By Mary Pleshette Willis
Illustrated by Jaime Morrow
My heart is beating fast. I don’t want to be late for the Sunday morning farmers’ market. While most people are still in bed, reading the newspaper, surfing the web or sipping their second cup of coffee, I’m rushing to get to Columbus Avenue and 77th on the Upper West Side of New York. I don’t want to miss out on getting the choicest vegetables, the freshest fish, the smoothest sheep’s-milk yogurt, the creamiest heirloom eggs, the plumpest free-range chickens, the richest magret duck breasts, the perfect bread-and-butter pickles (my husband’s favorite) and the tangiest chewy breads. Warren Blier, the manager of American Pride Seafood, sees me coming. A good-looking, street-wise 41-year-old who looks a bit like Mick Jagger and talks (I don’t know about sings) with the indelible Long Island accent of Billy Joel, picks up on my agitation as I wait in a long line, eyeing the swordfish, praying he doesn’t sell out before my turn.
“Here comes Mary,” he announces with a devilish grin. “Fish anxiety!”
What Warren understands is that shopping at the farmers’ market isn’t just about the palate. It’s about psychology. It’s not just about the necessity of putting food on the table but about the pleasure of touching, smelling, even tasting the ingredients that elevate sustenance to sensuousness. And it’s about the people—the providers as well as the consumers.
“It’s the heartbeat of the weekend,” says my neighbor Celia Yung, who’s also waiting to get fresh fish. “I can’t wait to get here,” she continues. “Even when I’m away. I think about the market and miss it.”
I first learned this when I moved with my family to Minnesota almost 30 years ago. Rootless and feeling somewhat alienated, I didn’t know where I belonged. A die-hard New Yorker in the land of lakes, a brunette in a sea of blondes, a Jew where 77 percent of the population is Christian and white, I felt like an outsider. Then I discovered the farmers’ market in Saint Paul. Like The Wizard of Oz when the world switches from black and white to color, I discovered a variety of people—Hmong, Vietnamese, Latino and Eritrean—happily coexisting with Germans, Swedes, Norwegians and Poles. The variety of produce—bright-red baby peppers, savoy cabbages, mustard greens and Asian spices—was a welcome addition to what I could (and couldn’t) buy at my local supermarket, and my connection to the farmers who sold their goods was more open and chatty than anywhere else in the Twin Cities.
I immediately gravitated to a couple—Leonard and Anne—not just because they sold the best poultry and eggs I’d ever tasted, but because Leonard proudly sported a big I BELIEVE ANITA button on his faded denim shirt, referencing Anita Hill when she testified at the Senate hearings on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. Feeling safe enough to talk politics with a complete stranger, Leonard—who looked like “Jack Sprat could eat no fat” to Anne’s “and his wife could eat no lean”—told me he was the father of three daughters and knew instinctively that Ms. Hill was telling the truth.
For the seven years I lived in Minnesota, I bought my chickens and eggs from Leonard and Anne, who even delivered them to my door in the dead of winter. As the market drew to a close in mid-November, I confessed to Anne that I always got depressed when the market finished for the season. “Oh geez,” she said with earnest generosity, “you should call my brother. He’s a therapist.”
The term “consequential strangers”— relationships outside family and close friends—doesn’t come close to describing the affection between vendors and customers.
“I get worried when I don’t see someone who usually comes every week,” says Robert Shaefer, the owner of Divine Brine who started his pickle business by accident when the crop of cucumbers he’d planted in his backyard was so prolific he decided to pickle and give them to friends. His business grew when he sold out every weekend at his local farmers’ market. No longer a backyard enterprise, he now sells 2,000 pounds a week in flavors that include Devilish Dills, Wasabi, Horseradish, Sweet Bread-and-Butter and Half-Sour.
“New York can be a lonely place,” he tells me. “And people need someone to talk to. Complete strangers tell me their life story in three minutes. Little kids come with a few dollars (no longer the proverbial nickel) every week. I’m part of their lives.” He pauses. “Sometimes, a stranger with a smile is the place to be.”
