One of the very best things, at least in my view, about the Northwest are the farmers’ markets. I think I have been primed for these since childhood. My mom was an excellent gardener as you would expect from a girl who grew up on a farm. She had a green thumb that I envy to this day. Sure, I can keep a plant alive and I can often get tomato plants to produce but that is the extent of it. In any case, she always had a garden and the things she grew always tasted so much better than anything from the supermarket.
Fast forward to my adult years, on my own living in Seattle and the produce at the supermarket was pretty good, then one day I wandered into Pike Place Market and discovered farm stands. Fresh fruit, fresh vegetables – things that had been on the plant or in the ground at the most 24 hours ago. Wow. That was my first introduction, but it would be a couple of years before I would discover the joy of the markets that set up in the street or park or parking lot. The lines of farmers, soap makers, jewelry artists, cheese mongers, bakers, spice hawkers, tea sellers that formed up on weekend mornings to bring their wares to people like me.
There was a time when the height of decadence for a Sunday morning was a pot of good coffee, a really sinful pastry and the Sunday paper. I have traded that in for a prowl along the purveyors found on Ballard Avenue, for the big splash of food stands and wine makers to be found at Portland State or the more intimate gathering of farmers and dog biscuit makers to be found in Esther Short Park of Vancouver, WA.
Everything you could want is there – the coffee stand that has the full array of drip coffee to fru-fru lattes, the baker who sets out a tempting assortment of pastries, the grower who arranges piles of seasonal produce so beautiful that you become confident that you will indeed find a recipe for those heirloom beans you had never heard about before. There are the gorgeous specimens of plant life that get you to dreaming about that garden you never wanted to start, next to the woman who makes artisan dog biscuits. From the necessary to the ridiculous (at least for you, but perhaps not for the person next to you), it can be found there.
There is a practicality about it, if you look for it. I eat more vegetables and fruit during that period from May to October – the usual season for the markets – than I do the rest of the year. From these markets I have come to love the seasonality of produce; that a tomato tastes best in late summer when it comes straight from the vine, that apples are at their crisp and juicy glory in the fall, that artichokes are a product of high summer (and can be split for grilling). I have learned to wander the stands in the early spring in anticipation of the first greens, greedy for the produce I have missed in the cold and dark winter months.
They have come to punctuate the seasons of my life here. I look forward to that opening day knowing there won’t be much there but happy to banter with the folks who gamely man the sparse stalls, talking hopefully about what is about to ripen. I enjoy the nonchalance of the summer months when I become complacent over the bounty on display, looking critically at each stand to find the best salad greens or the best price on snap peas. And there is the certain sadness in the late fall knowing that the market is getting ready to close for the season, only to be followed by the anticipation in late winter that the opening weekend is approaching.
So for the people who grow the produce, for the artists and artisans who get up early on weekends to flog their wares I am grateful. Grateful to live in a place that understands the value they bring.