Tag Archives: farmers markets

The Farmers Market on Finley Avenue

  DSCN0456 Recently, when I didn’t feel motivated to navigate the hordes crowding into the more trendy local farmers’ markets, I headed out to Finley Avenue and Birmingham’s old Alabama Farmers Market (www.alabamafarmersmarket.org), a sprawling complex of open air sheds and rows of warehouses where truck farmers sell their seasonal harvests 24/7 and resident vendors display their agricultural products.

DSCN0449As far back as I can remember that big farmers market has been on Finley Avenue in Birmingham’s westside. The Jefferson County Truck Growers Association formed in 1921 and the Association’s Alabama Farmers Market moved to its Finley Avenue location in 1956.

When I was a child we would take Grandmother Harbison to Finley Avenue where she would stock up on fresh produce for the amazing meals she seemed to always be cooking. She would also can and “put up” for the winter in the big chest freezer down in the basement. Grandmother seemed to always have a large pot of homemade vegetable soup warming on the stove no matter the season. DSCN0450

I am an ardent supporter of local food and community farmers; I might hit three farmers markets over the course of any given week during the warm months. I’m talking about those weekly pop-up markets with farmers selling their wares in avenues of tented stalls for three to five hours.  If you pay attention, you can find such markets almost every day of the week at a church or parking lot near you.

These weekly neighborhood markets have become ubiquitous and popular– which is great — and many have expanded to include artisans and musicians, deejays and demos. I used to feel refreshed after a Saturday morning stroll through Birmingham’s Pepper Place Market but these days I mostly feel stressed and relieved to get away from too many people, too much noise, animals and their people hogging the pathways, and unnecessarily wide baby strollers. The carnival atmosphere begins to distract from the market’s original purpose to get local food to local residents.

So it was a refreshing change to go out to Finley Avenue after too many years away and get back down to just the basics of a farmers market with growers selling off the backs of trucks. The mechanical pea-shellers were cranking out bushels of peas in mere minutes. Some vendors featured rows of canned items with assorted pickles, local honey, chow chow, soups and such.  In August there are abundant mounds of watermelons, cantaloupes, and tomatoes. DSCN0451

The sights, sounds, and aromas took me back to a time when farmers’ markets were less abundant but the shoppers were probably more earnest about their fresh local food. The people who frequented these markets weren’t just seeking out the coolest heirloom tomato (I’m a fan of heirloom tomatoes, too, by the way) but were focused on the values of locally sourced food and finding ways to feed a family in healthy, sustainable, and economical ways.

The originals like Alabama Farmers Market on Finley will be around for a long time. DSCN0457

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Tomato Sandwich

DSCN0367 There are many things to love about sultry summer weather and one of them is the opportunity to check out the farmers markets that spring up from spring to fall. When I go to a farmer’s market, I don’t go to linger and socialize; I go to do my business and move on. My typical routine is to make the rounds of all the stalls – making a mental note of what looks good this week – and then to make one more pass to make my purchases and leave. My typical trip to a farmers market takes about fifteen minutes.

That is not to say that I am completely antisocial at the market. There are purveyors that I have seen for years now and have come to know and we always catch up with each other. But there are usually other customers to be served and I don’t like to take up too much of their time so we speak, quickly share any news, and promise to see each other next week.

Today at a local market there were beginning to be tomatoes. By midsummer the tomatoes will be abundant but now, in late spring, good local tomatoes are just beginning to appear. Today it was clearly time to make the first tomato sandwiches of the season.

I have always known tomato sandwiches but I find that I still occasionally get a puzzled look when I mention them to certain people. For those of us who have known them from childhood, there is no standard way to build a tomato sandwich and everybody has evolved a preferred technique over time. My tomato sandwiches are constantly changing based on my tastes and what is available.

The essential ingredients for a tomato sandwich are a tomato, bread, and mayonnaise. The rest is up to taste and imagination. I always challenge myself to use only the freshest available local ingredients.

I usually buy larger tomatoes and I look for them to be less ripe so they will last. Today, however, a Cullman County farm was displaying small to medium size ripe red tomatoes that I knew were destined to go home with me and to be the star of my first tomato sandwich of the season.

I grabbed a loaf of Mrs. London’s bread that was made this morning. It is a fluffy soft bread that I have been buying for years now. Mrs. London’s bread is about the best I’ve ever tasted. There were sweet red spring onions at another stand and I always buy a container of Humble Heart Farms goat cheese; my flavor of choice this week was the Mediterranean blend.

DSCN0361I was ready to go home and make a late afternoon lunch of local ingredients, starring the tomato.

As I walked into my back yard, I plucked some basil off the plants growing near the back gate, went into the house, and began to assemble the ingredients for a sandwich.

Mrs. London’s bread needs a bit of toasting to take on the load of a soggy tomato sandwich so I started the oven, cut off two generous slices of bread, and toasted it on both sides.

The tomatoes were sliced, the basil leaves were washed and picked, and the red onion was sliced into slivers. When the bread was toasted, I generously slathered mayonnaise (Blue Plate or Duke’s work just fine) and sprinkled some goat cheese on top of the mayonnaise.  Basil leaves were layered onto the mayonnaise and goat cheese. A drop of lemon was squeezed over the basil.

Next the onion was spread over the basil. Then slices of tomato were generously layered, completely covering one of the slices of bread, with salt and pepper added at the end.

After I pressed the two slices of bread and ingredients together, I drizzled olive oil over the top slice and let the sandwich sit for a few minutes so the ingredients could meld. I ate it with some fresh strawberries from the farmers market and a big glass of iced tea.

