I Love Farmers’ Markets

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Hen of the Woods mushrooms from Chatfield Hollow Farm in Killingworth, CT. 

I’ve always wondered why people wait in long lines for Vietnamese spring rolls at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market on Martha’s Vineyard.

That is until I stood in line for 30 minutes for fresh fish at the Madison, CT., Farmers’ Market on Friday. In the off-season, I drive 25 minutes to Atlantic Seafood in Old Saybrook, CT.  There are closer fish mongers, but I like Atlantic’s owners. They’re friendly, fair and split and clean lobsters for me. Best of all, they’ve got fantastic seafood, a slew of gluten-free delicacies, and tchotchkes like tiny fishing poles doubling as flame starters.

Once summer rolls around and Interstate 95 becomes a parking lot, I hit the Madison Farmers’ Market. Though I detest grocery shopping, I look forward to the Friday market, where you can buy everything from brick-oven pizza to homemade kettle corn. Sure there are veggies, but there’s also grass-fed beef, organic chicken and lamb and even exotic mushrooms. Did I mention it’s got all this and isn’t so cool it’s off-putting?

There’s a festive, almost fair-like feel to the market, a general slowing of pace and letting down of guard. People who avoid eye contact in the supermarket actually stop and greet you. Old friends and neighbors hug and kiss, catching up on the latest gossip and family news. A guitarist or band entertains the crowd, which includes everyone from young moms wheeling strollers to senior citizens. You can usually count on a few well-behaved dogs too.

At least 20 people were ahead of me when I joined the fish line, but I didn’t mind. A man and woman in front of me struck up a conversation about a ravenous woodchuck in the woman’s garden. I boldly interjected with a few gardening war stories. This would never happen in the supermarket, where shoppers hunt for the shortest lines, are glued to cell phones and roll their eyes when you unintentionally hold them up.

A friend of mine calls today’s chronic state of urgency the “Jiffy Lube” syndrome. People want to get in and out of everything as quickly as possible: the bank, the dump, the car, the doctor, vet, deli, church, the YMCA parking lot. I’m guilty of it too, but I don’t like it. I don’t remember always feeling so pressed for time.

I’ve always been struck by the silence in most supermarkets, almost an unwritten code that there’s no talking.  It’s pretty much a solitary outing, perhaps explaining why so many people dread it.

The farmers’ market is a different animal. Strangers stand in line and exchange recipes, recommend items and shoot the breeze. Vendors share snippets of their lives and throw in cooking tips. I especially like the way the vendor from the trawler Jenna Lynn II of Stonington, CT.,  offers simple cooking advice. Scallops: toss with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and broil until carmelized. I added a bunch of chopped cilantro and a handful of shrimp for good measure.

Though a recent transplant from Missouri lamented that New Englanders are cold to newcomers (an observation I will not refute), we soften and become a little more open at farmers’ markets. Maybe it’s the fresh air, sun and breeze or the promise of fresh food, but we’re at our best when we’re there. I only wish I could bottle it for my supermarket runs.

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Shrimp and scallops from the trawler Jenna Lynn II out of Stonington, CT. Toss with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and a handful of chopped cilantro. Broil or grill for an easy summer dish.