There was a time, not many years ago, when groceries were almost exclusively purchased at box-shaped stores, wrapped in plastic bags, gathered together in larger plastic bags, carted away in loads big enough to feed a family for weeks. Fresh was relative: produce came from wherever it could be produced cheaply. An apple was an apple. Lettuce was lettuce. Potatoes were big and for baking or mashing. Bread was a sliced white loaf. Meat was cut or ground, and all was valued for low price. Food existed without identity, place or time and we praised ourselves for our efficiency.
That heritage remains. Conventional grocery stores of the world still supply the masses and mirror the trends of our appetite. They are fascinating temples of commerce, museums of ingenuity, artifacts of a world we hoped could catapult us out of our past—a place we associate with strife. But I believe we have desires that go deeper than our aspirations.
If there is one word that describes a farmers’ market, it is fresh. I remember vividly the feeling of going to our market in St. Paul, Minnesota as a small child. The heady smell of fresh bread and pastries mingled with the floral scent of apples in boxes, the alertness of vegetables laid out artfully, the cut flowers, some cloyingly sweet or peppery, some bland. I would follow my parents through it desiring everything, so tantalizingly alive it all seemed compared to the shelves of the grocery store. Along the floor I found flower buds popped off their stem in the hustle and bustle of a crowd. I collected them in my small fist, a miniature bouquet that mapped the way I had come.
Technology can give us tomatoes in January, strawberries that cross the country without rotting, apples all year round. When communities get involved, food technology becomes less relevant. Communities desire flavor, nutrition, vitality. These things come intertwined: when farmers are paid the true cost of food, they grow the best food possible; when a community desires real food, it comes to them; when food tastes alive, it makes a community happier and healthier. Fresh means food not long severed from the earth, but it also means the old made new: a question remembered.
We are fortunate to have the sort of community that asked again. The answer has been ten years of gathering together to share in the excitement and wonder of food done well. As Hillsdale Farmers’ Market turns 10 years old, we should all pause a moment to remember when lettuce was only green, carrots were always orange, and Sunday was just another day to work around the house. Here we are each week, standing in the open air, exchanging gratitudes. Thank you for growing and producing food I am proud of, that gives me pleasure and sustenance. Thank you for buying the food that allows me to work a job I love, that keeps my land alive and ignites the energy to do more.
(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, May 31, 2012)