Not too long ago, driving through the flat land of northern Illinois, I passed near Galena, a charming Victorian town nestled among bluffs and rolling hills near the Mississippi River. Just before arriving in the town, along scenic Highway 20, several small farmers’ markets beckoned.
Now, truth be told, my hands tingle and my blood thunders through my veins when I spot a farmers’ market on the side of the road or in the middle of a busy town. The tents, the noise, the smells, and the kaleidoscope of sights all act like a pep pill. I have to stop and look. I want to grab and squeeze every peach, sniff every melon, and pluck a grape from every bunch.
By doing so, I reconnect with the earth. I become one again with the soil that sustains me, even though I live in a society cut off from the processes of nature. I’m appalled that some children never realize that cows and pigs and chickens and sheep once walked the same ground and breathed the same air we do, before slaughterhouses turned them into the nice, neat little packages lined up on the sterile shelves of grocery stores. And many adults forget this, too, as they casually toss packages of legs, thighs, steaks, and tenderloins into their four-wheeled shopping carts.
And that is one of the reasons I rent apartments by the week when I travel. At least when possible. That way, I can cook all the things I drool over at the local open markets, especially in Europe. I recapture, for a brief time, a sense of the sacredness of earth, an inkling of the sacrifice that brings us the plants and the animals we eat.
Markets often remind me of other, unexpected sacrifices. Some of these markets, like the one in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome, set down roots in the Middle Ages and never left. There’s a statue of Giordano Bruno there, the lively market scattered around it. The Inquisition burned Bruno alive for his “dangerous” ideas — his statue, erected in 1887 by Ettore Ferrari, stands as a reminder of the price of free speech.
Power and markets go hand in hand. Take Paris, for example.
Street markets like the one in the Rue Mouffetard in Paris date back to Roman times — it was a Roman road — and thrived in the days of Abelard and Heloise. And still does.
All across the United States, farmers’ markets spring up in response to consumers’ desire to connect more with the earth and with the people who produce food. Partly a response to the increasingly impersonal nature of corporate agriculture and big-chain supermarkets, the farmers’ market renaissance also reflects farmers’ desire to see their products in the hands of consumers. Throughout history, dating back to Mesopotamia, farmers traveled with their goods to local population centers and sold directly to the people who cooked ate their produce.
Today, the same story plays out. By selling directly to consumers, farmers assure their customers of freshness and quality. They also reap rewards in another way: they form a vital part of their communities and bring together people, just like in the old days and the markets that our ancestors frequented. Many communities build permanent quarters for their farmers’ markets.
And even in cold winter weather, some cities boast huge numbers of farmers’markets. New York City, for example hosts 28 year-round farmers’ markets. And the Union Square Farmers’ Market sees 1 million passing through the market stalls each week. Over 20,000 vendors sell their wares at Union Square. This success story repeats itself, albeit on a smaller scale, in city after city, town after town throughout the United States.
In the United States, large towns and small villages held regular markets until the advent of the supermarket and greengrocer shops. Italian vendors carted their produce on wheelbarrows and horse-drawn carts in the large eastern cities like New York and Philadelphia.
Today, farmers’ markets prevail in the smallest and most out-of-the-way places. Anywhere a farmer sets up a pick-up truck and sells his products directly to the consumer, that’s a farmers’ market, technically speaking.
Ethel’s Scalloped Corn, Farmer-Style
1 cup milk
1 16-ounce can cream-style corn
½ cup saltine cracker crumbs
½ teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 1-quart casserole and set aside. Beat eggs and milk in a large bowl. Add corn, crumbs, baking powder, and salt; stir to mix well. Pour into casserole. Bake 45 minutes to 1 hour until top is crusty and lightly browned.
Books about Farmers’ Markets:
Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes: Recipes from a Modern Kitchen Garden, by Jeanne Kelley
Cooking from an Italian Garden, by Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen
The Edible Italian Garden, by Rosalind Creasy
Field Guide to Produce: How to Identify, Select, and Prepare Virtually Every Fruit and Vegetable at the Market, by Aliza Green
Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It, by Michael Ableman
The French Market: More Recipes from a French Kitchen, by Joanne Harris & Fran Warde
Fresh from the Farmers’ Market: Year-Round Recipes for the Pick of the Crop, by Janet Fletcher
In Pursuit of Flavor, by Edna Lewis
Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets, by Deborah Madison
The Magic Harvest: Food, Folklore, and Society, by Piero Camporesi (Polity Press, 1999), about harvest culture in Italy.
Outstanding in the Field: A Farm to Table Cookbook, by Jim Denevan
The San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market Cookbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Impeccable Produce Plus Seasonal Recipes, by Peggy Knickerbocker and Christopher Hirsheimer
The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm, by Amelia Saltsman
Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mother’s Wisdom, by Marilou Awiakta
Sori’s Harvest Moon Day, by Lee Uk-Bae
The Taste of Country Cooking, by Edna Lewis
* © 2008 C. Bertelsen. All photos in this post by C. Bertelsen. All rights reserved.