A vibrant farmer’s market sprouts up every weekend in an improbable location–underneath an elevated, 6-lane highway that snakes right through the heart of Baltimore. The culture and people of this market also, improbably, defy the billion-dollar, corporate-market structures that define our agricultural and food systems–feeding us mass-produced, chemically-fed, engineered ‘designer’ food-products that are arranged in sterile supermarkets where meaningful exchange with food growers is eliminated entirely.
Reverberating booms of traffic in high-speed motion form the base notes of the market’s exuberant Sunday morning symphony. Hundreds of sellers form a grand orchestra, tuning up, and then playing multiple melodic strands in unexpected harmony. They hawk produce at makeshift stalls, and offer samples, explanations, sing-song, and humor to draw people in. Waves of city-dwellers shuffle past, inspecting food, corralling their children, exchanging cash with vendors, sniffing the aromas of sweating barbecued meats and fried street food, standing in line for warm drinks, playing with hula hoops, and stepping lively around the street musicians. My family are swept into this polychromatic, slow-moving hubub of people, and we were suffused with the warm flow and spirit that permeates this marketplace.
We crowd around with others to buy honey from the wry, wizened man who showed off his picture of a bee beard (he sticks a queen bee on his chin to attract hundreds of worker bees to his chin and neck, forming a ‘bee-‘ beard). We pass well-heeled yuppy families piling pumpkins and potatoes into their babies’ push-chairs. They rub elbows and bump shopping bags with the old-timer, blue-collar folks, buying their greens and beans. Long-lines at the pork barbeque joints are offset by long lines at the gourmet, shade-grown organic coffee store. A young Mexican couple explains that while living in Mexico City they had never encountered the comapeno pepper, but here, in Baltimore, they found a connection to a community in Veracruz that cultivates these unique peppers; now they sell salsas and jellies using the comapeno pepper. A local distiller of flavored vodkas is offering tastes that fortify anyone for a chilly morning stroll in the market. The children are bouncing around the one-man band whose jingle bell anklets are enlivening the market as he taps his feet for rhythm on a wooden board while playing the fiddle.
The contrast of the market’s vibrant communal spirit and sense of local roots couldn’t be more marked from its severe and alienating urban setting. The highway’s concrete pylons have been thrust down upon an older city grid of cobbled street corners. The sagging lines of 19th century row-houses are nowhere to be seen, but in their place empty paved lots and rectilinear lines of modern buildings with windows that don’t open. This is not a landscape where people live; entire communities of people who have generational memories here were shoved aside to make way for the modern reincarnation of the city. Yet, some of the disaffected of this urban shift have remained. They set up tents on flat ground, and use broken concrete pieces as anchors. With piles of blankets, they have made sleeping pads in the entryways and doorways of office buildings.
The city’s juvenile delinquents facility, a prison, extends its high-walled facade to the street, complete with curved barbed wire lacework at the top. The unwelcoming city blocks are not designed with lively human beings in mind, no steps and benches to sit and feel the sun, perhaps call out to or just watch the antics of other people making their way down the street. Above, the suspended highway is a conduit for automobiles whizzing by at 65 miles an hour. Nobody knows where those cars have come from, who is driving them and why, nor nor where they are going. They are dissociated from this place. Like canyons walls, modern high-rise buildings with rows of windows glinting in the sun form imposing tableau screens on either side of the highway. While driving, you would see only the impersonal rows of window panes of closed, climate-conditioned buildings; no life, no people, no faces, no eyes.
Ironically, the massive concrete pilings buttressing the highway above, are colorfully painted with symbols of African American jazz culture, central American and indigenous agricultural icons of corn, and various other motifs from the local community. The market is filled with people, faces, eyes. Old and young. All shades of skin pigmentation. All states of dress–disheveled, thrown-together attire and spanking, colorful specialized gear.
In many U.S. cities, farmers’ markets have become a locus where gentrified rich folks seek out a bucolic connection and healthy food through farmers who supply organically-grown produce at a premium. Not here. Prices are reasonable and produce is varied. This market is inclusive of communities from different economic strata and cultural backgrounds. The gathering is genuinely diverse.
It’s impossible not to respond viscerally to the variegated array of feasting goods in the market. I’ve already tasted a honey vodka, when I notice my parents crowding around the “traditional hard cider” brewer. They’ve taste an impossible concoction of fermented non-commercial varieties of apples to which the brewer added fish peppers for heat, and honey for sweetness. The brewer tells them how to rest the cider in their mouth, and allow the heat to tingle their sides, then swallow down the throat smooth. Appropriately seduced, they fork out the money for a bottle.
