For Al Vacarro, shopping for food on weekends during the growing season takes on aspects of a military campaign. Vacarro is a State Department official who wears his passion for food and wine on his sleeve. He searches near and far for the best of both, far being France on vacation whenever possible and, more frequently, York, Pa.
Why York? No one would suggest the 200 or more mile round-trip journey be made in hopes of saving money. Prices are fair, according to Vacarro, though not necessarily cheap.
He goes in search of quality. The two markets there offer more and better fresh produce and meats than he has found elsewhere as well as an opportunity for direct contact with farmers and farm families.
Vacarro offered, on a recent Saturday, a guided tour. Departure was at 8 a.m. Arriving any later than 10 was to waste the day he insisted as he explained what he really wanted to do at some future date. He would drive to York on a Friday with a ration of wine, bread and cheese and hole up in a local motel. (It is Vacarro's view - painfully researched - that no York restaurant does justice to the natural bounty from the surrounding farmland.) Then he could be on hand at 6:30 a.m., when the market opens.
Driving to York, Vacarro follows the most direct route, 1-95 to the Baltimore Beltway to Route 83. If time allows, he will return on backroads, exploring small towns in the direction of Gettysburg and beyond.
His primary target is the market at the corner of Philadelphia and N. Beaver. He explores this one fully before moving on to a building labeled "Farmers' Market," located at W. Market and S. Pennsylvania, several blocks away. To him, the Farmers' Market is "more placid," although before purchasing a large quantity of tomatoes or peaches he will scout the selection at both.
Despite his curiosity, Vacarro is something of a ritualist. Each visit at the Philadelphia Street market begins at Maple Donuts just inside the Beaver Street entrance. Though there are "58 delicious varieties," invariably he purchases a sugar doughnut (15 cents) then moves a few feet to a BBQ stand to buy coffee. This stand may also provided a steamed ham sandwich for the homeward journey, but he dismissed the homemade Polish sausage as "dull."
Before entering into combat, he surveys the terrain. A stroll precedes the first purchases. It was high corn season. Styrofoam containers were ready in his Volkswagon and he would buy ice for them to chill the corn and keep meat cool during his race back toward the cooking pot later in the day. He urged his companion away from one stand. "He's not a farmer," Vacarro said. "He goes into Baltimore to buy his stock."
That wasn't the case with H. Quentin Myers, whose fresh-killed poultry gleamed from the ice that was regularly rubbed over them, nor L.S. Ilyes, where Vacarro "always" buy eggs. Myers had fresh ducks, but they lost a place on the evening menu to the fat rabbits ($2 a pound, cut up) sold by H.E. Gumet, an elderly man who assured Vacarro they had been butchered the day before. King's bakery was bypassed on this day, though its honey-nut bread received a strong endorsement. The various stands are staffed by the owners or members of their families many of them Amish.
The preliminaries done, Vacarro settled down to chat with Wayne Fitz, the head of one of several related Fitz families whose competing stands are in close proximity. Wayne Fitz was cutting a cantaltupe with a spotted end and made a fast and favorable impression by handing over a slice that proved wonderfully sweet. The stand had been his parents and now his sons were working there.
"You have to like it to do it," Fitz said, who has been coming to the market "as long as I can remember." Business has been on the upswing. Metered parking on the site of some demolished buildings nearby has helped, he said, and, despite the peculiarities of the weather this year, things look brighter on the farms, too. "The trend has changed," Fitz said. "Young people aren't going away. They want to come into it."
The Philadelphia Street market operates three days a week, Tuesday and Thursday as well as Saturday. Fitz also sells at another market on Fridays. He said there was no rivalry between the two markets Vacarro frequents. It's just a matter of location and habit. Fitz was tapped for melons, some corn, onions, lima and green beans and some tiny new potatoes. The H.H. Fitz stand nearby provided home-grown celery, Brussels sprouts and radishes. A boneless center cut was purchased from among a handsome display of pork at a subdivision of the Myers' stand. At other stands such regional specialities as Lebanon Bologna, bologna studded with green olives and souses were on display. Hand-made salads - potato, coleslaw and the like - were not tempting. Mayonnaise appeared to be the prime ingredient.
Peaches and tomatoes were everywhere, the former literally perfuming the air and the latter of varying sizes but almost uniform in their rich, red color and ripeness. Vacarro refused to bit, however, until he had inspected the Farmers' Market.
On gem here is the Sechrist meat counter, Lehman Fruit and Poultry became the source of two types peaches, Sun Hi and Loring. And Vacarro found some farm-made butter at the Chas E. Godfrey stand. After looking at the produce of H.E. Chronister, endorsed as another reliable supplier, he bought a giant basket for $2 at the Charles Ilyes stand. Some more corn was purchased.
Several of the tomatoes were used that evening as the first course of a meal that received an enthusiastic reception. It began with radishes and celery sticks. The rabbits were grilled over charcoal and served with zucchini. The corn appeared about the same time but was treated with the respect due a separate course. Peaches and melon slices were presented for dessert. Some Stilton cheese and Port wine found their way onto the table as well.
York itself is a town that lacks charm if not character. "Lancaster is a more pleasant and interesting town, but the shopping's better here," Vacarro volunteered. It was a little after noon and he was downing a Rolling Rock beer, another local product, at the White Rose, a very down-at-the-heels bar across Beaver Street from the market. A cab driver entered just as the man who had called him received a fresh beer.
"You in a hurry?" the drinker demanded. "Hell, no!" responded the cabbie and accepted the offer of a soft drink.
You don't find life sliced like that at the neighborhood supermarket.
TOMATOES WITH MOZARELLA AND BASIL (6 servings) 4 to 6 ripe tomatoes, depnding on size 1/4 pound mozarella cheese, chilled 4 or 5 fresh basil leaves 1/2 cup olive oil 2 to 3 tablespoons good quality red vinegar Freshly ground black pepper and salt Several pinches sugar
Remove cores and slice tomatoes. Dust very lightly with sugar. Slice mozarella into thin slices about the size of the tomato slices. Arrange alternate slices of tomato and cheese on a shallow serving dish. Chop basil and mix into vinegar. Stir in oil to make a sauce and season with peopper but not salt. Pour sauce over tomatoes and cheese, cover dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour. Just before serving spoon sauce over tomatoes and add salt to taste. Pass bread for sopping up the sauce.