Whenever possible, I shop at farmers’ markets for my groceries, buying braising greens, fresh eggs, and unpasteurized pomegranate juice at Alemany, and when I can stand to brave the scene, meat from the amazing Marin Sun Farms‘ stand at the Ferry Building. I don’t get most of my groceries at farmers’ markets; over the course of a week, convenience and immediate needs demand visits to reputable brick-and-mortar stores. While trips to my favorite markets help keep the fridge stocked, I value the experience more than anything, the routine of getting up early, before my Saturday morning basketball game, and dashing off into the prickly mist to fill empty bags, or venturing over directly after basketball, sweaty, tired, and profoundly hungry, at dire risk of over-spending in shopping for food before lunch.
When I’m back home in Kentucky to visit family, I stop by the Saturday morning farmers’ market near our house in Louisville’s Highlands neighborhood. Situated in the parking lot of a Presbyterian church on Bardstown Road (“food for the soul,” the church’s sign reads), this market is a pint-sized affair — a bit bigger than Noe Valley’s. I go there to buy dinner fixings — and re-visit the scene.
Heading to the local market is a swift, visceral way of getting back in touch with the place you come from. This weekend, I wasn’t buying much — just a few ears of bi-color corn and a bunch of gnarled, stubby dark-orange carrots for a pot of soup — but I took home more than groceries. At the market, I saw faces I recognized, not people I once knew, but features and voices I recalled from schools I’d attended, the swimming pool I’d frequented, and stores at which I had shopped. I wasn’t not seeing people I’d once known, but perhaps their relatives, the next generations, raised in the same place by people staying put, laying down roots. I’m not making a bad joke about inbreeding, just noting that in smaller ponds, you see the same fish (and their offspring) more often. On Saturday, I overheard conversations as I strolled from stall to stall. Over packages of grass-fed beef, two women discussed the summers they were enjoying. “Haven’t been going to Lakeside much,” one said, referring to the massive, quarry rock-lined swimming pool I used to visit nearly daily for bare-footed basketball and long, skin-puckering soaks each summer. “Oh no,” said the other. “It’s been too hot.” And hot it was, even at nine in the morning — the air heavy with the sort of dense, enveloping heat that dampens your shirt before you can make it down the front steps. Here, such heat calls for a day spent indoors, with the air conditioning working overtime.
Farmers’ markets reflect communities. It’s a cliche, yes, but it bears out — in the same way a concert defines a band not just by its music, and its identity expressed through performance, but by the people coming to the show. Mission Bay’s tiny farmers’ market caters to UCSF researchers looking for a break on one of the sunny benches dotting the well-manicured quad. I wonder how many people actually buy groceries there. Noe Valley’s farmers’ market sustains the precious strip’s residents, and entertains interlopers like myself. On a recent visit, we saw adorable gray-haired ladies ordering up pricey steaks “for one” and a yoga pants-wearing mom swish by Sukhi’s samosa stand to issue an unsolicited zinger: “I love Indian food, but it hates my waistline.” It was one of our favorite all-time farmers’ market moments — along with the guy at Alemany who claimed to play classical music for the benefit of his tomato plants.
Whether I’m in Louisville or San Francisco, forays to the market are about people as much as produce, an opportunity to take stock of the swirling community. In this way, they’re all the same — regardless of what’s in season.