I’ve been pulled into the pie stall with their delectable descriptions of lamb and chile verde pot pies. I imagine eating them this week for dinner with side salads; they are reasonably-priced. My sister drags us over to the pickle seller who has set up his curing barrels filled with olives, cucumbers, and gherkins in brine at various levels of heat and sourness. After a generous sample of the spicy pickle, I salivate thinking of how the brine might kick up a mixture of vodka and tomato juice. I’m walking away with a tub.
My sister orders up two servings of batter fried oyster mushrooms at the mushroom stall and while they are getting ready, my father stands in line for the organic coffee. I have a sip of his…it’s nutty, robust, and satisfying. A blustering chilly wind kicks up and threatens to knock over the canopies that sellers have set up. A lady struggles to pull her stand down and batten down her signs with more rocks. People wait and applaud her efforts. My mother buys a warm apple cider from her when she’s sorted out. It’s mulled with ginger pieces and cinnamon, and the cup warms her hands.
We each pick up a spicy comapeno pepper salsa; I can imagine making egg and potato tortillas with this to add a fiery kick to it. The musician is belting out some fine bluegrass. I’m inadvertently bopping my head and stepping to the beat as I walk around him.
On our way back to pick up the fried mushrooms, I am drawn to the kale and carrots sitting in open tubs from farms all around the Baltimore hinterland. The girl who is selling me kale says, “There’s a lot more where this came from.” I ask her if she’s tired, and she admits it, “I can’t wait to go home and take a hot bath.” A few tables down, the carrots look rotund. I wait patiently for the seller to sort out another customer, when the wind gushes again and I giggle as he chases some plastic bags. He appreciates my patience and throws in a few more carrots than I pay for. These connections with the vegetables grown and picked from (fairly) local soil makes me feel connected, alive, responsible, and responsive to the place around me. It feels rooted, buying vegetables from people who have spent time growing them, not far from here.
I’m struck how people have created the oldest and most symbolic of all social gatherings: the marketplace, in this most dissociated of landscapes, a no-man’s land in the inner city. I feel it speaks to a deep cultural need within people, to connect themselves to their food in a meaningful way. Happiness and humanity is tangible in the market. When people grow the food and you buy it from them, there’s an exchange of gratitude and appreciation implied in the transaction. In contrast, the supermarket experience seems artificial, sterile, and muted. You are not tantalized by the calls of sellers, the smells of different foods, the visual variety of the stalls. You make no mental maps of all the sellers you need to go back to. You cannot feel the human connection of exchanging a few words with a seller who probably had a hand in growing the food or storing it or piling it into the truck from the farm. The modern supermarket experience strips away the dimension of human emotional engagement and connection to the food grower, based–at least partially–in gratitude and recognition of their effort. Food is simply reduced to a commodity you value in coins or credit cards.
The commercial food economy is backed by the awesome financial structures and overwhelming might of the U.S. government and agri-business complex. So it’s all the more powerful to see the creativity of the local food growing economy represented at this market. And it feels in some way like we are honoring this human creativity, by participating in the rich response to this farmers’ market. People of this city, rich and poor, who recognize the value of the food and support this economy with our presence and our money.
I find boundless spirit and an uplifting atmosphere at this market where you can turn on your heel and buy freshly-made burritos and Thai street noodles, smoked trout, organic falafel wraps in kale, or pit-roasted barbecued meats dripping with sauce. I find exciting creativity in the small economies where people are making fine vodkas and wines, growing sweet potatoes, making fresh-cut flower arrangements and displaying tubs of just-pulled collard greens. I marvel at the creative spirit and capacity of people who create a fountain of life where human community itself has been stripped and denied, and replaced with machinery, automobiles, and impersonal, massive structures of concrete. We wolfed down the fried mushrooms served with a fresh salad mix and soft feta cheese. Piping hot, fried, and crunchy on a cold morning, we had happy bellies. And left happy.
Here’s where you can find the market:
Here’s what we bought:
Lamb and chile verde personal pies
Lemonade concentrate syrup with cardamon and ginger
Comapeno salsa (x 2)
Hard cider laced with fish peppers
Hot mulled cider
Spicy pickles in brine