I just got my National Geographic magazine yesterday, and was naturally excited to see the cover.
They are starting a series investigating the way food is grown and the challenges of feeding a growing global population. I was particularly interested in an infographic about famers’ markets, and found that North Carolina is one of only twelve states in this country that account for half of all local markets. I knew we were special! (Click here for a video presentation of that infographic, and click here for the main National Geographic Future of Food site.)
Now, you know that I’m a big proponent of farmers’ markets and eating seasonally, and I have long celebrated the fact that we have at least three year-round markets in our area. (There are even more markets than that in Charlotte, but I don’t know if they all operate year-round.) I know that many Americans are not so lucky; even if they do have great local markets, their climate may be less than conducive to year-round sales.
Still, as the rest of the country finally starts to thaw out, it is time for everyone to pull out their trusty tote bags and reconnect with the bounty of their local soil. In this day of ubiquitous internet access, it’s easier than ever to find a farmers’ market near you. Local Harvest is one well-known site, and there are plenty of other websites and apps out there. No, finding a market isn’t hard. Sometimes the challenge is simply changing your routine, maybe getting up early on a Saturday, and going to an unfamiliar place filled with strange people and customs. So, to encourage you to step outside your comfort zone, I am re-posting my earlier helpful hints about how to make the most of your local farmers’ market.
Now, today Miss Chef and I may be regulars, totally at ease at our markets, but we didn’t start out that way. You are not the only one to feel a bit hesitant about stepping up to look at the offerings, self-conscious about bringing your own shopping bags, unsure about the prices and whether it’s even acceptable to ask. And how do you know what to buy? There will be no familiar labeled packages of Bunny-Luv carrots or Dole Pre-Washed Spinach on the tables.
Never fear, Market Enthusiast. Go ahead and set your tote bags by the front door Friday night and load up the address of your closest market into your maps app. Below you will find 6 easy steps to feeling right at home with the vendors, and figuring out what to buy. Most of all, take it easy on yourself. Miss Chef and I still make regular trips to the grocery store, so don’t expect to be feeding your family exclusively on local and seasonal foods. Buy what looks good, be a little adventurous, and don’t forget to enjoy yourself.
Alison’s Market How-To
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 10:00, you might as well stay home. If you don’t get there by 8:30, 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 Charlotte Regional Farmers’ 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 or variety 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! I hope you found some useful information in there, and will make at least one visit to your local market. Eventually you too may begin celebrating your seasons differently: Strawberry Season, Corn Season, Tomato Season…living in tune with the seasons can be fun and delicious.