Checking Out Some of Baltimore's Lesser Known Farmers Markets
It's easy to be cynical about living in a city with as many challenges as ours. The only times I ever feel my prickly cynicism wane are on those rare weekend mornings when I manage to get out of bed before noon to go to the farmers market.
Many people say they go to get locally grown produce, but they're lying. After all, sometimes it's conspicuously not local (Maryland isn't exactly known for citrus fruit). One time I overheard a woman at the Waverly market asking where the cucumber in her hand was from, to which the vendor replied, "Florida." I could tell she'd be back anyway, and so could the guy selling Florida's best cucumbers.
For some the veggies are little more than an afterthought. Those liars are my kind. They go to leach happiness (or at least the appearance of happiness) out of the air, to take in the laughing babies, street performers, hot-sauce peddlers, giddy dogs, toddling grannies, and handholding couples.
You can always spot a hope junky, though. They walk around smiling and staring, carrying a bag filled with tomatoes, incense, and cheese, with no meal plan whatsoever. They're transfixed by the colors and aromas: fresh-baked rosemary rolls, gardenias, coffee, strawberries. They are after the total experience, and if they pick up a fresh head of lettuce in the bargain, so much the better.
As someone who's always thought grocery stores were abysmal, badly lit prisons constructed to make people despondent, shopping at farmers markets is the obvious option. Most city-dwellers know that Saturday brings the year-round Waverly farmers market, and that Sundays May through December bring the downtown market under the JFX. But those bustling, crowded markets can make even the blithe addict feel the need for elbow room.
The solution is the city's less-populated markets, a handful of smaller, newer venues to get locally grown and organic produce.
The newest addition to this set is the Freshfarm Market at Harbor East. Normally Harbor East seems like an alien landscape, better fit for a distant planet than the Charm City with which longtime residents are familiar. But the thought of avoiding having to wrestle an heirloom tomato from an old lady's hand at one of the more well-known markets drew me in. Freshfarm (open Saturdays June through October) has fewer vendors and customers than the larger markets, but you can still find local buys there, including Atwater's breads, Springfield Farm's humanely raised pork, and One Straw Farm's red-leaf lettuce. Chic unnecessaries like handmade, fragrant soaps and potted orchids are also for sale, as can be expected in posh Baltimore. The unhurried nature of the smaller markets allows time for such luxuries as talking with farmers about their products. These chats lead me to explore unusual items like purple pumpkins and bison sausage.
While I have little understanding of what to do with a purple pumpkin, I do know the divinity of Asian plums. The little yellow translucent fruits are sweet and tender and look more like jewels than something meant for consumption. These treasures can be found along with the world's sweetest blackberries at the Highlandtown farmers market. A tiny Saturday market near the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, the Highlandtown market, open July through October, has little in the way of variety. The single block of vendors, however, makes up for the dearth of produce with quality and arts and crafts vendors. The perfectly ripe fruits won me over. The crafts, not so much.
When you're in it just for the food, the Mill Valley Garden Center and Farmer's Market is open Thursday through Sunday all year round. An advantage of Mill Valley over its tiny market sisters is that it's indoors, so it's open rain or shine. But the real highlight of going there on Sundays is eating one of Mick the Pirate's omelets and drinking Zeke's coffee.
No one should food shop on an empty stomach. It leads to frivolous pastry purchases, fat asses, and not much else. The first time you eat an omelet at Mill Valley surrounded by people selling greens in an old warehouse, it feels a bit odd. You get used to it because the breakfast is always flavorful and inexpensive, with ingredients like marinara sauce and spinach or smoked bacon and brie.
Mill Valley is also a pickup point for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) endeavor. CSA projects give consumers the chance to order produce directly from the farmers. Picturing myself ending up with a box of roots in mid-November with no idea whether to use them for doorstops or dinner, I inquired about selection. With this CSA run through One Straw Farm, and some other local ones, you can make choices and skip the luck of the draw.
For those lucky enough to have free weekdays, Cross Keys hosts a Tuesday morning market, and Park Heights and Mount Washington both have Wednesday markets. There is also a plethora of weekday markets in the surrounding counties. But if you have that much free time, you probably don't need the pick-me-up offered by farmers markets, whether it's soaking in the happy, hurrying crowds at the big two or the quieter joys of discovering new foods and getting to know the people who grow your food at smaller markets.
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