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Between the Beaches

Lewes Market Is Full of Fresh Food and Characters

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By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008; Page C02

'Are you a mushroom person?" ask the ladies of the Historic Lewes Farmers Market as we walk past Davidson Exotic Mushrooms.

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"Sure," I reply nonchalantly. But it's funny they should ask. Because I am a mushroom -- my Polish last name means morel, a particularly sought-after shroom.

Davidson's stand doesn't have any morels (they're a spring delicacy), but it does have other fungi: portobello, crimini, shiitake, oyster, all picked and ported this recent Saturday morning to a school parking lot in this Delaware coast town, where we've come to escape a little beach fatigue after three days in nearby Rehoboth.

I look at the mushrooms, and they look at me. "Eat me," I can almost hear them saying, as if I were Alice, and I guess I'll be taking some home; they sure look plump and fresh.

"Fresh," of course, being the farmers market rallying cry. "That's what it's all about, isn't it?" says Angela at Freeman Farms, a fourth-generation family operation in Lewes. She's selling the season's first corn, which accounts for the length of her line from opening bell at 8 a.m. "This is all as fresh as you can get, just picked at 5 o'clock this morning. You can't ask for more than that," she says.

Unless maybe you ask for organic, I guess. Freeman is a traditional -- i.e., not organic -- farm, but most of the other farmers among the 30 or so vendors have gone whole hog for the organic method. (One even allows as how he's thinking of bringing in oxen to plow. Wow.)

But "we're not just about organic," says market spokeswoman Sally Packard. "We want to support all the small, local farms." An art gallery co-owner, Packard was one of the town residents who organized this enterprise three summers ago. Having lived for years in such places as Baltimore and Washington, she says, "we missed our farmers markets. And you can't count on the old-fashioned farm stands anymore."

I buy that. In the old days, you'd get the freshest local produce at the stands along Route 9, but lately, let's face it, they haven't been so pure. I mean, Eastern Shore farms don't grow avocados, do they?

That's why we've come to the farmers market. But on the day we visit, a seafaring festival has uprooted the market from its usual home on the tree-shaded grounds of the Lewes Historical Society downtown. So we're stuck on the asphalt, and the sun is rising high.

I head for the shade of the chicken man's awning. The chicken man, a.k.a. Bill Stevenson, is the resident character. Today, he has brought along a couple of Manx Rumpy roosters and is cradling one in his arms while the other observes from a cage nearby. Bill looooves chickens. He owns about 200 birds of myriad varieties, whose eggs he ostensibly comes to market to sell. But all his eggs are gone by 8:30, and still he'll hang around until closing time at noon to chat with anybody who stops by.

And folks keep stopping by. Bill regales a group with a story about the time a couple of chickens flew the coop during market and roosted in a nearby tree. "I thought, well, the chicken population of Lewes was about to be increased by two," he quips. (The birds got bored after a while and came back to earth.) He talks about his favorite chickens and the ones that spend the night in his house. He lets kids pet the Rumpys. He's all entertainment and a reason himself to visit the market.

But then, so is the Sussex Consortium stand. Its stock is a bit limited by the time I wander over: a few zucchinis and some basil pesto, one or two focaccia loaves. But you can't beat the back story: It's a school for autistic kids who cultivate their own organic garden. Then there's Tim Bell at Community Organics. I confess, I'm a teensy bit skeptical of the powers of organic food. But Tim may have won me over after telling me about the hip surgery he was able to cancel once he and his wife started eating organic. Really? Hmm. Better stock up on some of those vitamin-loaded veggies just to be on the safe side.

Maybe I'll get a head start by trying the free samples over at Good for You Organic Foods; the arugula-brie spread is super yummy. All the herbs and greens from Hattie's Garden look lush and luscious, as does everything at Good Earth Market. Proprietor Susan Ryan tells me she used to be in the custom-home-building business and lived in a D.C. suburb where her neighbors didn't know what to make of the vegetable garden in her back yard. "They'd ask me, 'What's that?' " she says, screwing up her face. "I knew I was in the wrong place."

Yup, there are a million stories at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. But the morning is getting late, and the sun is starting to scorch. Even the chicken man's roosters are crowing in complaint. A woman walks by with a parasol. "Good idea," I say.

"Oh, I'm from Seattle. We don't get out in the sun much," she says, laughing. "We're more like mushroom people."

Funny she should say that. "I need some shade," I announce, making for the free-water table. "See, you're a mushroom person, too!" she calls after me.

If she only knew.


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