Farmers Markets = Local Culture Personified
All my life I’ve enjoyed shopping for food. When I travel, one of the first things I do is locate the best local markets to check out the food scene and what’s on offer. To me, it’s the place where you can learn the most about a people and their culture. From the delights of seeing the Rialto fish market opening at dawn in Venice to downing hangover-curing weisswurst and hefeweizen at 8 am in Munich’s Viktualienmarkt to walking along the Cours Saleya in Nice – these are primo local food events and they can make lasting memories as well as set the stage for your visit in a town or city.
In the US of A, local Farmers Markets range from good old down home countrified places to buy your food from local producers to full scale events with entertainment, food trucks and all sorts of sellers. I’m a firm supporter of the former but am increasingly dismayed by the street fair aspect being introduced by the latter form of this event. Look – I’m going there to buy food and talk to my farmer, rancher or artisan producer. I want to know where my food comes from and to build a relationship with them while supporting them. I do not need to dodge a juggler, a tarot card reader or a poet on my way to meet them.
Why Do We Go To Farmers Markets?
I like supporting local farmers, ranchers, fishmongers and foragers. But one thing I’ve noticed is that things are expensive at Farmers Markets. I’m constantly wondering why things cost so much at these places? I’m cutting out the middle man right? No need to give Whole Foods my money – it’s going straight in the farmers pocket! But nearly everything I seem to buy at the Farmers Market costs more than the grocery store. I haven’t built out a spreadsheet to do actual pricing comparisons but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like everything costs just a little bit more than it should.
All that being said; I firmly believe that many people go to experience the vibe and community-building aspects of the Farmers Market Culture. It’s like the legendary craic spoke of in Ireland regarding the atmosphere of a particularly good pub. The Farmers Market has become a cool cultural scene to see and be seen. It’s a family outing that can be a wonderful way to get the kids out of the house (provided you can find parking).
It’s also a place to go for decent entertainment sometimes. More often than not you’ll hear renditions of Spinal Tap’s ‘Jazz Odyssey’ played by middle aged burnouts or people rehearsing for Lilith Fair revivals. Despite that – it is a fun place to connect with people of all walks of life, to observe your environment and to (hopefully) see some downright beautiful food. So let’s have a look at what comprises the Farmers Market Culture…
Breaking Down The Farmers Market Culture
When I look at the elements of culture of Farmers Markets I think of four things:
- The people that sell stuff
- The types of people that shop there
- The kinds of prepared food I can get
- The things I actually buy
Let’s have a satirical look at each of these categories to get a better understanding of what makes the Farmers Market special.
Types of People that Sell Things at Farmers Markets
(on a 1-10 scale of general acceptability)
- Farmers, Ranchers, Fishmongers and Foragers – the only people we really need to be there and who should be there – 10
- Artisans – people like pastry, bread and pasta makers – all acceptable and welcome if they are using locally sourced ingredients – 8
- Flower Vendors – Capitalizing on a captive audience gleefully spending money on local food and can’t resist buying fresh flowers. – 6.5
- ‘Value Adders’ – soap makers, beeswax candle dippers, herbal infusion alchemists, jelly/jam/pickle canners – all OK if it’s a value added product made from things you grow on your farm and they take up only a small section of your booth. Otherwise marginally acceptable – 6
- Plant People – ok, you can stay – but only if your plants are cool, maybe even native, come from non-GMO seed and cost the same or less as I can get at the nursery – 5
- Buskers – of varying capabilities ranging from the guy who sings too loud to overcompensate for the fact that he can’t hold a note, to the sad looking Asian kid playing the cello, to a couple of youngsters singing out of tune and getting money out of your pocket for their sickly sweet cuteness – 2.5 to 4 (depending on quality)
- Schlock Sellers (clothing, tie dye, bad art) – getting on the bandwagon and filling in the time between the street fair and carney circuit – 2
- Jewelry Makers – these can range anywhere from people making stuff out of sticks to the ubiquitous fimo clay pattern earring and pendant makers. I always ask myself – what the hell do they have to do with a Farmers Market? – 1
- Fringe capitalists – trying to make a buck on things like African-patterned baskets made in China to hacky sacks woven (locally) from Tibetan beads, sage bundles made for burning at Wiccan ceremonies, incense or anything related to patchouli or ‘nature’ – minus 1
Types of People That Shop at Farmers Markets
As mentioned earlier, the Market can be a place to see and be seen. For better or worse, many of its typical denizens are people you might rather not see (unless you belong to the same tribe of folk). Here are a few of the more common people spotted on a random day at any Farmers Market in the urban environment.
- Tourists – when in Rome, they compulsively shop at the Farmers Market – and then leave the stuff they bought behind in their relative’s fridge to spoil
- Vegans and Vegetarians – I support you supporting your local farmer – just don’t sneer at me when I’m walking out of the market with a whole pig leg over my shoulder
- The Nouveau Riche – they want to shop there so they can tell other nouveau riche friends that ‘I’m hip to the local food scene’ without admitting that they cannot cook anything they buy. The help does that.
- Hipsters and Wannabes – who go to the Farmers Market to tell their friends they go to the Farmers Market. Conversations are usually something like, “dude, I just scored these totally rad garlic scapes in the farmers market.” (while secretly thinking what the fuck do I do with garlic scapes?)
