Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Farmers' Markets: Making Big Connections

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Farmers' Markets: Making Big Connections

Article excerpt

"In an ideal world, we would buy direct." This I message, proclaimed on a billboard, caught my attention because this is exactly what I believe and have attempted to make a reality. While my concern is about food and culture and not Indian jewelry, as the ad suggested, the issues are essentially the same. The billboard assumed, of course, that achieving this ideal would probably not be possible, in which case, the store mentioned on the billboard would do. There you would get the stuff, but like shopping at the supermarket, you would have little knowledge of or connection to the person who made it.


Since the building of the transcontinental railroads, the invention of the refrigerator car, and the supermarket, all of which evolved in the late 1800s, our direct connection to those who produce our food has been steadily eroding. Indeed, ignorance about our nourishment is so deep today that it is no longer unusual to hear children as old as ten and twelve say that food comes from the grocery store. If anything typifies our food culture today, I would say that, more than fast food, it is our lack of connection to what we eat. No store, from the gourmet/health food store to the poor urban supermarket, is inclined or able to tell us beyond a rough guess where our food comes from.

A second large feature on the cultural landscape is the numbing repetition of foodstuffs in a country that is made up of wonderfully unique geographical, historical, and ethnic pockets. While brilliant horticulturists such as Luther Burbank worked to increase the choices we might find among edible plants, the principles of mass marketing argue for less choice; it is simply easier to manage. Although today's supermarkets draw from the farms and fields of the world to present us with a broad range of foods to eat, when it comes to the unique qualities that exist within each particular variety, we are greatly impoverished. The Red Delicious and Granny Smith stand in for some eight hundred still-existing apple varieties; California Early and California Late represent garlic as a whole, but there are hundreds of other varieties, each with its special virtue. And this is true for every fruit and vegetable we encounter. Even the most mundane seed catalog offers more choice to the home gardener than can be found at t he supermarket, and those catalogs that are devoted to the wealth of plant diversity that still exists offer a simply dazzling number of choices.


Does it matter that we know where our food comes from and that we keep our plant heritage a living part of our food culture? One way to answer this is to imagine living in a world where the connection to the food we eat is vividly articulated. We need not look to some idyllic spot in Europe, but only as far as our local farmers' market. Here lies an invitation to a different kind of food culture, one that is based on connection in its broadest sense.

As a cook, my first choice for ingredients has long been the farmers' market, but their growing presence suggests that they offer far more than produce. Today we have nearly 3,000 of them; twenty-five years ago there were but a handful. Besides being sources of fine food, farmers' markets have become the new village green, the plaza, the town square, the place where everyone gets to know one another. "Markets make a small town out of big one," a Colorado shopper tells me. "I think the main thing the farmers' market does is make us more of a community," states a market manager in Utah. "The market brings a lot of people together who would never cross paths otherwise," another customer points out. It is one of the few places with a healthy environment of diversity in both plants (many varieties) and people (different races, different backgrounds). "Food is a true celebration of diversity," Richard McCarthy, of the Crescent City Farmers' Market in New Orleans, enthuses. …

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