Cafe Society

Season's eatings: The Boulder Farmers' Market opens for 2010

Every year, the weather provides some kind of drama on the first day of the Boulder Farmers' Market: a rainy deluge that pounds on awnings, trickles down shivering necks and sends customers scuttling back to their cars, or snow and sleet that keep buyers and most vendors home, with the exception of the die-hard fanatics. This year's opening on Saturday saw a windstorm that at one point caused the "Street Closed" sign at the end of 13th to racket noisily and threateningly — on first one foot and then the other, like something out of a techno horror movie — at the Windsor Dairy cheese display before it was stopped. Up and down the street, farmers raced from behind stalls to rescue flying signs, peat-potted plant starts and plastic bags, or held on to awnings with one hand while weighing out produce or making change with the other. References to Mary Poppins abounded, and it wouldn't have particularly surprised anyone to see the entire kit and caboodle — customers, vendors, vegetables, price signs, seed packages, tables and stools, flats of eggs, jars of honey — flying crazily off into the ether. But if anything, the wind only heightened the buoyant mood as farmers and customers rediscovered each other and celebrated the passing of the long, cold winter.

We talk a lot in this country about how disconnected we've become from our food, and the fact that as a result, America has no real cuisine. We've been hammered by industrialization, the insane glut of taxpayer-subsidized corn (most of it genetically modified) that makes its way into almost everything we eat, the fact that so many family farmers have been driven from their land, and a culture that says that talking and thinking too much about food is, well, sort of greedy and maybe even sinful. So Jamie Oliver, the chef who helped transform kids' lunches in England, comes to the fattest place in America — Huntington, West Virginia — to create Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and finds that the children can't identify a clutch of tomatoes, though they can readily name ketchup, and while they're familiar with french fries, they don't quite realize that they're made of potatoes. Jamie cooks a lunch, and is told by the woman heading the kitchen — an angry, sullen little creature — that his food won't work because it can't be eaten with fingers or a spoon. When he expresses surprise, she says incredulously, You can't tell me that in England you give kindergartners knives and forks? Well, yes, says Jamie. We think learning to eat is part of education.

Many of those who realized something was missing swung wildly to the opposite extreme, kitting out kitchens with ultra-expensive appliances, sending away for exotic ingredients, and breathlessly following whatever trends food writers dreamed up for them. Molecular gastronomy, they pondered: Is it dead or alive? Is sous vide still a meaningful mark of foodie status now that you can purchase an appliance through Williams-Sonoma that does it? How do we square Michael Tomasky's comment in the Guardian that the food he recently ate in Paris — at regular rather than upscale restaurants — was uniformly bad with Adam Gopnik's bemused thoughts in the New Yorker about Le Fooding, a trend invented by young French intellectuals that sneers at classic French cuisine and elevates an approach definable by no one but the intellectuals themselves? (Counterintuitive, but true: By all accounts, English cooking is now better than French. The Brits have better restaurants; they cook more at home; they're paying homage to traditional British cookery and ingredients.)

But then there's the thing itself, food, and the bond between people who love to eat and people who farm. In many other farmers' markets around the country, vendors buy in bulk and resell, and what you get isn't very different from what you'd find in a supermarket. But Boulder has strict rules, so that almost everything here is grown locally, or at least in Colorado. The person handing you a bag of mushrooms, a bunch of carrots or a head of lettuce is probably the person who grew it, and when you buy corn later in summer, it's likely to have been picked that very morning. You can discuss recipes with these folks or ask advice about your own garden. What everyone's doing right now, up and down 13th Street, is catching up, talking grandchildren and restaurants and weather.

Sue and Mark Parsons live and farm in Berthoud, and have been selling here since the market began 24 years ago, when buyers didn't know what Japanese eggplants were or what to do with them, Sue says, and they were lucky to take home $100 for the entire summer. (Total sales that first year were $72,000. Last year, between farmers and vendors in the food court, the market brought in $3.2 million.) At the time they started selling, both the Parsonses had full-time jobs with IBM, but they were passionate gardeners. On this Saturday, their table features onions and Sue's handmade brooms. "Over the years, you could see the quality and professionalism change as we all figured out what we were doing," she explains. "My husband says a lot of the growers forget the last five minutes. You have to cure lettuce and put it on ice overnight. If you touch it too much, the next day it's mush. Every little step is important." You can see her meticulousness in the strongly woven ropes of shallots she creates every summer, each shallot plump and shining. Buy two of these and hang them in your kitchen, and you're good for the entire year, until you catch her again. Then there are the tomato plants that Sue and Mark will bring early in May — dozens of varieties, including the prolific and delicious Favorita. Many avid gardeners in the metro area swear they'd rather buy these plants than start their own from seed; the Parsonses have done their homework, tested greenhouse temperatures and soil mixtures. "We try them all out in the garden and use the ones that do well in this area — which are not always the big-name tomatoes — and we spend a lot of time hardening them off, a little extra time every day, to make sure they're ready to go in the ground," Sue says.

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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

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