FARMERS' MARKETS OF THE HEARTLAND
By Janine MacLachlan
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Board of trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
I cannot remember when I first started shopping at the farmers' market, but I can tell you when my official food crush began. It must have been late may in the early 1990s at a farmers' market in Chicago. thinking about dinner, with my mind maybe on carrots, I was confronted with a table filled with about twenty varieties of strawberries.
This dizzying array of vibrant red was enough to make me weak at the knees. And they were friendly, too, labeled with enticing, come-hither names like Earliglow, Rosa Linda, Jewel.
"Have a taste," said grower Lloyd Nichols. No hand slapping or judgmental looks here at the open-air market. No feeling like I was sneaking into the cookie jar before dinner. A row of quart containers stood at attention, all lined up like Rockettes at a Christmas musical, separate from the sea of containers packed up for buying. And Lloyd Nichols, farmer and father to three strapping sons, smiling and saying, "Try a few."
Mind you, for the longest time my strawberries had come from the supermarket, all the way from California, hollow and white in the middle and tasting a little like cardboard mixed with water. But not Nichols's strawberries. Red all the way through, somehow heavy and with a bursting flavor like an actual living strawberry, the kind that grew in my friend's backyard that we would eat sitting between the rows, saving just a few to bring to the picnic table to dust with brown sugar and dip in whipped cream.
And when I compared rhapsody to Pegasus, I realized they tasted different—delicious, but different. I suddenly understood what people mean when they talk about the impossibility of choosing between their children.
So this was the moment I fell in love with real strawberries, and with my farmers' market. And to this day I have yet to be convinced that any supermarket, even those rare ones that favor organic and local growers, come anywhere close to the open-air experience of discovering a new love.
This heady adventure was at the beginning of my personal local-food movement, years after Alice Waters began her own journey of working with farmers to supply ingredients for her legendary Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. Years after, an act of Congress in 1976 laid the groundwork for the explosion of farmers' markets we see today.
But I was ahead of some people too. after years doing public relations in the food business, where I worked with Julia Child, Graham Kerr, Ina Garten, and a host of people we now call "celebrity chefs," I decided to check out the other side of the stove. I took classes at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, California, and then opened a cooking school, the rustic kitchen. Headquartered out of my home kitchen, I would invite a handful of people to come over and cook seasonal menus. I learned that not everyone shared my farmers' market food crush. "I don't have time to go to the farmers' market, Janine. I don't have time to add one more thing." This from an otherwise charming woman whose name I will protect for now.
My students taught me that although many people see the farmers' market as a place to buy food every week, to many it is an occasional curiosity, and to even more it is not on their radar screen. And when I learned that only 3 percent of food is sold at farmers' markets, I realized there is a lot of room to educate people about the value of buying local, the health benefits of fresh food, and the fun of shopping at farmers' markets.
If you are one of those people who are curious what the fuss is about with all this local food business, this book is for you.
Road Trip Research
I decided to explore the dynamics that feed a hungry audience, and I mapped out the middle of the country. With diligent research and a little throwing of a dart at a map, I embarked on a journey to learn about farmers' markets and food in the Midwest.
My process was carefully orchestrated and the most fun I have ever had. First, I scouted the best locations with tips from slow Food friends, regional food and agriculture writers, even Facebook and twitter. I scheduled market visits with the help of a spreadsheet that noted each market's days and hours, a dog-eared road atlas, and my trusty GPS system, nicknamed Sally.
And then I took to the road.
My road trips typically began on a Thursday, when I would stash a cooler in the trunk of my red Mustang and head to an afternoon market. The next day I would find a Friday market and sometimes visit a farm. I would get to bed early so as to arrive at my first Saturday market at the opening bell. After as many as four markets on a Saturday, I would then head back to Chicago to sift through my notes and photos, schedule follow-up interviews, and conduct additional research with organizations that advocate for small farms and local food.
I met people saving livestock breeds recently slated for extinction, along with farmers growing heirloom fruit and new varieties of vegetables. I found artisans making cheese and bread and jam. One farmers' market had a festival-like atmosphere, with live entertainment, locally roasted coffee and artisan pastry, chef demonstrations every hour, all in the friendly confines of a leafy park. Moms with strollers mingle with chefs in white jackets or in unshaven incognito. Other markets were more utilitarian, on asphalt with easy parking. Today, if you are interested in food, you are at the farmers' market.
