On yet another chilly winter’s morning, Miss Chef and I did our usual Saturday routine, rolling out of bed at the first glimmer of sunlight and bundling up for a trip to the farmers’ market. We almost never go to the strictly-local market in Matthews anymore, mostly because it’s over 30 minutes’ drive and we’re too lazy to get up early enough to arrive in time for a full selection—the smaller market, with its smaller farms, tends to sell out of the most popular items.
But we are very very lucky in that Charlotte has three year-round farmers’ markets. The state-subsidized Regional Farmers’ Market is a quick ten-minute drive from us, and while there are plenty of re-sellers offering out-of-season sweet corn, and bananas from halfway around the world, the local vendors are beginning to outnumber them.
Just a year or two ago, a January trip to this market would be almost like stepping into a library. The barn-like sheds with their long overhead heating coils would overwhelm the number of people, and noises would simply dissolve in the empty space. At one end would be a small crowd of shoppers, most speaking foreign languages, swarming over the Asian-owned stalls with their exotic long beans and bitter melon. These are people with a deep-seated tradition of open-air markets, who don’t let a little cold weather force them into the local Buy Rite. At the end sporting the “Got to be NC” banners however, there was generally plenty of room, and plenty of time to chat with local farmers. There they stood, brave souls, freezing their fingers and toes and hoping to break even with a few sparse sales of cheese or kale or pastured pork.
Today was a completely different story. As I stood in line at the Gilchrest pastured meat booth, I had plenty of time to watch the crowd. There were three people ahead of me, and two of them seemed to be stocking up for a month’s worth of hearty family fare. It wasn’t until I was trying to determine the language being spoken by the couple behind me that it finally dawned on me what I was idly staring at—a crowd!
There, amidst all the local famers with their seasonal produce, was a substantial group of people milling about, standing in line and chatting with the people behind the tables. Even better, there were several African-American families (this whole local-foods thing has been so dominated by affluent whites that it’s refreshing to see the pale homogeneity broken up a bit). I turned around to gaze at the other end of the long shed, and was shocked to see that the crowds up there were actually thinner. Amazing! I was a little thrilled, if still a bit too sleepy to display the big grin I felt internally.
Miss Chef and I were on a schedule, so we didn’t have time to socialize much, but we were able to stock up on quite a bit. I got chicken leg quarters for Sunday dinner, along with an awesome-looking winter salad blend, a few carrots and the most amazing sourdough bread I’ve tasted yet. Miss Chef gathered ingredients for a vegetarian chili she’s been asked to make for a Slow Food dinner next weekend—squash, carrots, garlic chives (kind of a mix between green onion and leeks), sweet potatoes…and more, I’m sure. We did take a moment to stop and pick up a couple of croissants (one chocolate, one blueberry) on our way out.
As we were driving on to our next destination, I found myself thinking about how normal this has become for us. I do remember the first several times we were at that market, feeling a bit hesitant about stepping up to look at the offerings, self-conscious about bringing my own shopping bags, unsure about the prices. Nowadays it’s all become a comfortable routine. In thinking about the habits Miss Chef and I have developed over the past several years, I found myself coming up with a list of helpful tips for new market-goers.
I’m not sure how many readers
I have left can really benefit from such a list, but I feel like writing it down, and this seems like the best place.
1. Make a list, but make it vague In high summer and early fall, you can probably get most of what you want, but in the off seasons, local eaters will have to adjust their menus. So rather than “spinach,” write down “greens.” You might end up with kale or collards, but you should still be able to make something along the same lines. When it comes to local meat, prices are pretty high, so consider different cuts than you’re used to. I almost always get chicken leg quarters rather than breasts, because they’re a dollar a pound cheaper. Even better, get a whole chicken and learn to break it down…or just roast it, and adjust your recipe to add the chicken at the end. What’s important is to be flexible…and see #5 below. That can help a lot.
