By Jay Walljasper
Like his first kiss, a man never forgets his first public market. At least, I haven’t. It was an enthralling sensory experience–opening up a new dimension of smells, sights, sounds, and even the tender touch of just-off-the-truck vegetables.
For me, it happened in Baltimore in a place that has been home to a market continuously since 1782. I felt I’d entered a different universe the minute I walked into the Lexington Market–something closer to the Old World or 19th Century than anything I’d ever seen. The fishmongers hollering about the day’s catch, the artfully assembled piles of produce, hot sausages smoking on the grill–I was hooked. You could say I had fallen in love with markets.
From then on, I made it my special mission to seek out public markets wherever I traveled: Stockholm, Seattle, Florence, and villages in Mexico. Markets came to represent for me an essential ingredient of “the good life”–an emblem of great eats, local color, cultural authenticity, and just sheer fun.
And the good news is that I no longer need to board a plane to fulfill my market desires. They’re popping up all over Minneapolis, many of them right here in my stomping grounds on the south side. Mercado Central, an indoor Latino market, opened up a couple miles from me. The Youth Farm & Market, which sells produce raised by inner city kids on garden plots in the shadow of public housing high-rises, is just a few blocks down the street from my house. An ambitious Global Market, one of PPS’s grantees, will soon showcase the Twin Cities’ rapidly diversifying cultural identity in an old department store.
A friend of mine has even enlisted me in his plot to turn an Art Deco armory building downtown, saved from the wrecking ball but tragically used as a parking garage, into an year-round European-style food hall. I was skeptical until he took me for a tour of the place, which I had to admit looked as thought it had been designed to be a public market.
Hallelujah! Martha Joy’s offers just about the most spectacular display of pickles I’ve ever seen.
Markets are now woven into the fabric of my life, just as they are for the lucky people I used to envy in Baltimore and Stockholm. My 10-year-old son Soren and I bicycled last week to the Midtown Public Market, held three days a week in the parking lot of an Anishinabe Indian school. The first vendors we meet are Jim Hare of Dancing Oak Farms, an organic beef grower from Wisconsin and his daughter Amber, who fits the farm girl stereotype in her cut-off overalls but not with her bright henna hair.
They tell us about a recent visit to Europe where they explored farmers markets across the continent. Jim noticed that in Germany, farmers’ trucks all had mechanized methods of unloading the crates and baskets while in France, the farmers simply lifted the food out by hand. “You can tell a lot about a place by its farmers’ markets,” he observes.
The Midtown Market specializes in splendid tables of produce from truck farms all around the region. Scrumptious looking breads are also for sale and a neighboring Latino cultural center is on hand selling organic fair-traded Peace Coffee, roasted right here in Minneapolis, along with baked goods and bags of plaintain chips, which I can’t pass up.
Next door, hallelujah, is Martha Joy’s–just about the most spectacular display of pickles I’ve ever seen. Martha pickles almost everything that sprouts in the garden, using a recipe learned from her grandmother back in Anniston, Alabama. We buy two giant jars of pickles, which makes quite a load for our bikes, especially when you add the weight of a volleyball-sized muskmelon we grab on the way out.
Last weekend, we strolled over to our very own bazaar, the Kingfield Farmers’ Market, launched by the local neighborhood organization. Each Sunday it transforms the side parking lot of a frame shop into a flourishing town square.
An old-timey folk band, featuring a virtuoso performer on musical saw, greets us. A new local bistro, located a half-block away, grills sweet corn and bratwurst for everyone. Hmong farmers bring in the latest harvest from their gardens. The neighborhood board solicits community input on the design of a new pedestrian bridge across a nearby freeway. There’s a table where a “master gardener” will answer your questions, and a stall of locally-made soaps in pleasingly exotic scents. I buy a print of a neighborhood scene done in a jazzy folk art style from a local painter, who runs a gallery out of the hair salon she owns just down the street. I also come home with a jar of explosively tasty jam made from four different kinds of hot peppers sold by a young African-American woman who invented the recipe.
But the really big attraction for me is running into all sorts of neighbors and friends, with whom I while away the morning in congenial conversation.
If Jim Hare, the beef farmer back from Europe, is right that you can tell a lot about a place by its farmers’ markets, then I am certainly glad these days to be living in Minneapolis.