Monday, July 16, 2012

17. The Union Square Greenmarket: Eating Green


OSTRICH EGGS proclaims one sign, offering round white cantaloupe-size eggs.  BISON MEAT says another, while a third announces RICK'S PICKS: Totally Pickled since 2004.  Next to free-range eggs is a sign bearing a jumble of words -- miel, miele, médus, MëA, Μελη, honig, bal, and others in exotic scripts, maybe Arabic or Asian -- all indicating ANDREW'S NYC HONEY, which was harvested, another sign insists, from flowers growing on rooftops and balconies and in community gardens in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, where beehives are now permitted once again.  One stand has horseradish jelly, fig jam, mint tea, and rhubarb jam; another, wheatgrass juice; another, maple syrup; another, five kinds of exotic potatoes; yet another, goat meat, goat milk, goat yogurt, and goat cheese.  People crowd around other stands selling mushrooms, duck, bread, beefsteak tomatoes, chutneys, and lavender, and side by side at a single stand, arugula and radishes and radiccio, nine different lettuces, zucchini, parsley, beets, potatoes, cilantro, dill, basil, chives, string beans, and three kinds of kale.  Such is the Union Square greenmarket in Manhattan, the granddaddy of most of the greenmarkets in the city and the country.

It all began in 1976, when a handful of farmers got together at another site in Manhattan to create the city's first greenmarket.  More markets followed at other sites as the idea caught on, until today there are sixty-six markets in the five boroughs.  But the Union Square market is the biggest and best known, appearing on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday throughout the year, even in the coldest winter months, when most of the others are closed for the season.  Featured in stories on TV and in the press, it has provided a model and inspiration for markets in other cities throughout
the country.  At a time when factory farms are flourishing and small family-owned farms are disappearing, the greenmarket movement has let small farms within commuting distance of a large city survive by selling fresh produce to city dwellers.  Vendors come to the Union Square market from upstate New York, New Jersey, and even eastern Pennsylvania; their refrigerated trucks are parked near their stands or in the streets nearby.

Everything sold in a greenmarket must be grown or produced or raised or caught or baked by the vendor, which is why olive oil and citrus fruit and coffee cannot be found in a New York City greenmarket.  But what is found there is locally made, including fresh seasonal produce harvested the day before or even before dawn on the day of the market.


A greenmarket is a kind of sacred space where no vehicles, even two-wheeled, are permitted.  Within its confines hurrying New Yorkers relax their frenzied pace and enjoy an atmosphere of good humor and calm.  There I have almost never heard a quarrel or dispute, and if signs sometimes warn of pickpockets, honesty is generally the rule.  People stroll from stand to stand, comparing prices and savoring the rich displays of wares.

Better still, at many stands one can talk to the farmers or bakers themselves, or to their helpers, as I have often done, asking such questions as, "How's the weather been up your way?  Is it affecting the crops?"  Or: "What's the difference between an heirloom tomato and a hybrid, and which is better?"  Or: "How long will the blueberries last?"  Or: "When will you have kale?"  My two favorite organic stands belong to Keith and Gorzynski.  When I ask Keith a question, he ponders a moment and then answers soberly in great detail.  When I ask Gorzynski, the self-styled "ornery farmer," a question, he too will answer at length and very knowingly, but often with a hearty laugh.  A great mixer, he often leaves the stand in charge of his wife and kids and goes roaming about, connecting with other organic farmers and, as his wife says with a smile, "gabbing."  I've also talked to others, including a cider producer, a winegrower, and a cheesemaker, enjoying the kind of personal contact no supermarket can provide.

But greenmarkets offer still more.  Schoolteachers bring their pupils there to acquaint them with what a greenmarket is and what it offers.  In election season candidates make a royal progress there, preceded by flunkies handing out leaflets and preparing the populace for the arrival of their august presence.  Activists urge passersby to sign petitions, local chefs offer cooking demonstrations, and information stands offer recipes for fava bean soup with mint, blueberry salsa, or braised rhubarb over greens with fresh herbs, most of whose ingredients are currently available in the market.  As for music, at Union Square on various occasions I have heard violinists from Julliard, a Frenchman grinding an organ and singing, a combo of Ecuadorean Indians playing exotic native instruments,
and jazz groups whose music ranges in quality from excellent to awful.  In more than one sense, a greenmarket is a feast.