The first day of summer is still a couple of weeks away, but the first tomato sandwich of the season tastes like summer to me. And, except for the mayonnaise and olive oil, everything I ate came from farms within twenty-five miles of my basil in the back yard.

Eat fresh and local this summer. DSCN0354

Eat Fresh, Eat Local

IMG_1570  Somewhere in chef Jeremiah Tower’s very entertaining memoir, California Dish (2004), he repeats the snarky comment made by a French chef about the cuisine of Alice Waters, the 1970s pioneer in the California Cuisine movement: “That’s not cooking; that’s shopping!”

I love that quote and am wholeheartedly among the growing movement of people who know that the freshness and quality of the ingredients we use are just as important as what we do with and to those ingredients. This used to be the position of tree-huggers and the fringe but the crowds flocking to local farmers markets are evidence that the philosophy is now mainstream and still growing.

It’s not food snobbery. It’s just learning something anew that previous generations understood and accepted as a way of life.

My Grandmother Harbison always had good food warming in the oven and usually there was a pot of fresh-made vegetable soup on the stove. In addition to that, there was always a fresh cake of cornbread in an iron skillet and more often than not a cake or dessert of some kind. She continued cooking even when her health began to limit what she was able to do.

I always knew that whenever I dropped by my grandmother’s house one of the first questions would be “Are you hungry?” Even if I wasn’t particularly hungry, Grandmother would lay out a table full of food within minutes. And I would always find an appetite for it.

It used to amuse me when I would drop by and Grandmother would have plenty of food in the house but would say “Would you rather go pick up some ‘tacahs’?” referring to a Taco Bell down on the highway.

“No — I’d rather eat a bowl of your vegetable soup,” I’d reply. Sometimes she would insist on riding with me to pick up a bag of tacos anyway – neither she nor my grandfather drove. I realized that while fast food was nothing novel and special for me and I was craving home cooking – real food, my grandmother had been cooking for family and crowds for most of her life and rarely went to a restaurant or hamburger stand. It was an enjoyable change for her to have a fast food taco now and then.

Today I came in from work and surveyed my supply of food. It’s a hot and rainy day and I was in the mood for a salad. The first thing I spotted was a Cherokee Purple tomato on the kitchen counter that I picked up at Greene Street Farmers Market at Nativity a few days ago (www.greenestreetmarket.com). It was getting a little ripe and I needed to eat it before I traveled for the 4th of July holiday in a day or two.

My friend Judy Prince from Paint Rock Valley told me a few years ago that she planned to “bring back” Cherokee Purples, an heirloom tomato with a bruise of purple skin and a deep burgundy fleshy meat. Based on recent observations at a variety of farmers markets, I have to say to Judy, “Mission accomplished.” Practically everybody with tomatoes at the market had some Cherokee Purples in the mix.

With my Cherokee Purple as the centerpiece, I pulled out some lush green leaf lettuce from the local J. Sparks Hydroponic Farm (www.jsparksfarms.com), washed and tore it, and made a crisp bed of lettuce. I chopped up a purple bell pepper from the organic RiverFly Farms in Paint Rock Valley (www.lifeasweknowhim.com) and a pretty baby onion from another Greene Street stand. Fresh basil and mint came from pots in my back yard and I crumbled the “Garden Blend” of goat cheese from Humble Heart (www.humbleheartfarms.com) on top of the mix. I finished it off with salt and pepper and drizzles of a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar that I have on-hand.IMG_1846

It was a lordly summer lunch made even more special by the fact that I know each purveyor (except for the oil and vinegar) by name and had bought all of the ingredients directly from the farmers who grew them. As we “re-learn” the benefits and pleasures of fresh local food, we are making a connection with generations before us who took fresh food from the area for granted. How lucky they were, if they only knew.

A few weeks ago, on Father’s Day weekend, my family decided to forego the hassle of a restaurant and eat a farm-fresh Sunday dinner at my parents’ house as a joint celebration of Father’s Day and my mother’s birthday a couple of days later. On Saturday morning, I went to my personal favorite farmers market, Pepper Place Market in Birmingham (www.pepperplacemarket.com), and surveyed the prospects among the booths.

Pepper Place sprawls along the site of an old Dr. Pepper plant that has been transformed into a design center and dining district. Pepper Place Market takes over the exteriors on Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. to noon and has over 100 vendors in three distinct areas. The Market started in 2000 and has gotten a little large and crowded but I find that if you get there by 8:00 a.m. it’s easier to navigate and there are fewer baby carriages to maneuver around. I came away with tomatoes, okra, corn on the cob, and lady peas and made the next day’s meal of creamed corn, fried okra, and the lady peas cooked in chicken broth. Mother cooked a pork roast and cornbread. Once again, it was an exceptional meal which mostly bypassed the middle step by buying directly from the growers.

Sometimes, at the various farmers markets I attend, I look at the people around me and wonder if all the trendy people are an indication that the slow food and farm-to-table movements are merely a current and growing trend; I wonder if we will all go back to opting for “convenience.”

I think not. I think that as we have begun to re-learn food and as more and more local chefs and restaurateurs serve local food from local purveyors that is superior in quality, we will opt for the smart way and support the movement as we see how it benefits all of us in so many ways. Unless I am actually in California, I vow to never again eat another grocery store tomato from California that was chemically treated and travelled across the continent while infinitely better tomatoes were on a vine just steps away.

IMG_1569American Farmland Trust (www.farmland.org), the people responsible for those “No Farms No Food” bumper stickers, is doing good things in support of local farms. Their website includes great information about local farmers markets nationwide. Visit one soon if it’s not already a part of your routine.