An ode to farmers markets


It was a dark, cold, dry day in March when I opened up my freezer and took out a quart sized bag of flash frozen raspberries I’d procured from Centgraf Farms the previous September. I hesitated. It was my last bag; but I had plans to take the edge off of the still unseasonably wintery weekend by using them to flavor Campari for raspberry spritzes.

Just opening that bag made me feel a bit better. But as I popped one of the swiftly thawing berries into my mouth, something remarkable happened. I closed my eyes. The sweetness hit my tongue first, followed by subtle floral notes and tangy undertones as the warmed berry. I was utterly transported. It was summer again and I was back at the farmers market, gathering ripe fruits and vegetables in anticipation of this very moment in time.

That’s the power of local food. And it’s among the many reasons why I look forward to farmers market season every single year.

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I love perusing the farmers market early in the season when local asparagus and fresh hoophouse spinach make their rare-but-delicious debuts; Their flavor is nothing (nothing!) like the bland imposters sold on supermarket shelves. I find myself counting down the days to the first (actually sweet) pea pods, Thumbelina carrots, Fairytale eggplants and eventually sweet corn. And it’s sheer bliss when plump fresh-off-the-vine heirloom slicing tomatoes come into season, begetting the best BLTs and caprese salads I’ll enjoy all year long.

Hairloom tomatoesX

Weekly trips to pick up farm fresh food have changed my life. They’ve shaped the way I eat, enhanced my knowledge about food, inspired me to pay more attention to the origin and quality produce and meats that I choose, influenced where I choose to shop and ultimately altered both my attitude and decisions when it comes to the money I spend on food (often saving me cash along the way).

They’ve also convinced me – a notable night owl – that it’s worth it to go to bed early on a Friday night so that I can drive to the Dane County or West Bend farmers market, arriving no later than 7 am, to secure the precious seasonal gems which tend to be scooped up by the early birds.

In fact, farmers markets have become so ingrained into the traditions that comprise my summer that it’s truly difficult to imagine that I didn’t actually patronize an actual farmers market until I was in my 20s.

Rainbow cauliflower
Cauliflower in many shades.
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Growing up in the 80s had its charms. Beyond phenomena like “big hair,” neon clothing, friendship bracelets and Care Bears, we also grew up in the era of sloppy joes sandwich bowls, seven layer dip (and salad), frozen yogurt, breads and tiramisu.

And, while Lean Cuisine was busy celebrating the mythology of the low fat diet, fresh produce was not a highlight. In fact, until the mid-80s, fresh fruits and vegetables comprised an average of 3% of the physical space in most grocery stores. (Heck, baby carrots didn’t even exist until 1986).

At my house, all of our fresh produce came either from our home garden (in which we grew numerous things, including green beans, tomatoes, zucchini, carrots and strawberries) during the summer or the grocery store, where we purchased iceberg lettuce, onions and things like sweet peppers. While she did some canning (mostly tomatoes, pickles and jam), for most of the year, my mother relied heavily on frozen vegetables, with most dinners featuring a side of “California mix,” spinach, lima beans or peas.

Even so, I valued the fresh food I encountered. I have fond memories of picking fresh, warm cherry tomatoes in our garden, popping the warm orbs into my mouth and slowly squashing them with my teeth until they explode, releasing their sweet, tangy interior into my mouth.

I recall trips “Up North” to stay at my great grandparents’ cottage in Florence County during the dog days of summer. When we weren’t swimming or fishing in the lake, we’d scour the landscape, seeking out plots of sweet wild blueberries and picking them until our hands, faces and clothing were speckled with blue and purple stains. And I recall occasional trips to a small roadside farmstand near our house on the Northwest side of Milwaukee where we’d buy a dozen ears of sweet corn, boil them, slather them in butter and consume them like greedy monsters until every last cobb was scrubbed clean.

Corn on the cobX

But – despite growing up with some knowledge of and experience with local food – I have no childhood memories of visiting a farmers market.

Taking a look at the data, that’s no surprise. In the early 70s, the number of farmers markets in the US totalled a whopping 340. In 1994, that number was still under 2000. But all of that has changed. As of 2020, there were well over 8,000 markets listed in the USDA’s directory with over 300 in Wisconsin alone.

That fact alone makes me elated to see young families at the market. It makes me appreciate the glee, laughter (and even occasional screaming) of the children as they restlessly tromp behind their parents. After all – I hope – that deep down, they are in the midst of creating memories of the market that will one day draw them back, even as they reach adulthood and set off to create their own summer traditions.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit how much I owe to the farmers I’ve encountered on my market journeys.

