I moved away from Atlanta almost six years ago, yet I still receive the newsletter that the organizer of my old farmers market sends out.
The growing season there has about a one-month jump on the Mid-Atlantic’s. Reading about strawberries and asparagus — and, later, tomatoes — weeks before I’ll see them here is a small torment. But I open the weekly e-mail because it’s an easy way to connect with a place I used to call home, where that market was a treasured part of my routine.
In Washington, because I occasionally shop at more than one farmers market, I subscribe to several market e-mail newsletters. Most weeks I read through each one, even as I click and delete, click and delete so many other things soliciting my attention. They are always worth the read — for the inspiration they provoke, both culinary and cultural, and for their help keeping me tuned in to a local food community that continues to grow.
And yet I may be in the minority. Most of the customers I spoke with recently, despite shopping at farmers markets, don’t subscribe to the e-newsletters. And if they do, they don’t often read them or they only skim through — unless they’re looking for something specific.
“The newsletter format just doesn’t really grab me,” says Bloomingdale resident Kate Aishton. But she added that she’ll check Facebook or Twitter to keep in touch with market news.
At their core, the e-newsletters — distributed through about 60 farmers markets in the area — are siren calls for the produce that will appear in the week to come. Most lead off with a listing of what vendors are planning to bring, serving as a grocery-list assist and a hand in stalking the most fleeting seasonal produce. I can keep tabs on morels, ramps and tiny artichokes so buttery, sweet and rare to come by in this region that they’re worth crossing town for.
But the newsletters are welcome sources of culinary direction as well. When you are faced with a curiosity (kohlrabi) or a suspect (beets) that found its way into your crisper, their curated recipes seem less a sales pitch than a steady hand, and far more trustworthy than what might turn up in a Google search.
Such guidance can be particularly compelling on evenings when the refrigerator is so full of good things that possibilities coalesce into static.
Robin Shuster, director of the 14th and U and Bloomingdale markets, offers cooking tips with the brevity and assurance of Elizabeth David and the timeliness and relevance of someone much closer to home.
One June, as the zucchini was just beginning to show, she wrote, “I threw sliced summer squash into a pan of hot olive oil flavored with garlic and let them brown. I squirted them with lemon juice and covered them and cooked them on a low flame until they were tender (which does not take very long). You can season them with fresh herbs or with cumin. . . . The olive oil and lemon juice cook down to a syrup. Season with salt and pepper. Chopped parsley is simple and nice with this, but I do like the cumin. . . . Serve with rice or barley.”
During periods of excess, her cooking notes can seem indispensable, offering just enough reasons why it was a good idea for you to buy as much asparagus/zucchini/green beans as you did. If you happen to have, say, some of those gorgeous round eggplants with lavender skin lingering in your refrigerator, that’s when you’ll appreciate a description she wrote of slow-roasting them, cut into wedges nearly to the bottom, splayed and filled with a rich tomato sauce made sweet with soft onions and savory with olives.
Follow her lead and you’ll see how the eggplant flesh turns silken and the juices syrupy. It will be one of the most delectable things to come out of your kitchen all summer; the next week, you will buy more eggplant.
There can be poetry sometimes, included during the years Bernadine Prince wrote the newsletter for FreshFarm Markets, of which she is a co-founder. Now written by part-time staffer Laura Genello, the e-mail missive is more polished these days, and formatted. It still features Prince’s “Words of the Week,” sage snippets from farm and kitchen luminaries, writers, politicians and poets that are subtle remands to take your food with care and to be aware of what it takes to produce it.
Of course, newsletters are a loop in to the local community.
In the Mt. Pleasant Far Mar News, manager Karissa McCarthy reminds subscribers that the Mount Pleasant market is a meeting place: somewhere to bring your bike for a tuneup, listen to music, gather around and stay awhile.
“Mount Pleasant has a very communal feeling about it already. . . . so I hope the newsletter mimics that communal feeling,” she says. “But hopefully it cultivates a more consistent customer, too, who has a vested interest in making the market part of their routine, where they can get to know their neighbors, not just a place to shop.”
The newsletter for the Olney Farmers and Artists Market promotes civic events, such as fundraisers for disadvantaged patrons. Publicist Amy Harbison says it helps provide a cohesiveness and identity that were lacking: “There’s almost a social-minded bent to our market.”
Newsletters also serve as windows into the lives closely in tune with farming, local and regional food systems, and the policies that affect the relationships between field, market and table: Here, a link to a story on women in agriculture in developing nations; perhaps you missed it. There, a calendar detailing events — an herb-foraging walk, a round-table discussion, an urban farm jamboree — hosted by local food and farming organizations you were not aware of, such as the Accokeek Foundation in Maryland, or Common Good City Farm in Northwest Washington.
Genello, who is farm manager for the aquaponics project of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future in Baltimore, begins each FreshFarm newsletter with a behind-the-scenes on farming: the introduction of a grain mill or the workings of a mushroom farm. That can add dimension to the simplest bowl of oats.
Jean Janssen writes a newsletter for the six Smart Markets she founded in Northern Virginia. “I try to let people know that shopping at markets makes them a part of a small movement,” she says. “I try to inspire them to get involved beyond shopping for their families, even if it’s something as small as signing a petition.”
Or as large as the farm bill, which she might walk subscribers through in a spirited relay of the legislation’s high points and implications. Janssen does not mince words, even when she’s explaining how higher prices at the farmers market can work out, in fact, to be a better value. She writes as though she is among friends, or at least customers she hopes to make connections with and turn into better shoppers, cooks and eaters. Her letters, built around a rotating theme of editorial writings, memoirs and cooking tips, draw between three and six responses each week.
Janssen’s tone — biting sometimes, charming others, always lively and infectious — is part of another hook.
“Oh Luscious Bulb! Sweet Anise Divine!” she began a letter last May, an ode to fennel. “I am not sure I had ever used it or even seen it until I was putting together a menu for a mystery-solving party that I catered for a client some 20 years ago. The mystery they would be solving during the dinner took place in the Mediterranean, so I developed a menu around a Moroccan stew and somewhere along the way was inspired to include braised fennel as one of the accompanying dishes. And the love affair began — which is a miracle, because your first whiff of fennel will remind you of licorice, and I hate licorice.”
Horton is a Washington food writer. Find out whether your local market produces an e-newsletter by visiting its Web site. You can subscribe online, or ask for a sign-up sheet at the market’s information booth. To receive newsletters mentioned in this article, go to: marketsandmore.info (14th and U Streets); freshfarmmarkets.org/wp (Fresh Farm Markets); www.olneyfarmersmarket.
org (Olney Farmers and Artists Market); mtpfm.com/newsletters-2 (Mount Pleasant Farmers Market).
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