certain diets do as well. And sometimes doctors will send patients in for certain supplements.
Mary appreciates everyone who walks through the door. There is a sense of community at Olde Fashioned Foods. Of customers who return again and again. Of co-workers who made all the difference, like Ed, Connie, Juliana and Diane who’ve stood beside Mary for more than twenty years. Stay long enough (Mary certainly has), and you’ll watch kids come in who will later return as adults.
A little more than twenty years ago, a second Olde Fashioned Foods opened across town at 8434 Phoenix Avenue. That location is run by Mary’s sons: Bruce, Seth, and Isaac. Also working there is her niece, Arden, the daughter of Mary’s oldest sister.
As she describes what it’s like to see the business continue with another generation of her family, she returns once again to the way she was reared. Her parents believed in a way of life that seemed odd at the time, but that’s since come into favor. It’s hard to imagine anyone who doesn’t now think that what we eat affects our health, for example. Mary wonders what her mother and father would think today, fifty-nine years after they started their business in their garage.
Mary smiles, the warmth of the afternoon filling every corner of Olde Fashioned Foods. She believes they’d be proud, she says, her voice wavering with emotion as she says this. The phone rings then, and a customer comes through the door, and the day marches on in this grand old house in the heart of Fort Smith.
Olde Fashioned Foods
123 North 18th, Fort Smith, 479.782.6183
Olde Fashioned Foods
8434 Phoenix Avenue, Fort Smith, 479.649.8200