- Chefs/Food Service – sourcing the freshest local ingredients to make you wonderful food with – keeping it real
- Hippies – hey man, I brought my own bag and my Nancy’s yogurt container from 1992 to refill – get out of my way you yuppie bastards!
- People with big ass strollers – I get the family outing and everything but Jesus – can’t you strap on a Bjorn? You’re holding up traffic on the narrow sidewalks packed with other people trying to navigate their own big ass strollers, shopping bags, whining kids and dogs through this mess of local ‘culture’ (Full disclosure – I’ve been one of these people)
- So-called ‘Normal’ people – just trying to fill their pantries with good, local food while getting to know their farmers and purveyors in the process
- People With a Cause – those annoying people asking you to sign their petition for whatever cause du jour they are supporting. They are attracted to Farmers Markets like sharks to blood in the water. Yes, I’d like to free Mumia. No, I don’t want to support Lyndon Larouche and his Hitler-mustachioed photos of Obama. Maybe I’d like more money to go to parks – will that mean higher taxes? And so on and so forth. Can’t I just eat my $12 vegetarian tamales and listen to the steel drum guy without being accosted by you people?
Farmers Market Prepared Food Options
I just don’t quite understand Farmers Market prepared foods just yet. I go, I’m always hungry when I do, but I can never find anything to eat. I will say it’s improving in some areas such as variety but there are some common themes. For example:
- It always costs too much.
- Everything served either seems to be either uber healthy to fattening food. There’s no middle ground. I’m either eating a grilled veggies or a bag of tiny donuts.
- Everything served seems to be crunchy, healthy, granola food. Can’t I get a burger here? Attendance at a Farmers Market doesn’t carry a prerequisite of being a health nut or having a random food allergy.
- I get using fresh produce but why am I only offered veggie quesadillas with an overabundance of kale? Can’t I have some carnitas on that tortilla made with hand ground corn meal born from heritage seed?
- Should a pie really cost $22? It’s a good pie for sure. And beautiful. But a $22 pie? C’mon.
- 3 Nutella-filled crepes for $27? No thanks.
- A 10″ wood fired margarita pizza from the back of a trailer should not cost $15. Anywhere. Unless you’re putting fresh morels and foie gras on it. Oh, and I shouldn’t have to wait 15 minutes for it.
- In general, it’s very hard to find meat of any kind being cooked.
Here’s to hoping for more proper food trucks at Farmers Markets. And I’m not talking about the kind that churn out elephant ears and corn dogs. There are a lot of great food trucks popping up out there now. So, bring ’em on and make sure there’s more than 2 of them to feed the hundreds of hungry people at the market.
Things I Buy and I Don’t Know Why:
OK – I don’t know why I do this but I always buy things I don’t want or need at Farmers Markets. I also rarely go with a list of things I do need so that might explain some of it. Here are some of the common items that end up in my re-usable shopping bags made from recycled plastic bottles sourced from beaches where they were washed up in (pick a third world country).
- Jars of anything – pickles, jams, butters – whatever. I never know why I buy $9 jars of jam. I hardly even eat jam but I feel like I should have 6 of them in my fridge at all times.
- Honey sticks – damn those kids can really pester you about getting these lethal sugar injections. My will breaks for 25 cents a stick after about 16 seconds of whining.
- Expensive lettuce – I’m in the Pacific Northwest and this stuff grows like weeds here. I love the taste of fresh salad greens but why am I compelled to buy a small bag of ‘wild and spicy mix’ for $7 every time I go? Must be the name.
- Mushrooms growing in weird blocks that look like Styrofoam – this is just wrong. Sure, it’s a clever gift for the holidays. But why would I buy one of these when I can go to someone who has spent the time walking through the woods or a recent burn area to forage for me some A+++ quality morels or boletes?
- $10 a box caramels – lovely, generally packaged beautifully, and downright expensive for melted sugar.
- Exotic varieties of anything – Why do I have an intense desire to buy purple potatoes? Why do I think rainbow chard tastes better than ‘regular’ chard? Why am I thinking of buying red wheat berries and my own counter top grain mill? I have no idea. But I do these things – constantly.
- Any big produce – A peach as big as my kid’s head? Gotta have it. Beets that look like they were grown near Chernobyl? Yes! Softball-sized apples? Mine. None of these things taste as good as their smaller brethren but I still like buying big ass produce.
- Overpriced bottles of juice – I love fresh squeezed juice. Especially if it came from small batch, organically grown fruit and berries from nearby. Despite knowing that paying $12 for a half-gallon of apple cider is downright insane I buy them anyway.
Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food
Reason #1 for going to Farmers Markets should be to support your local farmer, rancher, forager or fishmonger. In the process, you are getting the freshest, finest, locally sourced food while putting money in their pockets. You can take pride in supporting the farmer directly if you want and you can also be part of the solution to the problems in our food distribution systems in this country. But that’s idealistic and political.
Go to the market to have fun, to meet friends, to enjoy time with your family, and to soak in the experience while connecting with the people that feed you. Look for the different characters, sellers, food and entertainment that you are offered. Make a scavenger hunt out of it for your kids to see who can find odd things in the market. But above all – eat local and support your farmers, ranchers, fishmongers and foragers!
Portions of this story were originally published in Seattle Weekly on August 19th, 2014