My oldest is home sick today. Not sick enough to stay in bed but too sick for school so I pack him in the car and head to the farmers' market Sure, we could skip it. We could easily survive on the freezer full of pumpkin puree, dehydrated apples, hoarded potatoes and homemade bread. It would be a bland week but we'd be fine. Alternatively, we could buy our produce at the local Whole Foods - if we were the type of family that enjoyed tasteless tomatoes from Israel or mealy apples from New Zealand. We are not. So to the farmers' market we go.
It's difficult to find a parking spot. Today is one of those rare February days where the sun stretches across a cloudless sky. People pile out of their homes and offices, warming their faces in the winter sun like sprouts reaching toward a sunny window. I pull in next to a dark Volvo sedan and notice two middle aged women climbing out. They laugh, chatting and waving their worn green Whole Foods bags. Their talk about a magazine and their first time to the farmers' market drifts over to us. One of them points to a stand overflowing with chilies and bell peppers and they pick up their step. I smile as I watch them go. Beginners welcome, I think.
My son unbuckles his car seat and I hand him one of our canvas totes. No need for the wagon today. That is reserved for the bounty of summer when I can't possibly carry all the heavy watermelons, dainty berries, swollen tomatoes and dappled pluots in mere bags.
Our first stop is Mike who sells cheese for a local dairy, Spring Hill Jersey Cheese Farm. He greets me and offers my son a sample of the smoked jack. My son, not a big cheese lover, grins and asks for another. I savor a slice as well. We take some of the smoked jack and our usual veggie jack and raw white cheddar. I remind Mike that I have my own bag and we move on.
Here is the young man selling his aunt and uncle's dates under a bright red umbrella. As tempting as the dates are, we haven't finished the ones I bought two weeks ago. We smile at him and tell him we'll pass this week but he's already helping another customer.
I spot the quiet farmer from whom I always buy my tree fruit - plums in summer, pomegranates and pears in fall, oranges and lemons in winter. Half of his table used to be devoted to the wrinkled Shar Peis of the citrus world, mandarins. Now they take up less than a quarter. My son and I stuff as many as we can in my largest eco-bag. The farmer smilingly hands us a slice of tangerine. We cannot resist and pack another bag with tangerines and blood oranges. Grand total: $6.57. The farmer quickly rounds down to $6. Handing him the exact change, I ask how much longer for mandarins. Only another week, maybe two, he laments.
We pass the long line for the local baker and my son stops to ogle some handmade honey lollipops. I point out the apples to him and he happily moves on. The apple vendor is a large man with voice that resonates through out the few February stalls. "Only a few more weeks of apples", he informs another customer. "We've outlasted all of our competitors," he boasts "but there will still be a month between when we run out of apples and the cherries start." "When can we expect the cherries" I wonder out loud. "Oh, you'll see them first week of April from southern California, miss", he replies. I shake my head. That's just a little too far. We'll wait for our local cherries, thank you very much. Those will apparently be here in mid-April.
We eye the cardboard boxes of apples and the vendor offers my son and me a slice. As juicy as they were in October. My big boy picks some Fujis, Golden Delicious, Heirloom Red Delicious (not like the pulpy things you'll find in your local grocery store) and petite Pink Ladies. The vendor is also selling home canned apple sauce, jam and apple and blueberry syrup charmingly labeled "The Farmer's Wife". I forgot to make apple sauce last year and grab a few jars. Fruit syrup is a welcome alternative to non-local maple and we buy that as well. My son begs for some of the jam but this time I turn my nose up. It certainly cannot be as rich as my homemade jam - and besides, eating it wouldn't bring back summer memories of me, a hot stove and a pot brimming with hulled strawberries.
Last but not least, we find Sapphira's stall, belying the bleakness of winter with a bounty of vegetables and herbs - broccoli, radishes, a rainbow of potatoes and yams, onions, salad greens, and the vestiges of carefully stored winter squash. "Look mom, green cauliflower," my son marvels running to the table. "Please can we get some?" He turns blue eyes to me. I assure him that we will and have him select the best one. An older woman smiles down at my son. "It's so wonderful that he likes vegetables" she encourages. I agree and then she asks where I get my netted produce bags. I share the website and she bemoans having used plastic bags - even if she does reuse and ultimately recycle them. We say goodbye and she waves to Sapphira, who's had a lull between customers.
"He's not the same one you brought last week," Sapphira observes, coming over to weigh my produce. I tell her he's my oldest and the conversation meanders to her children and farm help. Other customers file in as we continue to load up on potatoes, cilantro and greens. "Oh look, Jane," a woman next to me calls. The two newcomers I parked near have discovered the dark purple cosmic carrot which Sapphira has cut in half to reveal its rich orange center. They ask Sapphira whether she carries purple arugula. She does not. "Jane" tells Sapphira that they read about it in a magazine and the article instructed them to look for it at their farmers' market. Sapphira promises to look into planting it for next year. Undoubtedly, she will. In the meantime, the women pick a few of the colorful carrots and a handful of wavy greens.
We pay Sapphira and tell her we'll see her next week. She's quickly swallowed up by new customers and we turn toward the car.
As we load this weeks' finds in the car, I think of the two women who discovered the farmers' market this week. I hope they treasure the purple carrots they found, the flavor that only local fruits and vegetables carry and that they enjoyed their adventure to the market, despite the lack of purple arugula. Most importantly, I hope they come back.