I'll never cut it as an urban farmer, I tell myself as I survey the dying tomato plants in my side yard. Even with Appalachian blood coursing through my veins, I'll never have a cardboard box of ripe tomatoes on my kitchen floor in August like Aunt Nancy. But that's OK. I have something Aunt Nancy didn't: Findlay Market.
Armed with my market bag, a fist full of cash and a paleoethnobotanist friend, I head for my weekly market visit with tomatoes on my list and Pablo Neruda's ode to the fruit in my head. We get side tracked on our way to the local farmers at Eckerlin Meats (a market vendor since the 1850s) where my friend starts the day with a bacon and mayo sandwich on Wonder bread ($2). Heady from a bite of the salty goodness, I realize what my tomatoes need and order a quarter pound of the Cajun bacon ($3.69/pound).
Even though I put off some sort of granola-vegetarian vibe, I like a good slice of bacon as much as the next guy. Still, I must admit it's the produce that excites me at Findlay. All that colorful vegetable matter gets my taste buds in an uproar. The brilliant greens, reds and purples blend and swirl like the colors and accents of the vendors and shoppers. I hear Herb Lady practicing her Spanish with a Hispanic customer, and the Soap Couple talks with an older African-American woman about the roasted garlic they have this week. Meanwhile, my friend discusses crop rotation with the folks from K&R Garden Fresh and looks at photos of their fields.
My weekly marketing trip revives me from the sleepy corporate life I live during the week -- daily shopping experiences filled with clerks who don't look you in the eye and rarely mumble a thank-you. Surrounded by wholesome fresh food, people's spirits seem to rise, and we seek each other out to connect. Rather than hurrying down the street on cell phones, marketers shake hands and stop for a chat, and vendors offer tastes of their products and information you can't get when your food is shrink-wrapped.
As we continue to forage for tomatoes in the farmers' shed, we find Green Zebra, Beefsteak, Brandywine, Cherokee Purple, cherry, yellow pear and Black Krum, oh my! My friend convinces me to try a traditional red tomato against an heirloom Brandywine and a black tomato. Since I already have some delicious pork fat, we decide to have a bacon-tomato sandwich taste test when we got home.
The next stop is Paula's Cafe, where the sweet smell of Smithfield maple bacon ($4.79/pound) gently wafts out into the fresh air as you open the door. The cafe, one of the Market's newest vendors, also offers fresh cooked turkey breast and a damn fine mustard potato salad ($4.50/pound) as well as lunch fare. The mozzarella, heirloom tomato and basil baguette sandwich ($5.50) comes highly recommended by Civic Garden volunteers.
As my friend finishes her taste of the Smithfield, we plunge into the main market house and make a quick stop at Kroeger's Meats for a third pork sample -- the nitrate-free, hickory-smoked pepper bacon ($3.99/pound). The variety of animal flesh offered in the main house is astounding. Meat has always been an important product at the market since its beginning in 1855, when most vendors were butchers and fish sellers, and public markets were the main source of city residents' perishable foods. As one marketer said, "What other city could have a central 'farmer's market' that actually had veggies as a sideline? Talk about the personification of Porkopolis!" Today, according to Cheryl Eagleson, Findlay's marketing director, the market currently has 12 meat and fish vendors. There's everything from rabbit and ground goat to pork neck bone, jowl bacon and city chicken (that's pork on a stick for you non-natives).
After running the gauntlet, Paleo-girl and I pop out of the main house onto Essen Strasse. Suddenly, we've materialized into the middle of a street fair. People seem to be moving a little slower here, and the alley is lined with tables with umbrellas and a variety of lunch vendors. For years some of the market's more established vendors, such as Silverglade's and Bender Meats, have sold deli sandwiches and grilled meats, but with the creation of Essen Strauss, the market has expanded its ready-to-eat options. Now many shoppers tarry and enjoy the market-day experience. Along with the more traditional offerings of Kroeger Meats and Mr. Pig, Essen Strauss vendors include Mejana Express, Kate's Crepes and Il Fara Wood Fired Pizza.
No fair experience would be complete without something fried, so we start with an order of Pappy's fried green tomatoes ($2) before we head over for Mr. Pig's to get rib tips and a quarter-chicken ($7.50). Sitting under an umbrella with our much-needed wet wipes, we enjoy the citrusy green tomatoes and sweet, smoky barbecue sauce and listen to live music drifting from the Music in the Market tent.
We also try the mac-and-cheese ($2/small) and collard greens ($2) at Ms. Helen's Grill. The collards are slow-cooked and tender with a little spice and a smoky ham flavor. The mac has the haunting childhood taste of Velveeta and a good crunchy brown top.
"If we were in France, I'd buy you a drink right now," Paleo-girl says watching a standard poodle walk by. We decide to make do with Kate's Crepes instead, trying the black raspberry ($2) and spinach and feta ($4). The eggy crepes are good; the raspberry is sweet and jammy, but the spinach feta filling was still a little cold inside.
Then we take off to the Middle East with a lamb kabob sandwich ($4.25) and a Twauk chicken wrap ($3.75) at Mejana Express. Both come with pickles, tomatoes and onions. The chicken, marinated with sumac and thyme, has a tzatziki-style sauce, while the cardamom-scented chunks of lamb are covered with a tahini sauce.
We skip Il Fara Wood Fired Pizza since I was there the week before. The owner, Katherine Pleva, rolls out your dough, tops it with ingredients she purchases from the local farmers, and slides it into an 800-degree oven. Five dollars will get you a piping hot pie and a bottled water.
As we make one more circuit through the main house and the local farmer shed, we pass Apple Guy and Herb Lady, and the Fish Guys and Granola Man. And there's the new guy selling pottery. I don't know everyone's names, but then, I don't know all my neighbors' names. Still, I know their dogs' names, and we often stop to chat about our flowers or the weather. This is why I didn't move back to the suburbs. The sense of community I get from my urban neighborhood explodes at the market with its crazy quilt of humanity. StreetVibes Woman knows what I mean. She points out a young girl she calls her daughter and says, "This is my family -- you people here at Findlay Market."
As for that tomato-and-bacon sandwich taste test: Our informal survey recommends a Brandywine with pepper bacon. ©