The goal is to start setting up an hour and a half before the opening bell, maybe the only thing our market shares with that other one in New York. We line up our boxes along the curb, raise our tents and tables, and pile our harvest high. Layouts prompt much discussion and debate. What looks best? Features our marquee items? Lets customers flow through the stand? We weigh the relative merits of L shapes, T's, and U's; aisles, islands, and second tiers. Market design is about artistry and efficiency. And showing off.
Our farm's and others' bountiful displays--diminished by the time I used to arrive--still amaze me. Prices don't. As a customer, I sometimes balked at expensive arugula or leeks, either passing them by or invoking Michael Pollan's "hidden costs" of cheap food as I broke another 20. Now I look at string beans and remember how long it took me to pick them, in the rain; dry them on wire racks so they wouldn't rust; and mix green, purple, and yellow varieties. Not to mention seeding, weeding, and releasing wasps to prey on the beetles that devour the plants' leaves and dangling beans. $5 a quart? Bargain.
Photo by Gardiner Lapham
Prices do shift, I discovered. Just before we open, farmers surreptitiously scramble, eying one another's signs. Cucumbers may go up if someone else is charging more; squash might fall. We add quickly in our heads as customers gather. The early bird regulars have been standing there since 8:55, their beets and blackberries packed, crisp bills in outstretched hands as they wait for the bell.
Chatting with customers makes my day. A smiling elderly woman who always comes during the week also showed up one Sunday. "I already ate all the peas I bought!" she said. "I won't be able to last till Thursday." Another woman once approached me and whispered, "There's a very large spider on the chard." Other customers share tips, like crushing sweet stevia leaves with mint in mojitos. And sometimes a question starts a conversation. One woman asked if we had lemons. A man held up a sweet white onion, greens still attached, and asked if you could eat the bulb.
Chefs also wander by in their monogrammed jackets, scanning our spread. I'm always excited to see Nghi Tieu, the pastry chef at Café Atlantico, a few steps from our Thursday market. On Fridays the restaurant offers a farmers' market dinner, and Tieu not only shares her deliciously creative ideas, but brings us leftovers to taste. Recently she featured our carrots, in carrot cake with cream cheese foam, carrot-kumquat ice cream, and carrot-ginger croquants; and beets, in beet ice cream with chocolate crème fraîche and citrus beet soil. A bite like that can keep me on my feet for another few hours.
We nibble Tieu's desserts along with our own fruit, which customers ask to do, too. One day two men in Metro maintenance uniforms came over and tasted several cherries. But they didn't buy any, shaking their heads at the price of the pints. For all the thrills of the market--and my defense of the labor of each harvest--I worry about limited access to local food.