Harvest Home

The last Boulder County Farmers' Market of the year takes place on a bright fall Saturday that has somehow slipped its way into a damp, murky week. At this late date, the market, recently named one of the best in the West by a national magazine, is a shadow of itself. The woman who sells long braids of shallots is gone. So is Karen Beeman, with her thirty varieties of garlic. The foxgloves and lisianthus have faded, though McConnell's Greenhouse is proferring tall sunflower stems, tied in bunches of six and selling at $12 for three bunches. The smell of roasting corn no longer hangs in the air. No one's selling compost. The time for planting is over; the vendors are looking forward to restful winter weekends.

There are still apples -- Fuji, Red Delicious, Jonagold, McIntosh -- as well as Italian plums that are a little pulpy beneath their smooth purple skins. There was a moment sometime in September when the McIntoshes were so sweet and crisp you'd drift off to sleep at night thinking of them. The apples are still delicious, but that moment of perfection has passed. Vendors are selling winter squash, of every size and color, fall spinach, broccoli, beets, onions, pumpkins, of course, and turkey jerky. Brown eggs, too. Regina Waddle of 2 R's Farm has brought her blue cornmeal and greenhouse tomatoes.

Earlier this year, you could have purchased an ostrich egg large enough to make an omelette for ten people; there are still feathers and empty eggshells for decoration. While the hens were laying, the roosters were highly territorial, the ostrich farmer tells you, and a territorial rooster is no joke: The birds stand ten feet high, weigh between 300 and 350 pounds and can run forty miles an hour, getting up to speed in three steps.

Gussie Walter sits at the table for Augustina's Winery; according to its brochure, it is "dedicated to making wines that go with backpacking adventures, raucous poker parties, family barbecues, good mystery novels, Cary Grant movies and gingersnaps." Walter buys much of her food here, sometimes bartering, and she has arranged with a farmer to dump her grape skins -- the grapes themselves are grown on the Western Slope -- and leaves in his composter. Although she enjoys the camaraderie of the market, Walter occasionally encounters a wine snob who "comes up, says something like, 'Colorado wine? How dare you?' and walks away." And then there are the new prohibitionists, who think alcohol shouldn't be sold in this family-oriented environment. "My great-great aunt was Carrie Nation," Walter says, laughing. "I figure I'm making up for her lunatic behavior."

Throughout the season, over sixty Boulder County farmers have been represented at the market, which also includes fruit growers from the Western Slope. Two dozen local restaurants and bakeries have booths here. On a fine midsummer day, as many as 20,000 people have walked this block buying fruits, vegetables and prepared foods.

Farmers' markets represent everything virtuous in the food world. They help farmers hang on economically and encourage those who want to farm organically; they reveal to consumers the advantages of using fresh local produce. They help educate and sharpen the palate. You can buy tiny alpine strawberries here, all kinds of lettuce, grapes so aromatic you can smell them a block away, lemon cucumbers. Beeman will tell you which garlic is best for which dish, which keeps longest and which has the richest flavor. She likes to eat garlic crushed in a mix of olive oil and softened butter and spread on her husband's warm, homemade bread.

Ute Trail Greenhouse ( motto: "Plants grown in the West for the West") will show you flowers and herbs you've never seen before. All summer, Ute Trail was selling lush green pineapple sage plants, the leaves smelling of pineapple, the fragrant crimson flowers carrying a drop of pure sweet honey at the center. John Hybiak, who runs the greenhouse with Mary Bukscar, says they have an elderly customer who uses the leaves to flavor her gin.

But the market's not just about food. This is perhaps Boulder County's true community center, "a unique living piece of history in itself," according to manager Jim Tyler.

Local chefs, such as Bradford Heap of the Full Moon Grill and the Chautauqua Dining Hall, and Eric Skokian from Alice's Restaurant, came to the market this year to prepare $5 gourmet lunches. Teachers from the Cooking School of the Rockies led their students among the stalls, selecting items to be taken back to the school kitchen and transformed into feasts. Tyler arranges regular rides to the market for the elderly; he hired four handicapped people to watch the parking lot during the summer and saw three of them acquire winter jobs. Next year he plans to institute a zero-waste system and have all market trash composted or recycled.

Nonprofit organizations from Community Food Share to the Longmont Humane Society are represented here. Many of this year's ballot initiatives began as petitions circulated at the market. ("I'm not signing that gun thing," a woman proclaimed loudly in the spring, walking past a table of Amendment 22 literature. "It's bullshit." "I know, honey," her husband murmured soothingly. "I know.")

This morning, as on every market morning for years, Boris Stern sits by the Russian Deli booth stirring a pot of savory mushroom stew. The deli also carries strudel and baked goods. Stern is a refugee from Russia; sponsors in Boulder helped him immigrate. Now the farmers' market booth is part of a skein of ventures that keep the Sterns going.

The Xiongs live primarily off their Lafayette farm, although Kao Xiong -- who was a general in the Hmong army during the Vietnam War -- also has a job. Every Saturday, the family sells bok choy, kohlrabi, cabbage, cilantro, mint, dill and home-made chili sauce at the market, as well as Hmong cushions and hangings.

The newest food court arrival is Sisters' Pantry, which makes vegetable and chicken-basil dumplings and is always mobbed. According to Tracy Tu, the sisters grew up in Taiwan, where their mother had a food stand. For some years, the family owned Tra-Ling's, a popular student restaurant in Boulder.

Meanwhile, Tracy's sister, Ting, was running a restaurant in Maine. "She has a passion for food," says Tracy. "She's planning to go to culinary school in New York." Hoping to lure Ting back to Colorado, Tu started thinking about dumplings, which had always been hugely popular at Tra-Ling's. "I just got this idea: Maybe I can sell them in the farmers' market," she recalls.

The sisters approached Tyler, who said the season's slots were all taken. But after they gave him a dozen dumplings, he became a convert and suggested they try opening their stall early in the year, before all the other vendors had arrived. Sisters' Pantry took off, and it has been a weekly fixture ever since. The sisters are meeting this week to decide what to do now that the market is closed. Some grocery stores have expressed an interest in stocking frozen dumplings. "But we definitely will do the farmers' market next season," says Tracy. "It's so much fun there. The flowers, the vegetables, the people. We all trade food. It's not just work."

Up and down the block, people are saying goodbye for the year. They're walking away with bags of potatoes, boxes of apples. On Sunday, it will sleet. Market devotees will stir Colorado honey into their tea, count the jars of peach jam, arrange sunflowers in front of a gray window. Then they'll sigh and settle in.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman