Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Confessions of a Farmer's Market Junkie

It started innocently enough. In 1996 after a Saturday morning class at University Heights Center in Seattle’s University District, I noticed what looked like a festival going on in the old parking lot south of the former school. So after class I wandered over to check it out. Big bouquets of flowers wrapped in white butcher paper, fresh fruits and vegetables piled high in baskets, and chunky loaves of rustic bread neatly arranged on cloth-covered folding tables greeted me as I walked past tidy rows of white tents. Everybody seemed happy.

At first tentatively, then zestfully, I stopped at each stall. I gathered bunches of scarlet baby carrots, lissome green string beans, multi-colored little potatoes, fresh pasta, locally crafted goat cheese, until I was hauling around two heavy bags of food. Dinner that night was a revelation. I’d forgotten what real garden-fresh produce tasted like. With each bite, I was transported back to my childhood summer evenings eating produce from our family garden. This farmer’s market was an amazing discovery. I had to come back next week!

So a dozen years have passed. Another beautiful Saturday morning and I’m headed to the University Farmer’s Market, canvas bags in hand. As usual, I’m wearing my wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun out of my eyes. I park in a quiet neighborhood several blocks north and take off walking to the market at a brisk pace. Gotta beat the crowds.

Sometimes my compulsions overcome me. Often I leave with more than I can possibly consume before the next market, the next batch of amazingly beautiful and tasty abundance. But I’m supporting the local farmers, right

In the last decade, farmer’s markets have sprung up like mushrooms after a heavy fall rain in the Puget Sound region and beyond. I used to pride myself on going to all the local markets, but now I can’t keep up. I’ve managed to hit Wallingford and Columbia City on Wednesdays, Lake City on Thursdays, Phinney on Fridays, Magnolia and University (still the grand dame to me) on Saturdays, West Seattle and Ballard on Sundays. But now it doesn’t stop there.

When planning vacations the last few years, I’ve scheduled my trips around the weekly local farmer’s markets. Been there: Troutdale, Fairview, and Gresham farmers’ markets outside Portland. Long Beach and Laguna Beach markets in SoCal. Of course the market at the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco (although I hear the market at the Civic Center is better and cheaper). Santa Fe farmers’ market in northern New Mexico. Durango in southwest Colorado. Chelan and Twisp in eastern Washington. Even the Paro market in Bhutan. I’m sure there’s more.

What’s so fascinating in this era of national fast food chains is the differences in these farmers’ markets and their offerings. California markets have citrus fruits, avocados, and orchids that we don’t have in the Pacific Northwest. Northern New Mexico markets feature a wide array of vivid orange-red chile powders and peppers. Durango ranchers sell grass-fed beef from Barzona-bull bred red cows. And of course there are the fresh oysters, apples, cherries, and wild mushrooms here in the Seattle area.

What I’ve concluded is this:

In an increasingly big box, chain-stored, homogenous world, farmers’ markets are a rich, remaining vestige reflecting unique regional and community culture. I love these markets, the farmers, the supporters, the authentic local food. And I’m not alone.

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