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New York's Greenmarket Is a Foodie Festival
Local farmers continue to put 'fresh' back in fresh food
Dona Gibbs (dlfgibbs)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2006-10-08 14:54 (KST)   
Imagine an apple that's as crisp as the first hint of fall, one that's never been within a shiver of cold storage. It's a variety that maybe you never heard of and certainly haven't seen in a supermarket.

Now dig way down into your sensory memories for the taste of a ripe tomato still warm from the sun.

Picture a riot of blowsy leaf lettuce, festive Swiss chard, sweet little baby bok choy, crinkly kale, mints and basils and even stinging nettles for medicinal infusions.

Inhale that pungency. That's cheese -- goat, cow and sheep.

All around you there are food stalls. There are stalls devoted to honey. Stalls selling jams and jellies. Stalls with fresh from the farm milk, damn-the-calories ice cream, luscious yoghurt. Stalls spilling flowers and plants. There's meat -- lamb, pork and even bison. There are fish that were yanked from the sea only yesterday.

Now imagine that the cheerful people manning each of those stalls are the people who personally took part in raising the vegetables, cutting the flowers and milking those cows.

No, we're not in a quaint French village. We're smack dab in New York City Union Square Greenmarket, 17th Street and Broadway.

And this isn't some rare fall festival. The Union Square Greenmarket bustles four days a week. It's been a bonanza for home cooks and chefs since 1976.

As someone who's never met a food group she didn't like, the Greenmarket is better than a circus. Saturdays bring out the old, the young and the in-between.

A dignified elderly man strolls with his hands behind his back until he spots a melon, which he must, absolutely, must tap. He smiles when he hears the satisfy thump of ripeness. A three-year-old tucks a flower behind her ear. A woman in a Tyrolean hat inspects peach pies.

The farmers come from upper New York State, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Vermont. They sell what they raise and produce so what shoppers find in the market is what's in season. Fall bounties are apples and pears.

Getting all this ripeness to market isn't a job for people who like to lounge about in the morning.

"We get up at three in the morning, we load up and we're on the road by 4:30 at the latest," explained the man who carefully wrapped an enormous bunch of opal basil for me.

"Leave in the dark, go home in the dark," he grinned.

The market was the brainchild a New York City architect and city planner Barry Benepe. In 1975 he was working on a project for the city of Newburgh, New York, a city in a rural area up the Hudson River. He saw that many of the apple orchards and family farms were close to bankruptcy. The small scale operations were just that: small, too small, to supply the big chain supermarkets.

He felt it would sad to see these noble, but hardscrabble enterprises disappear, plowed under to make way for tract housing and shopping malls. He felt that farmers' markets would give these struggling family farms an economic viability. He saw markets as "modern day agoras" and as "expressions of community."

It was a hard, hard road to bring farm fresh food to New York City. Local merchants and supermarkets looked upon the market as a pesky interloper and snarled that these farmers would undercut prices and sneered they would avoid city rents and city taxes.

The farmers, it seemed, weren't exactly eager to venture into the city where they feared crime was rampant and the residents haughty.

In spite of these doubts, July 1976, the first New York City Greenmarket opened on a city-owned vacant lot at 59th Street and Second Avenue with seven vendors. By noon they had all sold out.

In a recent New York magazine article, Ron Binaghi, Jr. of Stokes Farm in Tappan, N.Y. recalled his father's incredulous reaction that first market day. "Is there a famine somewhere in that city?" he wondered.

New Yorkers were, indeed hungry, even though it took a little convincing that farmers' markets were sanitary places to buy food although there had been a thriving food market before World War II. They were shocked to see little flecks of mud clinging to potatoes. They were surprised that they could, no, encouraged to peel back a little of cornhusk to revel a row or two of fresh corn. Where was the plastic wrap?

Thirty years later, New Yorkers are still learning. The Greenmarket, a program of the Council on the Environment, hands out such helpful leaflets as An Heirloom Tomato Primer so New Yorkers can understand that, "Yes, that weird misshapen tomato will taste good."

While the Union Square market is still the flagship, there are now forty-four other markets throughout New York's five boroughs. There's a market running somewhere seven days a week.

Part of the market's undeniable appeal is the give and take between customer and farmer and several New York publications have conferred near-star quality on the attractive twenty-something males selling Pennsylvania Dutch handmade pretzels.

It's also been reported that half a dozen farmers have married customers. The most famous of these matches is Mario Batali, owner and chef of several top-rated New York restaurants, who wed Susi Cahn of Coach Farm, known for its premier goat cheese. Batali claimed he didn't know she was an owner when he met her.

Will a shopper find true love at the Greenmarket? Maybe not.

Will a shopper find something to love at the Greenmarket? Absolutely. Something wonderful to take home is practically guaranteed.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Dona Gibbs

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