Being a writer, I’ve worked a lot of retail over the years. I’ve sold flown-from-Switzerland chocolates to San Francisco socialites who spent more on three boxes of truffles than I made in a week. I’ve peddled Pez and Camel Lights from a tray slung around my neck, squeezed ladies (and gents) into latex dresses and leather corsets, frothed lattes for bond traders, boxed up cookies and talked tourists into overpriced art on Union Square.
In my personal life, I’m not a shopper, but I can see what people get out of good service, besides just new shoes and credit-card debt. You tell a dumpy guy with a thing for latex that he looks great in that $500 catsuit and you mean it, because he’s so happy wearing it that just for that moment, he’s Jon Hamm. You know you’ve made his day, along with a little bit of commission.
But what I realized last Sunday is how much more fun it is when you can just give the stuff away. Especially when the goods in question are beautiful organic fruits and vegetables, things everyone needs: yellow tomatoes and Japanese eggplants, kale and collards, curvy neon-bright summer squash, sticky green figs and late-season peaches.
Set up every Sunday from 1-3pm at the Parque Niños Unidos at 23rd and Treat Streets in the Mission, the Free Farm Stand is a joyful place. Anyone can come, and all different people do: determined grandmothers and families pushing strollers, clusters of groovy, effusively grateful British girls in tiny halter tops and oversized sunglasses, eco-hipster Mission couples in vintage dresses and ironic t-shirts, gray hair and glasses meeting bedhead and glasses.
By 2 o’clock, a steady stream of people has been flowing past the table for an hour. Jeremy, a frequent volunteer, starts tootling away on a wooden flute. Inspired by the giveaway, a man named Steve has set up a agua fresca stand nearby, quenching the sunny Sunday afternoon thirsts with free glasses of melony coolness. There’s a separate table stacked with loaves of bread donated by Acme Bread, another full of free thumb-sized lettuce plants for home gardeners.
Only one guy grumbles about the line not moving fast enough for his taste. No one can take him seriously, though; it’s a sunny Sunday in the park and the tomatoes are free. If you can’t chill out here, you’re way too tense, man.
It’s set up like any farmers’ market stand: a white tent overhead for shade, colorful tablecloths stacked with bowls and baskets overflowing with vegetables, herbs, and fruit. Volunteers pull out more tomatoes, more artichokes from boxes stacked beneath the tables, answer questions and offer recipes. There are plastic and paper bags on hand, but never enough; smart shoppers bring not only their own totes but their own recycled plastic bags for separating out the basil from the peppers, or the bean sprouts from the squashy figs.
One table is stocked with farmers’ market giveaways, donated produce left over at the end of the day from Ferry Plaza and other top-notch Saturday markets. I recognize bundles of herbs from Marin Roots Farm, fat red tomatoes from Phil Foster’s 200-acre organic ranch in Hollister, perfect-looking Brussels sprouts and box after box of red Russian kale and yellow-flowering Chinese broccoli.
Another table is the super-local table, filled with urban produce grown or gleaned all around the city, shared from backyards, parks, and community gardens. Regulars show up with baggies of lemon verbena, boxes of apples, bags of zucchini and butternut squash.
This is how the Free Farm Stand started, when Tree, a community gardener and longtime social-justice activist who works at the St Martin de Porres soup kitchen, decided that his gardens’ extra communal produce shouldn’t go to waste.
The goal was to make locally grown, organic produce available to all, especially those with low incomes or limited budgets, creating garden-to-table food security right on the street. With this in mind, Tree set up a card table inside the Treat Commons garden at 23rd and Treat Sts in April of last year, offering a little bit of whatever was growing around the Mission and Potrero Hill.
Slowly, word of mouth (and blog) spread about this sweet neighborhood thing happening on Sunday afternoons. Other gardeners started sharing their bounty. Tree formed connections with growers selling at local farmers markets and began picking up their extras after the markets ended. The farmstand moved out in front of the garden, into the park, and turned into two tables, then three, with a line that could stretch out of the park and down the block when the harvest was in full swing and there were sweet treats like peaches and figs on offer.
But the crowds don’t come just for the free lettuce, or even the free tomatoes. Everyone has a question:
What are these? Baby artichokes–clip off the pointy leaf tips and steam or boil them whole.
Is this salad mix? No, it’s braising mix, a little too tough for eating raw, better for sauteing.
Is this cilantro? No, smell it, it’s parsley; cilantro’s over there.
What is this? This is red mustard, very good for you, strong-tasting and good sauteed, stir-fried or put in soup.
Can I eat the leaves? Yes, beet greens are delicious, cook them like spinach. You can cook radish greens too, if they’re green and not yellowed or wilted. And this is curly kale, this is lacinato kale, what the Italians call cavalo nero and what American supermarkets call dino kale, because it’s so bumpy and puckered, see, like dinosaur skin, and these are collards, this is chard. They’re all in the brassica family along with cauliflower and broccoli, what used to be called the crucifers because of their cross-shaped stems.
OK, so maybe I get a little carried away giving out information. But I’m not the only one. Gloria, who works at a detox center in the city, is sharing her recipe for roasted kale (rub with olive oil, salt and pepper, bake at 375F for 20 minutes, better than potato chips, leave them in the turned-off oven under the pilot light for a day if you want them really crispy). Lisa’s got a new favorite salad, radishes dressed with mustard, olive oil, fresh ginger, a little sucanat, garlic, salt and pepper, orange juice and chopped parsley. People are chatting with tote bags full of leeks and beets over their arms, eating burritos on the grass, talking compost and chayote squash in the garden while their kids splash the strawberries with a hose.
That it’s all free seems to bring out the best in the crowd. No one grabs, no one hoards. Take what you can use or share, we say from behind the tables, and people carefully separate out a few sprigs of cilantro if that’s all they want, pour half a box of cherry tomatoes into their bags and replace the rest. The feeling is one of abundance shared, not charity bestowed. Everyone takes home a slightly different mix, an urban stone soup cooked up by a community of growers from the Bay Area and beyond.
By 3 o’clock, the boxes are flattened and Christina, a regular volunteer, is sweeping up crumpled leaves and squashed tomatoes with a broom. The day’s bounty has been reduced to some mixed greens and a few bundles of thyme and oregano. The baskets are stacked, the tent pulled down. We share chunks of homemade apple cake baked by Clara, another volunteer who gardens nearby.
I pick up my own box of veggies, thank Tree and head home over the hill, slurping a cold watermelon agua fresca from La Taqueria on the way. I’ve promised a friend in Oakland that I’ll hang out with her two young boys today. The figs and tomatoes will come with me, I decide. There’s always enough to share.