2. Bring cash and shopping bags This is less important than it used to be, but it’s still a good idea. More and more vendors have those nifty little card readers they can pop into their smartphones to run your debit card, but wouldn’t it be a shame to miss the first blueberries of the season because they’re from a smaller farm without all the gadgetry? Also, pretty much every vendor will have plastic bags, but it’s so much easier to carry one bigger bag with wide handles than a pack of smaller, thin ones that bite into your hands. Remember, you don’t have a cart to plop the stuff in, and pork chops and tomatoes are heavy!
3. Go early The definition of “early” depends on the market, and sometimes the time of year. In the summer, if you don’t get to the Matthews market before 9:00, you might as well stay home. If you don’t get there by 8:00, you will probably have a hard time finding the blackberries that just came into season, or the freshly-butchered chickens that Sammy brings occasionally. On the other hand, the bigger Regional Market is usually fully stocked until 11:00 or 12:00—although after 10:00 the crowds can be frustrating. Plan to get to your market within the first hour of opening, until you become more familiar with the crowds.
4. Be patient This isn’t a grocery store, and it’s not really made for convenience. Every individual item you buy will involve a face-to-face interaction, often with the person who planted, grew, harvested and transported it. Many customers will want to take the time to say hello, ask about the business or family, and swap recipe ideas. Also, many folks like you will want to stop in front of a stand to see what’s on offer, what the prices are, or how these carrots compare to the ones two doors down. So don’t expect to go zipping down the aisles; you will have to sidestep and wait for kids to get out of your way. Slow down, look around and enjoy being part of the human family.
5. Talk to the vendors This was, for me, the most difficult step to take, but is by far the most rewarding. Frankly, if you’re not taking advantage of the grower’s presence, you might as well go back to the “Locally Grown” section of your grocery store. Yes, there’s the stereotype of the taciturn farmer who’d rather be shoveling cow manure onto his fields than chatting up an Eddie Bauer-clad suburbanite, but those are generally not the folks who sell at these markets. Trust me, you will be pleasantly surprised at how eager the vendors are to talk to you about the lettuce on the table. This is, after all, what they do! If you’re shy, try a few ice-breaker questions—where the farm is, when the food was harvested, what breed/species of animal or plant you’re holding. Even better, ask a question about how to prepare it—can you eat it raw, how would you cook it, is it good in a salad, can you freeze it? I’ve been surprised more than once by the eagerness with which a farmer has told me of a simple, delicious way they’ve discovered to whip up a meal. After all, they probably have kids too, along with a business to run; you really could learn something from them.
This will eventually pay off, because one day a farmer just might throw a couple of extra potatoes or pound of sausage in your bag and wave it away…or they’ll get into the habit of rounding your bill down to the nearest dollar. I once got a pint of fresh figs handed to me, simply because they were a little overripe, but the farmer knew Miss Chef had a thing for them. Also, I guarantee the day will come when you ask, “Are you going to have strawberries next week?” and they will say, “Not many, but do you want me to hold some for you?” Score! For once, you won’t have to get there at 7:30 to be sure you have what you need for dessert at your dinner party.
6. Be flexible in your diet This is kind of a re-hash of #1, but I think it is part of what keeps farmers’ markets from being America’s primary way to get food. If you are eating locally and seasonally, you should not be buying strawberries in February or kale in July. Going to the farmers’ market regularly—or visiting the market’s website if they have one—will help you learn what’s available in your area. You will still find yourself needing items that you just can’t get locally, but if you plan your meals around your groceries, instead of the other way around, you can still make choices to maximize the quality of your food. For example, even if you have to buy oranges from a thousand miles away, be aware that citrus fruits are a winter crop. You can spare yourself a lot of bland disappointment if you eat other fruits in summer, and wait until November before breaking out that recipe for orange-flavored pound cake.
That’s it! Hopefully someone out there will find this helpful. I am thinking of re-posting it in a few months, when farmers’ markets around the country start to rev up for the first big growing season, so if you think of something I might want to add please let me know in the comments.