Building relationships with them has given me not only a deep appreciation for their work, but also built my knowledge about food. Farmers have taught me to taste the differences found in the produce grown in various soils and microclimates throughout the state. They’ve taught me to appreciate the flavor of truly great broccoli (it in no manner resembles the weeks’ old heads we buy all winter from California) and how to cook fresh sunchokes.

Garlic hanging at market
There are 11 major varieties of garlic and hundreds of cultivars.
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They’ve proffered lessons in the expansive flavor profiles of garlic, antique apples and Asian greens. In the case of the latter, there were many I’d never experienced before visiting the Fondy Farmers Market, where even the briefest conversations with Hmong farmers have been known to blow my food-loving mind. I’ve always been food curious, but farmers have encouraged varieties that quality, prompting me to regularly seek out vegetable I’ve never tried.

Shelling beans
My first time cooking fresh shelling beans was a revelation.
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Those same farmers have taught me that if I want truly delicious berries in February, I need to buy them by the case while they’re in season and freeze or otherwise preserve them. They’ve taught me that it’s worth every penny to purchase a bag of hearty winter squash in early November for $20 because they’ll easily keep until March in my basement pantry.

They’ve also inspired me to purchase bushels of poblano and sweet red bell peppers and spend hours in front of my grill – on what inevitably turns out to be one of the hottest day of the summer – blistering, peeling and freezing them for use in soups, sauces and savory dishes all year long.

Blistered poblanos
Blistered poblanos ready to be peeled and de-seeded.
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We all owe much to these masters of the soil. They work incredibly hard and give so much. Much like chefs – who weave the magic of fresh produce into artful, flavor-filled plates – these farmers use their science brains, their brawn and their intuition to bring us food that’s truly worth eating.

If you’re like me, you could spend an entire day market hopping (or visiting more far flung markets; I’d highly recommend both West Bend and Dane County). But that’s not practical to do on a regular basis. So this is my list of go-to markets upon which I rely for my weekly fix.

You can find more worthy options, including markets in your neighborhood, in our farmers market guide.

West Allis Farmers Market
6501 W. National Ave., West Allis (414) 302-8600
westalliswi.gov

May 7 through Nov. 26
Tuesday and Thursday noon to 6 pm
Saturdays 1 to 6 pm

Among the best food-only farmers markets in the metro area, this is one of the best places to pick up your weekly groceries (produce, meat, fruit, mushrooms, eggs and cheese) and stock up on items for freezing and canning. In addition to farms, there are always a few food trucks or mobile vendors where you can grab a bite to eat. And, since it starts later in the day, it makes my sleep-loving self extraordinarily happy.

Fondy Farmers Market
2200 W. Fond du Lac Ave., (414) 933-8121
fundymke.org

May 7 to July 2: Saturdays from 9 am to noon
July 9 to Oct. 30: Saturdays from 7 am to 2 pm AND Sundays, Tuesdays & Thursdays from 9 am to 2 pm
Nov. 5 to Nov. 19: Saturdays from 9 am to 2 pm

This urban market is a fantastic place to engage with a diverse collection of local farmers, many of whom grow their food at the Fondy Farm in Mequon. And thanks to live music and amazing prepared food vendors, it’s also a chance to an opportunity to engage with like-minded folks in our Milwaukee food community.

South Shore Farmers Market
2900 S. Shore Dr.
southshorefarmersmarket.com

June 18 through October 29
Saturdays 8 am to noon

This is my go-to market on hot, leisurely, unscheduled days when “cooler by the lake” sounds like the best idea ever. There’s typically less produce and more pre-made items at South Shore, so it’s a good choice if I only need a few things to fill out my grocery list. It’s such a convivial market, I’d almost consider it more of a social outing. I’m nearly always likely to grab breakfast or lunch while I’m there, and since I’m guaranteed to run into friends from the Bay View area, I always plan on spending extra time here.

Tosa Farmers Market
7720 Harwood Ave, Wauwatosa
Tosafarmersmarket.com

June 4 through Oct 15
Saturdays 8 am to noon

This Saturday market tends to veer more heavily into the local prepared foods arena; But it’s a go-to if I’m looking for a mix of items from vegetables and sustainable meats to coffee beans, bread and snacks. I’ve also enjoyed perusing the wares from local artists and makers during their monthly Makers Market (the first Saturday of each month).

Brookfield Farmers Market
Brookfield Central High School
16900 Gebhardt Rd., (262) 784-7804
brookfieldfarmersmarket.com

May 7 through October
Saturdays 7:30 am to noon (rain or shine)

This is another market where I’m guaranteed to find enough produce to stock my fridge for the week (and pick up lovely bouquets of flowers). In fact, it showcases a notable selection of farms that abide by sustainable growing practices (organic or otherwise). The ability to purchase cheese, bread and other sundries from local vendors is also a boon. Arrive hungry and you’ll also find plenty of local food vendors from which you can grab a bite.

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