Where Cultures Meet, Amid Coconuts and Cousa Squash

Sammy Holness slices sugar cane at Exotic Tropics, his drink stand at the Crossroads Farmers Market.
Sammy Holness slices sugar cane at Exotic Tropics, his drink stand at the Crossroads Farmers Market. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Just when you thought farmers markets had become not only ubiquitous but maybe even a tad predictable, along comes one with surprising possibilities.

Such as fresh sugar cane. "Fourteen years in this country, and I haven't eaten that thing," Haiti native Emie Cadet shouts as she excitedly waves a juicy stalk in the air at last Wednesday's opening of the new Crossroads Farmers Market. "This makes my day." Behind her, two small Hispanic boys contentedly sip milk from green coconuts as big as their heads.

There are 4,400 farmers markets in the United States, more than three times the number in 1994, with an estimated sales volume of $1 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture. That includes 90-plus markets in the Washington area. But not one is quite like Crossroads in Takoma Park.

Under the tent of J & W Valley View Farm from Montross, Va., women in flowing saris take their time selecting fresh-picked Middle Eastern cousa squash, similar to zucchini. Nearby at the Takoma Kitchens bakery stall, three young mothers pushing strollers find exceptional empanadas and traditional Central American cookies just like, or even better than, back home.

"So many things, and the variety," Guatemala native Karina Gonzalez says after buying cinnamon rolls and coconut macaroons. "It's nearby and we like it a lot."

Coordinators of the new market, located at the busy intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and University Boulevard in an area known as Takoma/Langley Crossroads, called the soft opening a success, though the market is a work in progress. (An opening celebration and ribbon-cutting take place June 20; see box for address and hours of operation.)

From 3 to 7 p.m., more than 300 people turned out for the first farmers market in the region created to encourage minority and immigrant farmers and to serve the predominantly Salvadoran and increasingly West African, Indian and Caribbean immigrants in the surrounding areas. Through the season, farmers will sell not only the fruits and vegetables that you might expect to see at any market, but also produce that is intended to appeal to immigrants in the vicinity. Farmers who have sold at other markets for many years will also set up stalls here.

With five farm stalls, three food vendors and limited space, Crossroads is a smaller market. (The region's first farmers market in downtown Takoma Park has 23 farmers and food vendors.) But organizers say there is room for two more farmers, whom they hope to have in place this summer.

On this hot day, the most popular food vendor is Jamaica native Sammy Holness from Hyattsville, whose Exotic Tropics sells Florida-grown coconuts and sugar cane as well as a thirst-quenching, spicy ginger pineapple drink and blended fruit smoothies (see recipes, Page F10). In addition to Hyattsville-based Takoma Kitchens, which also makes terrific chicken tamales, a few stalls up the line there is Hondo Coffee Co. Former sheet metal worker and Fairfax native Arondo Holmes sells locally roasted, organically grown, pesticide-free coffee beans from the plantation in Honduras that he purchased two years ago.

Crossroads is the first farmers market in Maryland to accept food stamps, and it targets participants in the U.S. Department of Agriculture-administered Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

"With so many WIC recipients in the area, this is one reason we wanted to come here. We're trying to provide new options for healthy eating," says market manager Michele Thornett. "Look up and down University Boulevard. It's dotted with convenience stores and fast-food places." At a welcome booth, food stamp participants receive, in addition to their benefits, "Fresh Checks" good for up to $10 for fruits and vegetables.

Crossroads is funded in part by a $60,000 grant by the nonprofit, New York-based Project for Public Spaces and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Additional funding came from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, a Washington-based group with interests in sustainable agriculture and the environment; the Montgomery County Health Department; and the National Watermelon Promotion Board.

Farmer Emily Zaas of Black Rock Orchard in Lineboro, Md., sells her berries and apples here not only because she considers it socially responsible but also because it's "interesting to try a new community."

"The farmers markets are becoming elite. Everybody should be eating healthy, not just those who can afford it," says Zaas, a former language teacher who conversed with many of her customers in Spanish but also speaks French, a little Greek and Hebrew. "Everyone should have access to locally grown, healthy food." Nonetheless, her tender, delicious string beans go for $10 a pound.

At the first stall in the row is Sierra Leone native Haroun Hallack, who owns Red Bud Farm in Inwood, W.Va. He grows a wide variety of hot peppers, okra, bitter melons and more. "For all the West Africans here, I'm going to have a lot of amaranth greens for our sauces and stews," he says.

Business is fairly slow throughout the afternoon at Hallack's stall, but he is confident things will pick up as word spreads. At one point, Cuba native Jeannette Rodriguez stops by and spots an unfamiliar vegetable.

"I've never seen this, and I do a lot of cooking," Rodriguez says, running her hand over a bunch of lumpy, bulblike, purple-and-green kohlrabi -- not the prettiest vegetable.

Hallack explains that it's a member of the turnip family and tastes "slightly like cabbage." Rodriguez isn't sure. But when Hallack says she can take them for free and give them a try, she pays the $2.50 anyway, and off with the bunch she goes.

"This area is ripe with need for fresh vegetables," Hallack says. "And I'm here to fill that need."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company