The best find at your Farmer’s Market isn’t the food.

radishes at Farmer's Market

“I spent 20 years in the grocery business, I never saw my kids and I felt under appreciated. Today, I am here, having a great time, selling the best frick’n product ever and in love with my life.” This ShamWOW-esque pitchman, wasn’t selling me – he was sharing with me. At the Scottsdale Farmer’s Market, he dotes on the vibrant dips and hummus he made, including the non-spicy jalapeno, which is excellent in burgers by the way, and he wouldn’t let me leave without trying every single one of them. Because he was following his dream, I couldn’t leave without buying a bunch of it.

Farmer’s Markets are offering us a new way to shop. We graze through the temporary tents, with our reusable bag in hand. We pat ourselves on the back for sustainable shopping. We run home with the hope of better tasting food. But the real treasure is the people behind the foods.

Farmer’s Markets are also offering farmers and food producers a new way to live. The farmers at the markets are the niche farmers of yesterday,  they aren’t owned by big corporations, they didn’t lease their land for “seed testing”, they didn’t jump onto the next biggest crop (soy, corn) they just kept doing what they loved – growing food for us.

For anyone who has ever followed a dream, despite the work and what others told you, farmers here are your kind of people. They are special in their normality. I look in the eye of the farmer, and it glistens with pride. I know he treasures the food and his care means its unlikely that I would get sick eating it, and unlike food at the grocery, its finds its way into my basket, gently. Much like cooking, when you feel the love behind the birth of the food, the food just tastes better.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Scottsdale, Arizona. I lived there for 20 years. For most of that time, it was a concrete jungle, a hot one at that, surrounded by diminishing farm land that grew mostly cotton. Vast orchards for grapefruit and oranges became increasingly rare. Outside of the Phoenix metro area there were dairys, and fig trees, even an ostrich farm, but every time I passed them, I wondered how I could taste their food. Could I pull over and pluck a fig and experience what it tastes like untampered? Did the dairy makes its own ice cream ever?  The places where farmers were living and working seemed so inaccessible. Their lives seemed so distant from mine. There was a clear divide: you make the food, I eat it.  Never should our paths cross, except for when the food made it to the grocery, Costco or Trader Joe’s.

When we moved to Hawaii, I started hearing about the Farmer’s Markets. I was intrigued and curious. My first Farmer’s Market experience was in Hilo, Hawaii. Moist warm air surrounded the tent which overlooked the ocean; a sweet-tempered breeze touched my shoulder. Baskets abundant with foods I’d never seen before lined up from a distance, they looked like a rainbow. More than the colors, what struck me was the community. People were casually strolling through with their reusable bags, picking up the food, chatting with one another.  Gone was the bully behind the shopping cart.  And, behind each and every basket of food, was a friendly face asking if I had any questions.  Dumbfounded by this incredible shopping experience,  I didn’t even know what to ask.  Back home in Honolulu, I checked out my local Farmer’s Market, which has been written up in just about every travel publication ever known to man. This is a market of a different kind, it hosts thousands of people every week and it can best be described as a bee hive; finding parking requires the patience of a swami and there is very little casual ambling – those who do, get run over.  Many are tourists, coming for the pizza they’d heard about (it really is the best pizza on island), they bring their kids who line up for shave ice. But there are also locals, reconnecting, laughing. Sharing the week’s stories. Navigating this scene takes focus and dedication; after 3 years of weekly visits, I know who I go to for what, and they finally recognize me. And now, we take the time to talk, we know one another’s face now. We appreciate the other.

We talk about their growing season and whether the rain is effecting them. We discuss cooking methods for the food or ways to use it. We kvetch about heat. In the midst of the insanity surrounding us, we create a relationship.  The man who produces my honey, answers my questions and explains that the Lahui flower only grows in Hawaii, which is what makes my favorite flaxen-colored honey so delicately flavored. I hand him my cash and I know, I just bought him breakfast and the chance to do what he loves again tomorrow. We both win because to experience my honey with peanut butter is nothing short of rapture.

Back in Scottsdale, the market sits in old-town. Traditionally a tourist destination, Scottsdale-ites have recently rediscovered the joys of playing tourist where you live and perhaps because the area has been hit so hard by the economy, the time was right for a Farmer’s Market. Its winter in the desert and everything is growing, bright citrus, red and green peppers, both mild and spicy.  Healthy green kale and meaty tomatoes. For anyone who believes that the desert isn’t vibrant, a trip to the Farmer’s Market is a must. This market perplexes me though, because despite the variety of food and enthusiastic vendors, it is really quiet. I doubt there are 100 people there, much like the American west, there is plenty of space. But the empty market is my great pleasure because the farmers are not too busy to chat. At the Tamale tent I buy chorizo, cream cheese-jalapeno, and chicken-green chili corn tamales. I know that tamales, for all their simplicity, are a labor of love.  I ask how they can possibly keep up with the demand, and she simply says “we make them all week long.” Making tamales is the Mexican equivalent of quilt making. I imagine sitting around at their house with focused but cheery women, chuckling about husbands, laughing at children. Its both a feminine expectation and retreat, each tamale tenderly wrapped in corn husk, reflecting the recipe of someone’s mother. Across the aisle, the man selling tomatoes tells me about the hybrids he created, how they grow faster and juicer, even in the Arizona heat. He explains that he used to grow cotton, for many, many years. But tomatoes were always his passion, he says as he gently cups one of the ripe treasures. Now, with the Farmer’s Market, he can make a living at it too. I feel connected to his choice, suddenly, my food doesn’t seem so distant. What he says next entirely sums up the experience of a Farmer’s Market: “Its just so much more rewarding to grow food.”

I walk away thinking, its so much more rewarding to talk to the people who grow my food.

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About Tara DeWitt Coomans

An aspiring cook and an accomplished eater, Tara is inspired by the world around her and the food on her plate. "When you can't jump on a plane and take a vacation to an exotic destination, chances are you can whip up a dish or go to a restaurant that will take you there." says Tara. She often eats out at a restaurant after trying to accomplish a given dish at home. None the less, she enjoys food and what it says about the human experience. Tara is a full-time freelance writer and blogger. She specializes in writing about food, cooking and travel. You can find her in the kitchen, on the plane or at her computer.