As you approach it on foot alongside Lake Flower, it seems to be some sort of camp meeting or scout jamboree/bivouac. Tents with pointed tops are lined up around a square of lawn. Their backs are closed to the streets, but they are open to the inside, creating a space for social interaction that is separated from what is outside.
It’s a latter-day version of market day, when farmers and artisans came into small towns to sell their products, to stock up on a few things themselves and to chat with neighbors who lived too far away for daily contact. Horse-drawn wagons would make the resemblance complete.
The farmers market at Riverside Park is genuine and basic and fundamentally joyous.
You go to a supermarket because you have to. You’ve run out of bread or eggs or beer. In a way, you also go to the farmers market because you have to. But not because you’ve run out of some food. You need — not to put too fine a point on it — the lifting of the spirit that happens there among the open stalls with their backs to the day-to-day world.
Shopping at the farmers market is quite unlike pushing a cart among orderly shelves and having bar codes scanned and sticking a credit card in a slot. To be fair, though, the supermarket is useful. Given the way that we feed ourselves has evolved, it’s perhaps even necessary. But a trip to the supermarket lacks the something special that is the essence of the farmers market.
To a large extent, the vendors at the market are passionate about what they are selling. Buying a bunch of radishes from the person who has grown them or a loaf of bread from the baker transcends mere commerce. It’s an affirming social transaction.
The lawn around which the tents are arranged is a playground for children and dogs and, at times, a dance floor for adults. I would not be surprised to learn that some people come to the market not to buy anything but just for what happens on the grass. Maybe that’s too fanciful, but I trust you get my drift.
The market makes Ann and me want to cook. I’m sure we’re not alone in that. For many people, life gets so busy and duties so piled up that by the end of most weeks, meal preparation has become more chore than pleasure. Recipes and creativity and happy preparation — a glass of wine in hand and music in the background — are a little rare on weeknights. But Saturday morning at the market revives the basic human urge to play in the kitchen.
Ann and I go there with only a vague idea of what we intend to buy. We’ll know it when we see it. For near-vegans like us, the offerings would seem to be always the same: mostly tomatoes, corn, peppers, salad greens and the like. But that’s not quite how it is. One Saturday, we discovered callaloo, the Jamaican greens, and in doing so we had an amiable chat with the seller. He’d learned about callaloo from some Jamaican farm workers. And it’s delicious.
You can buy tomatoes and greens year round at supermarkets, but you can’t buy vine-ripened tomatoes your near neighbor grew except during a few weeks in summer. Those tomatoes conjure visions of tomato sandwiches. That never happens in winter at the supermarket. And if the sandwich urge doesn’t lead to making your own, you can buy an excellent loaf in a nearby stall.
You don’t have to be a vegan to get excited about the market. There is plenty for omnivores: meat from animals that have not been tortured on factory farms, cheese, peanut butter, wine, prepared food, coffee and ceramics — all of it enticing.
This is the peak of the season; everything that is going to be available is here now. Except one — apples and fruit. Perhaps the late arrival of these gifts is the Almighty’s way of making them more pleasurable than they would be without the summer-long buildup of eagerness. In any case, I can hardly wait for them. And when I do get my hands on a fresh honeycrisp, I’m going to depart from my vegan ways and enjoy a chunk of local cheddar with it. It will be an homage to my father. He loved apples and cheese together. I have the happiest possible memories of driving with him in autumn to an orchard farm stand to buy them.
All in all, these Saturdays at the Riverside Park market offer respite from the conflicts that are roiling American life. It’s peaceful and affirming there.