I can’t get the hang of the farmer’s market. I know it’s a weird thing to say, but I’m having real problems figuring out how to use it. The Logan Square Farmer’s Market has moved to the lobby of the Congress Theater for the winter and, while I never went to the outdoor one out of laziness and weekend sleeping-in, I was always curious about and intended to go.
A little history about me and farmer’s markets: I grew up (mostly) around St. Louis, which is home to the Soulard Market, a large and very old (est. 1779!) farmer’s market, to which my parents and I went a total of once. Probably because back then, in the late 80s/early 90s, it was as much flea-market as it was actual produce market, and it probably wasn’t particularly clean and almost certainly didn’t smell very nice. But, being a forward thinking conscientious young Obama voter, I’ve always liked, you know, the idea of farmer’s markets. I’ve just never been very close to one. Until now.
Admittedly, I didn’t go under the best of circumstances, what with it being the end of the growing season for most stuff here in the northern Midwest, but I have to say, I was a disappointed. I’ve gone these past two Sundays and the first time there were only seven vendors, two of which were both selling nothing but cabbages, and I was one of five shoppers and we were all crammed into this little old-timey theater lobby looking at each other and, frankly, it was a little embarrassing for everyone, I think. Like bad sex.
I went back the next weekend in hopes that it would have improved somehow, like maybe there would be some potatoes or something I like along those lines, and there certainly were more vendors this time, and more shoppers. There was also a little satellite Public Relations booth from Alderman Manny Flores’ (a.k.a. ManFlo) office. If you’ve never been to the Congress Theater, it’s a 1920s-era movie palace that’s been converted into a live music (and Lucha Libre) venue. It’s fallen into a state of minor disrepair, with cracked and crumbling crown molding and a grand-stair case covered in a stained and trampled red carpet runner. The whole place has a slightly dystopian feel to it, like some kind of post-apocalyptic final sanctuary for humanity, meloncholically reminiscent of our grander past. And spread throughout this Lobby of Our Dim Future are the farmers and vendors and artisan soap makers, with their produce and products spread out on collapsible wooden tables. There’s even a guy playing an acoustic guitar on the stair case like it’s freaking Potbelly’s (which if he’s there at official invitation of the market people then it’s kind of tacky and lame and if he just brought his guitar to the farmer’s market for kicks then he’s a weirdo).
So I pause in the door way for a moment, and I don’t know where to go first. See, in a supermarket, there’s a traffic pattern. You walk in the doors and are delivered pretty much directly into an aisle in which to begin your shopping. But here, since it’s a theater, you walk into the center of lobby and since there aren’t very many people there’s no discernible traffic flow. And I also kind of feel like everyone’s watching me, but that’s more about me and my sense of outsiderness than any real actual occurrence so take it as you will. I pick a direction (right) and begin making my rounds of the tables. The first one is a table full of late-season apples, several varieties all red and yellow and spilling out of decoratively woven baskets and they all look old and mealy. I think about buying a couple of honeycrisp apples, but I don’t. I don’t want to stop for very long, and that’s going to be a problem and I know it right off the bat.
The longer I stay at one table, the more I feel like I have to buy something. I mean, the people who grew the stuff, who sweated and toiled and got dirty to bring me this bounty are just standing there, staring holes in the top of my head as I look at their goods. It feels like my decision to buy their apples or onions is a decision about their character, about their person and their worth. The highest compliment or the gravest insult. Or at least a conscious decision to consign them to poverty. To not buy mushrooms is to hold the mushroom farmer’s whole life’s purpose in disdain. It’s not like the Jewel, where the only things to see what I do or do not pick up are the shelves themselves and the mirrored surveillance eyeballs on the ceiling, and what do I care if hurt their feelings? But here the longer I linger, the higher the hopes of a sale, the more this person’s entire season hangs on my head, their entire life, whether or not they can afford to start a family, maybe, or hire a farm hand so that Dad with his back arthritic from years of lettuce picking can finally retire, God knows he deserves it.
So I move on quickly before I have the chance to offend anyone. And that, of course, means that I can’t get a good look at what’s on sale. If I could have spent a few minutes looking over the apples in comfort, I probably would have bought some. But instead, I’m walking down the center of the aisles, as far from the tables on either side as I can get, trying to survey what’s around and if I want it.
There are two competing apples ladies, then the mushroom guy (who also sells onions and whose life’s purpose I do not in fact hold in disdain), and someone trying to sell $10 jars of salsa. There’s a table of breakfast pastries which makes me laugh at imaging free-range doughnuts. Back in one corner is a table of all kinds of terrible root vegetables and purple heads of cabbage. Then coming towards the door along the far wall are artisan cheese, artisan honey, artisan bread, an empty table, and some lettuce. A lot of lettuce. Kale. Spinach. Arugula. I don’t even know what most of them are. (Does anyone really know what bok choy is?) A banner behind the table reads “Radical Root Farm,” which is kind of clever. The guy standing there is about 30 years old and has his hands stuck in the pockets of a black waiter’s apron, the kind that just goes around your waist. He’s got a short black beard and black frame glasses. He looks more like the people in my fiction writing classes than he does a farmer, and I wonder what kind of life he lives. 30 (or so) seems kind of young to cast off the shackles of conventional society to move to to rural Wisconsin (or wherever) and start a small independent farm.
Were I an actual journalist, I might have asked the guy. But instead, I just looked at him a little too long and I think I made him uncomfortable. He stepped forward and asked me if he could help me with anything. “Oh, um. I think I’d like a bag of spinach.” The spinach did look good, all green and purple and full of iron for my semi-anemic girlfriend. He said it was $5 a bag. I squeezed one of the bags, which was a completely pointless thing to do and obviously didn’t tell me anything about the spinach. And then I remembered I already had some spinach at home. “Actually, I think I’d like some of this.” I pointed to some bags that just said “Salad Mix.” The lettuce guy then named every kind of leaf that was included and I totally lost track and had never heard of most of them and I bought it anyway, because I was now most definitely obliged to buy something.
After that, I was at the end of the line. I had come full circle back to the front doors. Still holding my damp bag of salad greens I started to make a second round. One of the apple ladies offered me a sample of some dried strawberries. I accidentally took three stuck together. They were the most delicious piece of fruit, dried or otherwise, I have ever had in my life. Sweeter than regular strawberries and still just a little sharp, dusted with sugar, juicy and they even felt good on my tongue, if that makes any sense. The woman suggest I put the strawberries in my cereal, but, honestly, if I bought them I would have eaten the entire container on the three block walk back to my house. And then I saw that the little box, a clear plastic box like you might get hummus to-go in, less than a quarter of a pound probably, was almost $10. So I left. Right out the front door. And that was it. I was outside on Milwaukee Avenue, safe, but still feeling kind of guilty, and with nothing to show but a bag of lettuce. About 15 minutes later, I had a minor allergic reaction to the strawberries and my lips started to itch.