Sunday, September 30, 2007

Phoenix's farmers' market

It's nice to go somewhere where people smile at you when you look at them. And not in that "nice clown outfit" smile--a sincere "hey, nice to see you" smile. The Downtown Phoenix Public Market is to me what Cheers was to Norm. This is only the third time I've gone (three weeks in a row), and people are recognizing me and remembering my name. I guess that's what happens when you see people doing something they honestly love. I can't see how all those farmers and artisans would be out there otherwise. Most of them drive a long, long way, very early in the morning, carting up all their goods and setting up their displays before the market opens up at 8 a.m. As someone who's habitually slept in until 10 or 12 on Saturdays, rolling out of bed and into a computer desk chair or the couch, I call their actions downright heroic. I guess if they can brave all that work, the least they can do is smile at you, entice you in with genuine friendliness to talk to them, ask about their goods, take a sample, and maybe buy something.

I really love that there's no hard selling there. For weeks, I've talked to the women cheesemakers from Rainbow Valley Nursery about their cheese and desert succulents. They always offer up a cheese sample, answer all my questions, and add all kinds of interesting info. And they never shove tubs of brilliant kalamata cheese spread at my face, saying, "You've tasted this one three weeks in a row! Buy some, already!"

Where do you put your farmer's market? In the middle of a growing desert metropolitan city?
Downtown Phoenix Public Market

I'll confess that, as a homebody, I pretty much hole up during weekends, venturing out for only the bare necessities. Downtown Phoenix is downright lovely on Saturday morning, though. It's an easy drive all the way in, and it only takes about 15 minutes to get there. There's no traffic or angsty commuters--just blue skies, the city skyscape. And there, surrounded by all the construction, boxed in by one-way streets, in what's usually an asphalt parking lot, is the Public Market. You park on a recently graded and gravel-paved lot or across the street in a paved lot. And if you're me and realize that soon, other early risers will arrive to grab breakfast and sit to eat, you make a beeline for Nina's.

Chorizo burrito with incredibly fresh salsa verde
Nana's chorizo burrito and salsa verde at the Public Market

Nina's offers pozole and egg souffles, tamales, and even egg souffles, but I'm a breakfast burrito addict, especially when it's dressed up in nice, fresh salsa. Of course salsa flavors should blend and work together, but it's still nice when you can taste identifiable ingredients. I taste the cilantro, tomatillos, and lime. It's also not a watery mess like a lot of tomato-bases salsa end up being when the colander-challenged make it--it flows like syrup. Hooray for tomatillo pectin! So until I've fully fulfilled my hankering for chorizo burritos and salsa verde, that's my "the usual," as Nina now knows. Their pozole must be great, though, judging from the many people I've seen order it, even a few weeks ago when the morning temperatures were still in the 90s (although the market puts up shades, so it doesn't feel nearly as hot as it actually is).

After breakfast, I take a general walkthrough to see what's there. I usually bring only $20 to spend, which is enough to buy breakfast and all the produce I need for at least a week. The market does have credit card access, too. Basically, you go to vendors, select what you want, and have them hold it in exchange for a blue slip. This blue slip is like a tab on which you can list info for several vendors. On the slip, the vendors write who they are, what you bought, and how much you should be charged. When you're done, you take the blue slip to the information booth, and they run your card for each amount on the slip and give you a receipt for each vendor. You go back to the vendors and exchange the receipt for your selections. Easy peasy! My first week there, it allowed me to buy some fresh dates from the 80-year-old Art and his wife. (He actually turned 80 that day! Their spread is humble--just zip-log bags of three different date varieties, but when you go up and they generously offer that you try one of each, you can see some palatial beginnings within the fruits.)

One of my regular stops is also the market's largest produce vendor.

One Windmill Farm
One Windmill Farm's produce at the Public Market

They offer the widest example of what you can grow in the desert, all year long. Believe me, coming from California's lush and fertile coastline to the desert, I didn't have high hopes for locally grown, organic produce. I shied away from the supermarkets' unnaturally shiny fruit and suspiciously plump, lush produce. It took me only 13 years to learn better.

Apples
apples at the public market

Peaches
nectarines at the Public Market

Tomatoes
tomatoes at the Public Market

Herbs
One Windmill Farm's bagged herbs at the Public Market

Obviously, my neighbors have long been savvy to Arizona's options.

One Windmill's line to the farm's fast, efficient, and friendly cashiers
a line!

You can enjoy the view of the Westward Ho while you're in line
the Downtown Phoenix Public Market

I'll admit, I chuckled when I first saw the market from the parking lot. My hometown's farmers' markets are sprawling. It was only when I'd seen what vendors had to offer that I put my foot in my mouth (luckily, also organic). The first two weeks were great. This weekend, though, the market had grown! Several vendors take the summer months off, but as the temperatures drop, they're returning. Cindy, the market's incredibly energetic executive director, told me that they'd be expanding the market outward a bit to accommodate everyone. (Incidentally, they're also going to be open on weekdays so that people who are downtown during the week can check it out, and expanding into a building adjacent to the lot next spring after its current tenants' lease runs out.)