Glorianna Rodriguez, the young, very pretty saleswoman for Valley Shepherd Creamery, greets me with a sunny smile every Sunday and, before I can ask, proffers two large containers of the smoothest, richest sheep’s-milk yogurt outside of Greece, to which I’ve become totally addicted. A native of Costa Rica, where her family owns dairy farms, she answered an ad on Facebook to work at Valley Shepherd and plans to open her own company when she goes home.
“I’ve learned so much,” she says and proudly explains the differences between Nettlesome, Melter-Skelter and Valley Thunder (all made from cow’s milk) and Smokey Shepherd and Saffronella (made from sheep’s milk). “But more than anything,” she continues, “I’ve met so many wonderful people at the farm and at the market; people I’ll never forget.”
This element of human interaction and “color” is what motivates my sister to travel 45 minutes in the tube to her favorite farmers’ market in London. And my brother to go religiously to his market in Los Angeles, which, because most people spend hours in a car, the opportunity to “schmooze with friends, swap recipes and critique restaurants” is a unique experience in what is not a walking city.
“People in London tend to be quite buttoned-up,” my sister tells me. “But at the market, they allow themselves to gossip and make a joke.” She launches into a description of her favorite vendor—a red-haired, red-bearded farmer who sells potatoes and refers to them by the female pronoun: “She’s a bit starchy, but this darlin’, she’s creamy and delicious.”
Most inveterate shoppers at farmers’ markets—wherever they are—share this sentiment, but the primary drive for most purists is the quality and freshness of the food. How can you not weep at the sight of tomatoes that vary in size from a thumbnail to a hardball, or a lettuce that looks like a wedding bouquet, or Romanesco (akin to cauliflower and broccoli) that range in color from the palest green to the brightest orange and purple?
“Once you’ve tasted Yellow Bell [Farm] eggs,” says a woman who takes her Havanese dog, Harley, to the market every Sunday, “you can’t eat eggs from the supermarket. I feed Harley two heirloom eggs twice a week for his coat, and the fresh chicken hearts make him so happy.” Harley wags his tail. “We come here for the food but also to see the vendors.” Harley nuzzles Ali Sara, the equally friendly salesman who knows most of his customers (human and canine) by name. “We love Ali,” she says misty-eyed. “We really do.”
Love is a big ingredient not just for the buyers but for the owners of Happy Belly Hudson, who sell their exquisite health bars, pies and cakes at the farmers’ market in Hudson, NY. Each gluten-free, vegan and “high-vibrational” concoction is a mini work of art—dark-chocolate pies decorated with wildflowers; multilayered squares in every color of the rainbow; a combination of berries, nuts, honey and spices. “Everything is created with love, intention and positivity,” they declare on their website. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be
This certainly describes my sensibility, although I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian. But if I’m going to eat meat, I don’t feel like a sinner when I taste the home-cured bacon, farm-raised pork and veal, sausages and meatballs from Gaia’s Breath Farm where Christina Chiacchia is co-owner and combines her culinary skills with back-breaking work on the farm. “I worked in restaurants all my life,” she says. “But when I made the decision to start my own business raising heritage pork and mothers’ milk–fed veal, it was the best decision I ever made.”
The price of quality can be steep at the market—Gaia’s bacon costs $15 a pound; a Yellow Bell 3½-pound roaster costs approximately $20. A large, meaty duck breast from Hudson Valley Duck Farm is $15, which isn’t a bad deal, since one feeds two people. Onions and potatoes are about par with upscale markets like Whole Foods, and berries in season taste so much better than the ones picked and shipped early from California or Mexico that it’s easy to ignore the cost. But when I buy from the market, the food actually lasts longer if I plan my meals right. And I agree with my brother who says, “The pleasure of eating something that was growing in the earth only hours before and tastes so delicious has a big psychological impact on how you experience food.”
How different things would be if we ate seasonally—asparagus, ramps and cherries in springtime; tomatoes, cucumbers and lettuces in the summer; root vegetables and apples in the fall; and pickles and relishes in the dead of winter. In a perfect world, fresh fruits and vegetables wouldn’t be for the privileged few, and sustainable farming would be the lay of the land. Of course, what I’m describing is Eden—which I have the pleasure of enjoying every Sunday at my beloved farmers’ market on the Upper West Side. █