By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
It's 8:52 on a steamy Sunday morning. The last gulp of my just-squeezed orange juice is gone, so I turn to what's on the plate.
This is one wicked tamale, soft and aromatic, with random bits of green pepper enlivening the corn masa flour and tender shreds of chicken buried like treasure inside. Here's the best part: It cost three bucks and was made with locally grown ingredients, and I get to wolf it down and keep on shopping. At the biggest farmers market in Maryland.
With 39 farmer-producers and 27 food vendors signed up for the 2008 season, the Baltimore Farmers' Market has become a destination with serious drawing power and growing crowds. For 23 of its 31 years, it has sprawled in the city parking lot under the Jones Falls Expressway downtown, with the whoosh-thumping of cars overhead providing unique background noise.
Residents have watched this market evolve; some say it has gone carnival and miss the chitterlings that were sold here a decade ago. Prices for vegetables and fruit are markedly lower than at farmers markets in and around Washington, which makes occasional trips from the Maryland suburbs feel like a score.
The sheer volume of produce -- plus the mix of ethnic and organic prepared foods, pit beef barbecue, fresh dairy products, meat, bakery goods and crafts -- helps to lure an average of more than 5,000 people every Sunday from May until deep December, from 8 a.m. to noon. If the market were cast as a canine, it'd be a great galumphing mutt with boundless energy, as opposed to, say, the well-bred greyhound that is Dupont Circle. (You'll see the occasional dog on a leash at the Baltimore market, but technically pets are not allowed.)
It's clear that folks who come are on their own separate missions, most of which involve eating. Viewed sociologically, Baltimore market patrons are successful multi-taskers who can shop, walk and chew at the same time. As a farmers market enthusiast, I peruse the two main corridors and think: These are my kind of people.
Some of the casual eaters park themselves on the low concrete wheel stops, while the more committed wait to find space at the few sets of plastic tables and chairs. Ellicott City resident Heather Ordonez and her 16-month-old daughter, Annika, like to rendezvous with friends and taste something different each time. What's on her plate this day in June, situated near the Humpty Dumpty omelet stand? "A creation made with three eggs, garlic, onion, mushrooms, basil, red bell pepper, spinach and two kinds of cheese," Ordonez says sheepishly. "It was only $5. We're going to try Zeke's Coffee today, too."
The line at Zeke's, a local roasting/coffee concern, is always long; the compact turns of an experimental Disney-rope treatment keep people and strollers from blocking nearby tables loaded with zucchini and peppers. Angela Cook of Baltimore says it's worth the usual 10- to 20-minute wait. There are beans and bags to buy, and Zeke's employees dispense banter with every purchase.
Vendors have more time to gab than the farmers, whose vegetables, fruit and herbs have to move. By mid-July, George Zahradka III of Browns Cove Farm in Essex, Md., says no matter how much bicolor corn he brings in, it's always gone by noon. The youngish, tanned farmer barely has time to look up from tossing the 600 or 1,000 dozen ears off the back of his truck. Last weekend, he sold all 2,000 pounds of his tomatoes: every one he had, he says. "There was nothing left."
Reisterstown residents Eugene and Carol Swigar are regulars who come for Browns Cove corn. "It's really sweet. We like the fact that it's Maryland-grown," Carol says, while Eugene announces they've been customers since the market moved to this location. Carol says it's been more like 10 years. "Well, my dad was a city policeman, and he came here from the start," Eugene shrugs.
Claims of long-standing loyalties can be heard in many corners of the market. Its manager, Carol Simon, took the job 18 years ago, "when there were two food vendors, and that was it," she says. As spaces opened with the ebb and flow of farmers' stands, Simon and her city bosses brought in local makers of hot sauces, sausages and honeys and added Thai foods, Caribbean curries and kettle corn. She says they try not to duplicate goods and services. The result makes the market diverse and lively (or less of a real farmers market, depending on whom you ask).
City resident Barbara Lahnstein has had a stand at the Baltimore market for about 14 years next to the Reid's Orchard folks from Ortanna, Pa., of whom she's very fond. Lahnstein is a specialty-food producer who smokes salmon and creates unusual, delicious-looking dishes, such as the artichoke cheese pie that was being sold by the pound in mid-July. "The market's changed. It's almost like a carnival, but I'm not bitter about it," she says. "It's really become a favorite for a lot of people in town. It makes money for the city."
According to Tracy Baskerville, communications director of Baltimore's Office of Promotion and the Arts, farmers pay $350 per parking-space-size lot for the season and can use as many as six spaces; fees for vendors vary. At the beginning of each season, the city works with an area extension service agent through the USDA to verify that farmers are growing what they bring to the market.
During setup, the farmers have a chance to scan one another's tables. The tomatoes neatly sorted by size and nicely cleaned might garner customer appeal, but they raise hackles among growers who suspect some produce might have been brought in from large, nonlocal producers.
Simon says they needn't worry: There's enough business for everyone. Baskerville says that spot-checks are made when needed and that special goods are allowed during the holiday season.
Enough small drama. There are more dire straits ahead. At Carambas, the tamale concession, on another Sunday, the breakfast burritos with chorizo are working on a portable flattop grill. One employee slips a small bag to the cook; it's fresh jalapeños from a farmer down the way.
The tamales are sold out, however. Ay, Carambas. I could make do with a butter and sugar crepe instead, or factor in extra time to come here again before the next Sunday Orioles game. I'm planning a return trip in high tomato season. Tamales could become my new breakfast food. Eaten at 8:02.