One of my favorite returners is Dos Arbolitos--two men and a whole load of herbs! I met them last week and talked at great length about my shady condo patio and my total lack of luck with herbs. One of them suggested a mint plant. I had no money at the time, so I told them I'd be back the following week. This week, they remembered me, and I bought one of the plants on the left in the photo--the chocolate mint. I was tempted to drive home with my nose in the bag.

Herbs: chocolate mint, sage, and Something Purple ...
herb plants at the public market

Another favorite and frequent stop is Crooked Sky Farms, which tends to have entirely different produce from One Windmill Farms.

Peppers
peppers at the public market

Eggplants
eggplant varieties at the Phoenix Market

In-shell pistachios, which seem to grow like nuts in Arizona! (har har)
unshelled pistachios

So yes, I'm now addicted to the Public Market. It's one of the highlights of my weekend--pure leisure. It's rare these days to be around so many people and not feel a little tense or chaotic or under the pressure of some less-than-dire intent. This place is a breath of fresh air under Phoenix's smoggy skies.

Reasons Why I Love Public Market Produce

1. It's no more expensive than supermarket produce, and in some cases, you save money. I see this mostly in herbs, where packages contain more than I need and cost more than I wish I had to pay. I usually buy a bag or three of herbs from One Windmill Farm, which sells a good amount in $1 or $2 bags, and larger for some. Even if you're on food stamps, you can shop at the Public Market, which accepts them.

2. It's fresh. One of the first things I learned about in culinary school was the "life cycle" of picked produce. It's picked, stored, transported, stored, shelved, sold, stored, then used. Produce's natural nutrients are dying off that entire time, as soon as it's picked. Its whole chemistry changes, from its sugars to its cell structure. You can taste the difference. And since it's fresh, it can also last longer if you cant' use it up right away.

3. It's organic. I can't eat a lot of non-organic, supermarket veggies raw. Most times when I eat at one of those all-you-can-eat salad buffets or most restaurants' salad entrees unless it's just a few bites from a dinner salad. I throw up (honestly--it makes me that ill, and I'm immediately sick). My body's always been sensitive and in tune with what goes into it, and I feel it most with raw food. Why? Because most of these veggies have been "treated"--badly. Part of mass-produced produce's life cycle often involves chemicals that retard (preservatives and waxes) some aspects of produce's natural tendencies, and speed (ripening agents) other aspects up. And that's all after using all sorts of unnatural fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides on the stuff out in the field. It may not be certifiably unhealthy, staying within the EPA's "acceptable risk" measurements, but if your system is like mine, it's downright poisonous. And organic also means that it's better for the ecosystem--no crazy chemicals seeping into water tables or irreversibly damaging what was once healthy soil.

4. It's in-season. Generally, in-season produce tastes better, and sometimes, it's more nutritious. And even in supermarkets, they're cheaper than their hothouse counterparts.

5. And what one might consider a sentimental point. A good friend instantly quelled my notion that there aren't enough resources in the world to support its current population by saying that we do indeed have the resources--they're just not managed well. He didn't have to say more. Every time I go to the supermarket, I see the produce section piled with produce that won't sell. It arrives in bad shape, or it's picked through so no one wants it. It's disturbing to think that all that produce is written off and tossed. Some of it is donated to organizations like Waste Not, which delivers it to community centers that help feed the homeless and hungry. Most of it goes to the dumpster. It sucks when you learn that millions of children, about 20% of all children, in the U.S. suffer from "absolute hunger," "extreme hunger," or "some level of hunger." The waste is alarming and sad. I don't see that kind of waste in that quantity at the Public Market. Most vendors sell it til it's gone because they don't generate more than they can sell. And some of them sell food to local schools through "farm-to-school" programs, so it's having a great affect where it matters most.


Additional Resources:
EATING WELL; Is Organic Food Provably Better? from the New York Times
Better Nutrition from Vegetables in Season from the Food & Fertilizer Technology Center
Too many hungry children in this land of plenty from People's Weekly World
Center on Hunger and Poverty at Tuft's University

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is why I also go every weekend to shop, support my friends w/booths there and to see my 'peeps'.I am a downtowner, artist, bon vivant who likes life and experiences off the cuff and in my face rather than in a box or pre-digested. Give my community or leave the light on! The farmer's market is full of people like me, who relish the camaraderie of the undiscovered friend and the quiet joy of being '1' and being part of something bigger than yourself. 'Be the change you want to see in the world.'epitomizes the market community and is our way of giving back and keeping it real! Namaste lives in the smile on your face and the joy in your heart-come share and c u there!!!

Julie said...

Thank you for your words! I enjoy the market more and more each week I return! I'm finding new reasons to return each week, too! I look forward to going back!

Wendy said...

What is this chocolate mint!?