Farmers Markets: Urban Bliss or Battleground?
~By Melissa Wiley
I love farmers markets. In theory. In reality, I’ve come to appreciate that they’re little more than false advertising for hard agrarian labor. Having grown up on a small farm myself, I have nothing but obscene amounts of sentiment for the freshly sun-ripened vegetable and the hand-plucked fruit. Few memories top that of picking sweet, voluptuous cherries in the orchard just steps from my bedroom window and then packing them in Mason jars with my mom, staining my fingers as I popped as many into my mouth as the flow of gentle conversation allowed.
I also happen to love Floriole Bakery and Café on Webster, which cooks up a mean rhubarb tart that can be purchased for an appropriately exorbitant price at Green City Market. It’s not quite like Mama used to make – it’s actually much, much better – but far be it from me to fault them for it.
If only the men staffing the flower stands weren’t so relentlessly flirtatious and the long line for Abby’s strawberry crepes so notably absent of joie de vivre. To my mind, good food should induce good humor. Why else, I ask you, did the Good Humor Man sell ice cream rather than car insurance? The fact that a farmers market, a bona fide fresh food utopia, can elicit anything other than unmitigated radiant good cheer points to something seriously amiss in our society. And it all, I’m sorry to say, begins with the cheese.
The bon vivants manning the Wisconsin cheese tents are an unspeakably vicious sort. Their front teeth angle to dagger-like points, while their cloying fan base can be distinguished by a lactose-induced yellowing of the eyes, which you can readily observe in the rare moments when they’re not crowding, not to say cutting, the cheese. Give the public some free rennet samples and they lose all humanity. I’m sure many an Egyptian riot is more peaceable than the forcible shoving that signals the unveiling of a wheel of Pecorino Romano in this city.
Even on the few occasions when I have managed to wrestle my way within arm’s reach of the cheese table, making cautious eye contact with the seller and no sudden movements, I’ve encountered nothing but unvarnished hostility. Never mind the fact that I’m paying nearly double the retail price to cover the cost of the merchant’s glazed stare and icy handshake. These cheese people see the world through decidedly mold-covered glasses, so it’s sheer folly to expect anything approaching an amicable exchange.
To be sure, I always come home from any given market with some undeniably delectable morsels. My bags are inevitably a little pastry heavy and green vegetable light, but that’s not what I’d call a problem. Less desirably, I also arrive at home base measurably battle scarred. Don’t be fooled by the seeming socialist overtones of the farmers market: Imperceptible competing territories are at fiercely work and tribal collisions unavoidable. Case in point: In the annals of farmers market horrors, the fact that my husband once had words with an elderly diva in tight leather pants must be duly noted.
While trying to extricate myself from a conversation with a painfully friendly homemade pasta salesman, I backed into said aging femme fatale, who unleashed a yelp that precipitated a volley of sympathetic outcries from a bevy of neighboring Chihuahuas. A few onlookers had the good sense to laugh at the situation, but Jackie O. Jr. was busy mounting a high horse, proceeding to tell me that I needed to watch where I was going and implying, somewhat hurtfully, that we were not to become close, intimate pals.
Personally, I was more than happy to wend my way back to my apartment at this point, but my husband’s latent sense of chivalry was sparked and the chorus of enraged Chihuahuas allowed to continue on a few moments longer. I can’t claim to say this with certainty, but it’s my firm suspicion that the woman was headed directly for the cheese tent.
Maybe farm girls shouldn’t pay visits to farmers markets. It’s clearly just asking for trouble. These pop-up pastoral islands are no substitute for the wide open spaces where my lot really belongs. They’re the best we’ve got, however, as we squeeze ourselves into a pressure-packed urban existence, and they play the game of seduction unfathomably well, with their portabella burgers, their blueberry-peach smoothies, and their guileless sunflowers.
Sometimes there’s even a beret-wearing mandolin player lurking about under an oak tree, contentedly busking for change while playing “Mrs. Robinson” in achingly dulcet tones. And who can resist a little Simon and Garfunkel coupled with organic strawberries and orange blossom honey on a sunny Saturday afternoon? I know I can’t, and I’ll have to keep paying the price.