If Ben Casteel invites you over for a home cooked meal, ask him to serve eggplant parmesan. He grows the main ingredient himself and considers the dish one of his specialties.
If he offers to play you a song, request an original tune. And, if he invites you to take a walk, you’d be wise to wear your best hiking shoes.
A man of diverse talents, Ben doesn’t take shortcuts when he sets his mind to something. Many of his accomplishments were once just dreams – jotted down on an ever-evolving scrap of paper he calls his “life’s goal list.” Some goals now have checkmarks beside them, but others are still waiting for his attention.
“I started the list during a tough time in my life,” he explained. “I started writing down things I wanted to do – like teach a class at Virginia Highlands. A class.”
As lead faculty member for VHCC’s horticulture program, Ben has accomplished that goal many times over. Through his formal education – which began with an associate’s degree in horticulture from VHCC and now includes both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree – he’s learned much about the science of growing plants. But, he said, his real passion for gardening began during childhood days spent with his grandparents.
From them he learned the Appalachian tradition of planting food during the spring and summer months and preserving it for use all year long. His creative side has allowed him to take the recipes he learned in his grandmother’s kitchen and tweak them to reflect his own unique tastes.
“I love pickled beets, but I don’t like the way most people make them,” he said. “I like to use Indian spices, like coriander. I also like to use lemon juice instead of vinegar.”
Ben’s culinary skills recently earned him 1st Place in the Amateur Division of the Great Winter Soup Cook-Off held at the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center. What made his beef stew so delicious, he said, were the locally grown herbs, organic vegetables, and all natural, grass-finished beef produced by his friend Andrew Gilmer at Ridge and Valley Farms. Hence the name Ridge and Valley Farms Beef Stew.
“I like to use fresh, organically grown ingredients,” Ben said. “I like the environmental aspects and the health aspects, and I just think it tastes good.”
Ben’s love for naturally grown foods came in handy a few years ago when – after consulting his list of goals – he decided to hike the entire 2,190-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. He spent five months walking northward from Georgia to Maine and through 12 other states along the way. Next time, he plans to walk north to south, he said, to complete another item on his list of goals – writing a book about the edible plants that grow along the Appalachian Trail. And to those who get exhausted by the mere thought of hiking that far twice in a lifetime, Ben insists it just takes determine. “Anyone who has the drive can do it,” he said.
Not everyone can play the mandolin, though, but Ben sure can. He plays locally with The Boys, a group that specializes in Appalachian Americana – a mix of bluegrass, blues, folk and funk. They’ve played at such venues as Bristol Rhythm and Roots, Rain Restaurant, Wolf Hills Brewery and Bristol Station Brewery. And, since Ben also enjoys writing music, he joined the Southwest Virginia Songwriters Association, too.
Between his teaching job, his outdoor adventures, his music and his community work with the Appalachian Sustainable Development Board and a few other special interest groups he assists, there’s little time for new projects. But, Ben said, he still has a few unfinished goals that are really important to him.
“I’d like to pursue a Ph.D. one day,” he said. “That’s going on my list.”