The first thing I learned in researching this book is that people are passionate about their farmers' markets, that just about everyone believes that their producers are the most talented, taste-focused growers. People love their farmers almost the way they love their children and the way my father loves the Michigan State Spartans.
I met elk ranchers, heirloom orchard owners, young twentysomethings in their first season of farming, and growers on their great-great-grandfather's farm at the market with their grandchildren, telling me about six generations devoted to the land. I met fellow farm groupies who shared my emotional attachment to their growers. Again and again, I was warned that I would be missing out if I did not see this market or visit that farm. And I was warmed by the passion, devotion, and dedication that all these people felt. I would introduce myself to one producer, and within minutes people were tapping my shoulder to tell me about a course on food policy or a farm stand on the way to the interstate.
In Minnesota I learned about rural food deserts, in Milwaukee about small-scale urban agriculture. I ate cherries in Michigan, popcorn in Indiana, and pie everywhere. I felt uplifted every time I got back into the car, but always wistful about that person I did not meet.
My goal here is to present this book as a kind of album, a collection of stories that together represent a snapshot of farmers' markets. I hope you will embark on your own adventure and gather your own collection of growers.
Farmers' markets are a powerful force, given that less than 3 percent of our nation's food is sold there. It is worth taking a look at how we got to this place where the market is the new town square, the place where chefs solidify reputations, where food politics are debated.
Selling direct to consumers used to be the norm, even before the influx of Europeans transformed this continent to an agrarian nation, when it was populated with Indian tribes who traded extensively with each other. In The Farmers' Market Book: Growing Food, Cultivating Community, authors and farmers Jennifer meta Robinson and J. A. Hartenfeld tell about a native American Indian market near what is modern-day St. Louis. The settlement was at its height between the years 1000 and 1150 and had ten thousand to twenty thousand residents. Archeological records of the site indicate evidence of extensive trade.
As our country was being settled by Europeans, trading posts were the place people—particularly fur traders—obtained goods. And when we moved to a more settled era, markets became an important part of life not only to obtain goods, but also to exchange news. Later, cities built large sheds to house farmers as a center for trade, and many of these markets still exist as broker markets, including the Eastern Market in Detroit, West Side Market in Cleveland, Findlay Market in Cincinnati, and Soulard in St. Louis. A broker market is one where food is imported from far-flung areas and later sold to consumers, restaurants, and retailers.
In the 1940s farmers' markets all but disappeared as small farms declined and grocery store chains consolidated their purchasing. The advances in transportation that brought fresh milk to cities three times a day continued to progress. It used to be that individual grocers had relationships with their own stable of farmers, but as grocery store chains expanded, they consolidated and required their supplier farms to be bigger and bigger to match their growing store count. Today, food travels an average of fifteen hundred miles to reach the supermarket.
One of the big players in this trend was grocery store chain A&P, or Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. Even the name reflects the lofty goals of a supermarket chain to make one-stop shopping available for the busy homemaker. But something happened in our quest for convenience: we sacrificed taste. Flavor became an afterthought in our pursuit of food prized for shelf life and ease of shipping.
Of course, other factors fed the decline of the farmers' market. After World War II, chemical companies turned their attention toward using new technology, giving us chemical fertilizers and pesticides that bumped up yields. Only later would we learn about environmental degradation. Other techniques developed to feed the troops on the battlefield were translated into convenience foods that reduced mom's need to cook.
The decline of open-air markets continued as ideas of sanitation changed. Outdoor markets were considered dirty because confined indoor spaces were easier to clean. But in 1976, Congress passed the Farm-to-Consumer Direct Marketing Act, paving the way for farmers to connect with their buyers. The United States Department of Agriculture Census has documented the growth since then. It has really been in the past fifteen years or so that farmers' markets have taken off. In 1994 there were 1,775 in the United states; in 2010 that number swelled to 6,132.
Today's Markets and Trends
In recent years there has been more talk about why markets are more popular than ever. local food advocates assert that food grown for shipping cannot possibly be more flavorful than food grown for taste. Megafacilities have become hotbeds of foodborne illness. The first decade of our new century saw illnesses caused by tainted spinach, peanuts, meat, and eggs. Employees at processing plants have videotaped other employees abusing animals. Thus, it makes sense that one of the reasons many people flock to farmers' markets is that they know where their food has been. Buyers trust the people who sell there, because they have a relationship with the producer.
