Devin Symons knows his apples.
Galas are sweet and crisp, he says, good for munching. Elstars are tart and perfect for salads because they won't turn brown after they've been sliced.
And he can tell you a thing or two about peaches, such as the difference between freestones and clingstones: The fruit of the former is easily separated from its pits; prying the meat from the latter is a bit more challenging.
How does a 15-year-old city kid know so much about fresh fruit? Devin didn't grow up on a farm, but he did grow up at the farmers market at All Souls Episcopal Church.
Devin was a tot in a stroller when his parents first began their weekly treks to the Saturday morning market, operated by the Twin Farms Fruit Farm from Orrtanna, Pa. Now Devin, who last week started his sophomore year at Sidwell Friends School, works at the market, helping farmer Eddie Rankin wait on customers who remember when Devin was a toddler.
"I get $5 a hour, plus all the fruit I can eat," Devin said, on a recent Saturday morning as he manned a display of blushing peaches and nectarines. "And I learn a lot about different fruit."
With several large, open-air produce bazaars around town, farmers markets are not novelties in the District. But this one, a half-block off the busy intersection of Connecticut and Cathedral avenues, is different. Rankin is the only vendor, and he has been selling his peaches, apples, tomatoes and melons from the same spot to many of the same customers for the last dozen or so years.
Each year from May through December, Rankin--usually accompanied by his son, Devon, and daughter, Laurel--brings a taste of rural Pennsylvania to residents in Woodley Park and Cleveland Park. Most of Rankin's customers live in the brick apartment buildings that line Connecticut Avenue or in the houses along its tree-shaded side streets. Many can walk to the market, a popular feature for residents who have to drive or take public transportation to the nearest chain supermarket.
The church does not charge Rankin for using its parking lot. When he opens up at 8:30 a.m., customers are already waiting. By noon, the tables and crates that were filled with peaches, apples, tomatoes, corn, string beans, eggplant and berries are mostly empty.
"It's a Saturday morning activity," explained Joanna Acocella. "It's good people-watching, and you can see a good dog or two."
Acocella's husband, Bart, works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and, she said, "he likes to support small farmers."
Especially one like Rankin, Bart added. "He's a nice guy and he remembers what you like."
Rankin is quick to crack open a melon or carve up an apple and offer a taste to a skeptical or curious customer. Rankin emigrated from Ireland in 1970, and a hint of Erin can be heard in his voice as he banters with his customers.
Liz Clarke studied a carton of tiny orange-hued tomatoes.
"That's the last one," Rankin warned.
"Are they sweet?" she asked.
"Try one," Rankin urged.
Clarke popped a miniature tomato in her mouth and exclaimed, "Oooh!" She snatched up the carton.
Aida Lopez comes with her neighbor Carol Myers every week to the market.
"It's part of the Saturday schedule," Lopez said. The women walk to the market and after they're done shopping, she said, "We go to the coffee shop."
Myers said her weekly visits to the market are "like a touch of home."
"He [Rankin] comes from Adams County, next to York County, where I grew up," Myers said. "We have wonderful farmers markets up there. It's something I miss."
Rankin's farm in Orrtanna is just across the Maryland line in central Pennsylvania. The 75-acre Twin Springs Farm, which Rankin bought with two partners in 1979, specializes in fruit, primarily apples and peaches grown in orchards, and berries and tomatoes grown in greenhouses. Six days a week, Rankin or one of his partners load the harvest into trucks and head down Interstate 270 to farmers' markets in the Washington area.
During the summer, Laurel Rankin, 19, a sophomore at Drexel University in Philadelphia, works five markets a week, including the Sunday market at Dupont Circle. She admits to having a special affection for the All Souls Church market.
"I really do like this market, because I know the people. Most are regular customers. They've all watched me grow up," she said, with a bashful roll of her eyes.
In between questions about whether this melon is ripe enough to serve tonight or whether that variety of apple would make a good pie, customers also want to know what's going on with Rankin's children.
"You get your driver's license yet?" customer Bruce Murrie asked Devon Rankin.
"I got my learner's permit," Devon announced.
"See you next week--drive safely!" Murrie called as he left.
When Laurel told longtime customer Robert Handloff that she was headed to Japan as part of a school project, he took her and her family to a sushi bar in Cleveland Park to celebrate.
Like his sister, Devon said he likes the intimacy of the All Souls Church market. But neither wants to stay on the farm. Laurel is studying international affairs. Devon, 16, wants a career in corporate America. "I want to live in the city and work for a big business," he said.
Rankin shows as much interest in his customers' children as they show in his. "Hey, Zack, how ya doin'?" he bellowed to a lanky teenager. "Zack used to work for me," Rankin added. (It was Zack's father who took the Rankins for their first taste of sushi.)
Devin Symons, Rankin's latest neighborhood hire, was tempting shoppers with slices of peaches and nectarines. "They're really sweet," he said to a customer. "Would you like a sample?"
Nearby, his mother, Sheila Harrington, dropped a bunch of basil into a stroller carrying her infant daughter, Eileen. The 8-month-old baby stared at the herbs with wide-eyed fascination, then grabbed a chubby fistful of the emerald leaves.
Harrington, like many customers, can't remember how she found out about the market. Perhaps she spied the sandwich board that Rankin sets up at Connecticut and Cathedral. Perhaps a neighbor mentioned it. At any rate, going to market has become a weekly ritual.
"It's fun to come here on Saturday mornings and see your neighbors," Harrington said. She plans to make pesto with the basil. "I buy whatever is in season and cook around whatever [Rankin's] got."
She marveled at the rich purple coloring of some Italian plums. "It's fun to come here on Saturday mornings and see your neighbors and get great produce."
CAPTION: Farmer Eddie Rankin is popular for remembering customers' names and preferences at the farmers market at All Souls Episcopal Church on Cathedral Avenue NW.
CAPTION: The crates of fruits and vegetables Rankin brings every Saturday morning are mostly empty by lunch time.
CAPTION: Hosui pears from the Twin Farms Fruit Farm.
CAPTION: Eddie Rankin has been selling fruits and vegetables to many of the same customers at All Souls Episcopal Church for about a dozen years.