Rarely, someone profanes this sacred space.  When a cyclist tried to pedal through the Union Square market, I and several others blocked his way and asked him, quite civilly, to dismount and walk his bike.  Immediately his ego flared up: no one was going to tell him what to do!  We argued and pleaded; he wouldn't give in.  With no policeman in sight to back us up, reluctantly we had to back off and let him pedal furiously on.  Fortunately, it was not a crowded day in the market.  But such infractions are rare, and the only violence I've ever seen at Union Square was when strong winds threatened to topple some of the stands' awnings, at which point buyers and sellers joined forces to prop them up or bring them gently down.  But even that mishap is rare.

To patronize the greenmarket throughout the year is to witness the cycle of seasons as one never can in a supermarket, where foods from all over the world are available every month of the year.  In early spring the produce stands start with the first harvested greens, rather skimpy bunches compared to what will come later in the year, though last year's apples are always available.  Gorzynski offers more foods than some, having produce from root pits and a root cellar and a greenhouse, plus greens like dandelion that appear early and grow wild on his farm, and crops that he has "wintered over," planting them in the fall so that they are half grown when winter comes, and ready to resume growth when spring thaws the ground.

More and more produce stands soon return, and by early summer there is a wealth of food available.  In June strawberries appear for one short month or two, followed by peaches and blueberries and cherries, and then by plums and apricots and grapes, and in late summer by watermelon and pears, as well as green and red and yellow peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, huge bins of corn, and the first new crop of apples.  Dozens of different kinds of apples crowd the stands in September and above all October, when -- for a month or so -- the freshly picked apples will have a delicious taste hard to describe.  To experience it is like suddenly seeing with perfect vision and realizing that up to then your vision had been slightly out of focus.  Alas, this taste soon fades and will not be matched again until the next season's apples arrive a whole year later.

Early autumn is probably the richest time in the market, since summer's leafy greens are still available as the autumn foods come in: root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, leeks, rutabaga, turnips, and parsnips; Indian corn and ornamental gourds; pumpkins ranging in size from tiny to gigantic (who would want gigantic or even be able to transport it?); and more kinds of winter squash than you can name: butternut, buttercup, kobocha, acorn, dumpling, delicata, spaghetti, Hubbard, and still others.  But by now there is a hint of chill in the air, shorts are fewer and sweaters more abundant, and winter lies ahead.

Many produce stands are gone by Thanksgiving, but Keith, who always offers a rich variety of herbs, never fails to promote the traditional Thanksgiving trio: sage, thyme, and rosemary, which I always make a point of buying.  By November only the hardiest greens are still in the market, such as kale and collards; weather permitting, they may persist even into December, when I have bought both of them from Gorzynski, and from Keith, kale that was laced with snow.  Christmas greens now dominate, and some stands offer Christmas trees that buyers can select carefully, after which, inserted in some strange device, they are marvelously encased in mesh wrapping and ready to be hauled away.  By the week before Christmas it is time for farewells, since after Christmas Keith and Gorzynski and many others will disappear for months to come.

January and February at Union Square constitute what I call the "minimal market."  Most produce is gone, except for hardy apples, pears, and smaller amounts of greens offered by a handful of stands selling produce from greenhouses.  But baked goods and milk and preserves and cheeses are still on hand, and buyers, albeit in smaller numbers, still flock.  On a raw, cold, windy day there is nothing so warming and sustaining as a cup of hot cider from an apple stand.  One Saturday, hearing that a blizzard had raged upstate, I didn't bother to go to the Square, since vendors would find the upstate roads impassible.  But the following week I heard that three stands had actually showed up, including one selling milk.  Then, by March, there are signs of spring's awakening, as stands start reappearing -- Gorzynski by April, but Keith only by late May or early June.  Minimal is over; the cycle recommences.

I support greenmarket farmers, especially the organic ones, because greenmarkets provide fresh locally grown food, preserve farmland and small family farms, and put city dwellers more in touch with the source of their food.  And because I like talking with Keith and Gorzynski, and get a kick out of the crazy flowery hats worn by the ladies of Beth's Farm Kitchen who sell jams and chutneys, and the sight of an outsized ostrich egg, and the young Latina at the Caradonna Farm fruit stand who used to wear a headdress of fruit, including bananas dangling by her ears, in true Carmen Miranda fashion.  Not to mention the sign that I saw at Union Square once, though only once (I invent not): LOCALLY  GROAN.  That alone, and a cup of hot cider on a cold winter day, endear me forever to the greenmarket at Union Square.

Thought for the day: Those who want to eat the peach, yet be the peach, are enablers and lubricants of joy.
                                                                                           © 2012 Clifford Browder

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