Beyond food safety, many eaters realize that two factors, taste and connection, fuel their desire to shop a farmers' market. It is not because it is easier—people still need to visit a supermarket for Tide and toothpaste, items every household needs but cannot buy at any farmers' market. It takes a special trip to buy the local produce, artisan breads, and pasture-raised meat that one finds at the farmers' market. Because it involves a special trip, a plan, and a pile of canvas bags, shoppers must perceive a value, and it is not convenience. Production issues aside, savvy cooks today know that no amount of technique can save a tired carrot, a watery tomato, or a rock-hard peach.
In the face of industrialization, even the USDA recognizes the importance of supporting the small producer. The organization's 2011 budget included $10 million in grants to promote farmers' markets, up from zero only five years before. We will talk more about the USDA's Farmers market Promotion Program in the Missouri chapter.
Bruce Sherman is chef-partner at north Pond in Chicago and chair of Chefs Collaborative, a national network of chefs who advocate for sustainably produced food and facilitate farmer/chef relationships. The group is at the forefront of sustainability issues in foodservice and hosts an annual summit to share ideas and information about promoting a more sustainable food system.
Sherman is the real deal, often buying food at the farmers' market during the day and serving it for dinner a few hours later. He takes advantage of every flavor of the season, including the first radishes, and demonstrates his recipe for radish butter as an easy, flavorful way to enjoy this tasty root.
Radish Butter Bruce Sherman, north Pond
Radishes are fast-growing, deliciously bitter roots, coveted for their spicy, pungent flavor. Their seeds also hold up against early spring chill and are therefore one of the first vegetables to appear at farmers' markets. The radish is a classic partner to rich butter, and Sherman has created the perfect blend to serve in a crock with toast points.
MAKES ABOUT 1 CUP
3 large radishes, sliced julienne style
8 tablespoons butter (1stick), room temperature
Juice of ¼ lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
1 tablespoon chopped, fresh, flat-leaf parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Using an electric mixer, beat the butter until smooth. Add lemon juice and beat until smooth, then add chopped herbs. Turn off the mixer and gently fold in the radishes. Season with salt and pepper.
Why Shop at the Farmers' Market?
The primary reason to shop at a farmers' market, of course, is flavor. It is the easiest way to get the freshest, most flavorful food, which is why you will find a lot of chefs there. The most important reason is the relationships you will create with your growers and your community. The farmers' market is the new town square, where people gather.
Of course, there are other essential reasons. Shopping there is the easiest way to participate in a food system that promotes animal welfare and environmentally responsible growing practices, for the simple reason that you can talk to the producer and ask how they grow things. And many market managers will visit the farms to scout things out firsthand. All in all, shopping a farmers' market is the best way to stay close to your food and find delicious discoveries for your supper table.
How to Shop the Farmers' Market
Go early. Producers will have more time to talk, and you will be able to linger at the table without a crowd pressing in behind you. Fill your canvas bag, then relax with a crusty loaf and enjoy some people watching.
Research the market's policies. a producer-only market requires the farmer to be behind the table. Some emphasize organic growers. Understand how the market polices itself and decide what is important to you.
Embrace seasonality. Come with a plan, but be flexible. Know how many meals you will want to cook in the coming days, how much fruit for snacking, etc. But do not insist on specific ingredients. An abundance of onions might inspire you to make a savory tart one week; the next week, the first broccoli rabe means a pasta dinner. Strive to try a new food every week.
Strike up a conversation. Ask the producer about growing practices. Some growers are also avid cooks, and fellow shoppers will have plenty of tips about ingredient combinations. They will tell you the gnarly knob is celeriac and is great with mayo.
Bring a cooler. If you want fragile greens or perishable dairy products, it is a good idea to have a cooler in case you are delayed on your way home, or you want to stick around for lunch.
Shadow a chef. In a lot of urban areas the chefs will shop at markets, particularly those on Wednesday, where they can stock up for the busy weekend. Ask them whom they like to buy from.
Come home and prep. Sauté your kale with garlic once you get home and store it in fridge containers. Caramelize a batch of onions. Also learn what foods might be fragile and should be washed right before cooking. Rinse berries only just before cooking or eating, for instance, because they have a natural barrier that protects them from deterioration.
Look for canning classes. "Putting up" food is back in vogue as people discover the distinctive flavor from making homemade marinara or apricot Riesling jam to enjoy in the dark winter months.
Consider a CSA membership. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is discussed more in the Illinois chapter because it is the locale of the world's largest CSA, operated by the colorful Farmer John. Essentially, CSA is a farm subscription wherein you pay at the beginning of the season and pick your share of the bounty each week, and you will receive volume discounts.
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