On Saturday and Sunday mornings, St. Paul’s streets are empty. The city’s usual activity is suspended, but the day is filled with promise. The sun is high and the air will soon be steamy, but Mears Park’s paths are shady and lined with bright pink and white flowers—the work of volunteer gardeners. Occasionally, a homeless guy sleeps on a bench near the man-made brook that flows through the park, but we don’t bother each other. The brook has broad flat stepping stones, and I like crossing on them almost as much as the little kids in the park do.
In the block between Mears Park and the market, there’s a poem embedded in the sidewalk: “A dog on a walk is like a person in love — You can’t tell them it’s the same old world.” I think, you can’t tell me it’s the same old market. Who knows what I’ll find today?
The pungent scent of fresh dill is what I notice first. Big ferny bunches rubber-banded together. Much as I like dill, I’ll never use that much, so I pass it by. Next, I’m drawn to the New Guinea impatiens. No, no more flowers for the garden. Oooh wait, over there are some banana peppers. But what will I do with them?
For a person who loves cooking and eating as much as I do, there’s real joy in discovering what’s fresh and considering what I might make with my purchases. I settle down to cruising through the whole market before I buy—making note of who has the best-looking tomatoes and pickle-size cucumbers. That’s all I really need today, but I know I’ll go home with more than that.
Asiatic lilies’ sweet heavy scent draws me toward the buckets of cut flowers. At $5 and $6 a bunch, the mixed bouquets are a cash crop compared to the vegetables—only $3 for green beans or new Yukon Gold potatoes. Often the sellers are enterprising young Hmong-American women. I wonder if they’re earning college money.
At the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, everything is locally grown or made, so if it isn’t in season, it isn’t there. I pass pale green scalloped patty pan squash, peeled new onions with green tops, and scrubbed carrots. Maybe some of those tender green and wax beans . . . nope, we already have plenty of those at home. Sweet corn, too.
I zigzag from stall to stall looking for the perfect rich red tomato (not pink, not yellow) and the slight softness that tells me they’re really ripe. Cucumbers, on the other hand, should be firm, and I run my fingers over their bumpy length. Paper-skinned shallots call to me. Sautéed, their flavor is more delicate than that of onions, and they’re hard to find. But they keep for months. I pay (only $2!) and drop them in my bag.
The dark red and deep gold beets attract me. I gently run my fingers over the rough globes and imagine making a roast beet salad with citrus dressing and bleu cheese crumbles. Nah, I don’t want to spend the whole afternoon in the kitchen. But on the other hand, making rhubarb sauce is easy and my husband loves it. I hand over the money for the long ruby stalks.
Half of the farmers are Asian-American—Hmong, I think. Like their European-American counterparts, they work together on family farms. Often at the stalls, there are several generations—grandparents, parents, and teenagers. The teenage or college-age sons and daughters working at the market look and sound assimilated. I wonder if they’re so assimilated that they hate being seen with their parents?
To me, these more recently immigrated families also represent the plenty and the possibility the farmer’s market is teeming with. And ultimately, that’s what draws me weekend after weekend from May to October – the day’s early morning promise, the potential of a special dish enjoyed with my family, and the glimpse of hopeful belief that still drives every new group of immigrants.