In Texas, fruit and vegetables come from the supermarket. They might – if you are lucky enough to have one within an hour’s drive – come from a farmer’s market. But mostly, they come from the grocery store. Not that this is a bad thing – the produce displayed at my neighborhood HEB in San Antonio was as nice as anything I ever saw at my Whole Foods in Madison.
In Madison, fruit and vegetables came from the Whole Foods (if you needed something in particular, foreign, or out of season) because the supermarket produce was generally 1) limited and 2) disgusting. If you had some leisure time and were willing to take what was ripe now, fruits and vegetables came from the Saturday farmer’s market on the square. Everything has to be locally sourced – if you want to sell jam, it’s got to be local. If you want to sell smudge sticks, baked goods, meat, or honey – same thing. Local. It’s a social scene, too – serious shoppers get in and out before 9am. After that time, the entire town pours into the square, with their babies, dogs, Red Ryder wagons, sport-ute strollers, musical instruments, grandparents, and any out-of-town visitors they can find. And there’s a reason for all this – this is a farmer’s market of epic proportions. I estimate it to be 1 mile long. You can get cider donuts and baklava. You can get 10 kinds of heirloom apples. You can get dried ears of corn that you stick in your microwave and they come out covered with popcorn. You can get…and I will be willing to pay for, including FedEx charges, for anyone who is interested in helping me out…for a short two weeks in May, usually the middle two weeks…(shhh)…morels. By the pound. You can get sunflowers and bags of catnip and cheese curds with dill in them, and fresh eggs (and you can look at pictures of the happy cage-free chickens that laid your eggs), and bison jerky. After my good friends, of course, the thing I miss most about living in Madison is the Saturday farmer’s market. And the lakes, and miles and miles of bike trails, and skating outdoors on the ponds in the winter, and golf-courses in the middle of town groomed for cross-country skiing…and…and… well. The Saturday farmer’s market makes the Top List.
It was a shock to me when I moved to New England because all of our local farmer’s markets here…well, not to put too fine a point on it, but they suck. They’re tiny and – as far as I can tell – heavily geared towards people who want to buy bags of salad greens and flats of annuals to plant in the flower beds at home. I wouldn’t even go to the one in Northampton, where I live, for a long time because it’s not inspiring in general, and when contrasted against my memories of the stunning market in Madison, it was simply pathetic. So I resigned myself to getting produce at the Whole Foods. This isn’t exactly grubbing the bottom of the barrel – the local Whole Foods is about 20% cheaper than the one in Madison, and it does carry a superb range of local produce.
I should say that there is an awful lot of local produce to carry – this area is densely packed with small, interesting farms that grow a surprising array of produce. There are dairy farms making artisan cheeses. There are some large corn fields, and quite a lot of tobacco farm – Connecticut Valley tobacco is acclaimed for its properties as a cigar wrapper. But there are loads of what I always think of as Pocket Farms – compared to the vast agricultural zones in Texas, these are farms that would fit in your change pocket – and they grow many, many, many things. So many pocket farms that I was surprised at the tiny scale of the local farmer’s markets.
Then I discovered that in New England, produce doesn’t come from the grocery or the farmer’s market. It comes from the Farm Stand. Yes. At many of thesee pocket farms, the farmer will sell direct to the public, 7 days a week…if you know where to find them. I am amused to find that a significant component to my weekly grocery shopping here involves driving around the countryside looking for trailers parked by the side of the road with hand-lettered signs propped against a wheel advertising the offerings of the day. Sometimes there is a teenager hanging about in a desultory manner, ready to take your money, sometime there is a box with a slot in the lid for you to put your money in. Sometimes there is an actual cash register, for farm stands that have actual buildings. Some farm stands are just a little red wagon parked by the road, some are a full flat-bed trailer, some are a folding card table with a beach umbrella propped over it for shade. Some farm stands have one offering – there is a covered wagon across the street from the Hadley Common that sells CORN! CORN! NIEDBALA’S CORN! Some farm stands sell thirty different kinds of vegetables, plus pickles, jams, pumpkin and apple butters, and whatever else the household has managed to can.
It’s not exactly an efficient use of time – if I am in a hurry, I do one-stop shopping at the Whole Foods – but it is an effective use of my time, if effectiveness is defined as using my life and freedom of movement to get out into the world and see what it has to offer. Also, the farm stands are usually a bit cheaper, and the produce is undeniably fresh. They’re really starting to max out now, and I know – based on the last three years – that it will be nothing but pure pleasure to shop for my produce from now until Halloween. In another month, they’ll be laying out the winter squash and root vegetables, and all of the permanent farm stands (plus an assortment of farm stands operating from the bed of a pickup truck parked in a roadside pullout) will be selling mums. The ground will become a carpet of yellows, oranges, purples, and some blues (Hubbard squash), and every mum color under the sun. It’s really something to write home about!
What you can find at the farm stands now: corn! peaches! tomatoes! basil! summer squash of every shape and color! the end of the season’s blueberries, and the raspberries and blackberries are coming in. To honor the bounty of the season, I provide here my recipe for Corn and Peach Bisque. This is a simple, light, elegant soup with a robust sweetness. It’s fit to serve a kid, or a king. I don’t remember where the original recipe came from, but I’ve adapted it pretty thoroughly.
Corn and Peach Bisque
6 ears corn
1 onion, chopped finely
2 largecloves garlic, chopped finely
3 large ripe peaches
6 C chicken stock
Pinch cayenne pepper (this is very important! just a pinch, but it’s got to be there!)
1 C light cream
Try to use very ripe peaches for this. If the peaches are ripe, you peel them the same way you peel a tomato: boil a small pot of water, cut an X in the skin at the bottom of the fruit, drop it into the boiling water until splits appear in the skin and it starts to come off, then fish it out and plunge it into a bowl of cold water. The skin will basically fall right off the thing at this point, and it will also be very easy to get the pit out without making a huge mess or throwing a lot of fruit away that is still attached to the pit. If the peaches are not ripe, don’t make this dish. Wait until you can get ripe peaches. Chop the peeled peaches up into fairly small bits and toss them into the soup pot.
Strip the kernels off of the ears of corn, and put both the kernels and the cobs in the soup pot. Add the onion, garlic, peaches, stock, and cayenne and bring everything to a boil and cook it, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Cool, then run through a blender to puree. Stir in cream and serve warm.
Serves 8 as a first course.