VISITING THE FARMER’S MARKET – PART ONE

To market, to market, to buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again, dancing a jig;
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog;
To market, to market, to buy a plum bun,
Home again, home again, market is done.
– Mother Goose nursery rhyme

And one other that I have loved for a long time:

MARKET DAY

White, glittering sunlight fills the market square,
Spotted and sprigged with shadows. Double rows
Of bartering booths spread out their tempting shows
Of globed and golden fruit, the morning air
Smells sweet with ripeness, on the pavement there
A wicker basket gapes and overflows
Spilling out cool, blue plums. The market glows,
And flaunts, and clatters in its busy care.
A stately minster at the northern side
Lifts its twin spires to the distant sky,
Pinnacled, carved and buttressed; through the wide
Arched doorway peals an organ, suddenly –
Crashing, triumphant in its pregnant tide,
Quenching the square in vibrant harmony.
–Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

The children’s nursery rhyme, “to market, to market…” reminds of us a time when it was customary throughout the country to “go to market” on certain days of the week, in particular Saturday mornings, to purchase groceries and produce, before the advent of the corner grocery stores and, later on, supermarkets.

Happily, we have had a resurgence of farmer’s markets throughout the United States. Market day is Thursday afternoon on Lancaster Boulevard in the Antelope Valley, but the market of my childhood was Findlay Market, near downtown Cincinnati. When I was a child, I – or one of my siblings – would accompany our Grandma Schmidt on the street car toting hand-sewn oilcloth shopping bags which we would fill with melons, oranges, lettuce, parsley, onions, and tomatoes – and sometimes a freshly killed hen from a butcher shop at Findlay Market. I wasn’t especially fond of the butcher shop (which remains in business to this day) but found the sawdust strewn on the floor interesting to slide around on, or make patterns in with my shoes.

Mary Anna DuSablon provided a bit of historical background to Findlay Market in her wonderful book CINCINNATI RECIPE TREASURY/THE QUEEN CITY’S CULINARY HERITAGE.

“Findlay Market,” she writes, “the first suburb to be annexed to Cincinnati was named after General James Findlay, who owned the property. Findlay was a proprietor of a prosperous log cabin store, which was founded in 1793…”

Originally, Ms. DuSablon explains, “the area was simply designed as an open air market for farmers, but in 1852, a cornerstone was laid for an open-sided cast iron market building, which would cost $12,000. It was an immense success.

In 1902 the market house was enclosed and refrigeration was added. With its colorful vegetable, fruit and flower stands along the curbs, and stores of every description around the square, Findlay Market became Cincinnati’s first shopping center, reflecting its German heritage later intermingled with the Italian.”

Dick Perry mentions Findlay Market in his book VAS YOU EVER IN ZINZINNATI? published by Doubleday in 1966, describing it this way, “The market itself is located in the dilapidated Mohawk district on an Elder Street esplanade between Elm and Race. But the esplanade can’t contain it. The market is so gregarious it spills out of the market place itself, and vendors line both sides of Elder Street between Elm and Vine, both sides of Race Street from Green to Elder, and the east side of Race Street from Elder to Findlay. Stalls, vendors, and seeming disorder are everywhere. On market days, the din, confusion and scents are beautiful. What can be bought there? Meats, poultry, fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, flowers and special delicacies…”.

That was in 1966 and possibly Findlay Market’s heyday. In more recent years, whenever I have made a trip to Cincinnati, my nephew Russ and I have gone down to Findlay Market to shop and look around. For a few years reconstruction was going on and only a few shops were open and doing business. I had the good fortune to be in Cincinnati shortly after Findlay Market reopened a few years ago, with one long enclosed building where private vendors offer everything imaginable from soup to nuts – but especially meat. We found many different sausages and were invited to taste some of them, when I mentioned to the butcher going to Findlay Market with my grandmother in the 1940s and 1950s. Findlay Market has undergone a facelift but the produce and meat and poultry being offered is still top notch.

Farmers markets are as old as this country itself; indeed, the practice of farmers taking their produce, chickens, and eggs to town to sell is centuries old, dating back to medieval times. Didn’t we learn that even President Jefferson often accompanied his French steward to the Georgetown market on his daily trip to pick fresh vegetables and fruit for that day’s meals? According to Kenneth Leish in his book THE WHITE HOUSE, they sometimes spent as much as $50 in a single grocery shopping expedition—certainly a vast amount of money for those times.

As a matter of record, Thomas Jefferson had this to say about markets, “I have often thought that if heaven had given me choice of my position and calling, it should have been a rich spot of earth, well watered, and near a good market for the productions of the garden.”

Describing the marketplaces of the middle ages, author Reay Tannahill writes in her book, FOOD IN HISTORY (published by Stein and Day, 1973), “As the towns grew, small markets which had beg8un for the friendly bartering of produce, grew into important trading events, where coinage, spices, wine, and silks, replaced baskets of apples and day-old chicks as currency. Frequently, so much of a town’s prosperity revolved around the market that stringent precautions had to be taken to guard the stallholders against robbery, violence, and the medieval equivalent of the protection racket. A “market peace” similar to that of ancient Greece was established, symbolized in this new Christian world by a cross set up in the market place.”

“Later,” explains Tannahill, “Every great city had its great markets, and control over these became, in every sense, a royal headache. Exacting obedience from the merchants and ensuring the ‘market peace’ were feasible only if the place of sale was subject to regulation. It became the custom to establish different areas of the city, in which different types of merchants could offer their wares” (This has long been usual in the markets of Asia and the custom had also been adopted in Byzantium).
Other rules and regulations grew, says Tannahill, as merchant associations and guilds became more powerful. As an example, Ms. Tannahill tells us, “In early 14th century London, out of town poulterers* found it profitable to wander the streets selling their goods to housewives who had neither the time
nor the inclination to go to market. The guilds resented this freelance competition and in 1345, an edict was passed which flatly prohibited “folks bringing poultry to the city, to “sell it in landes, (sic) in the hostels of their hosts, and elsewhere in secret” and commanded them to take it “to the Leaden Hall and there sell it, and nowhere else.”

*A poulterer was an old term for a poultry man.

In another book titled PUBLIC MARKETS AND COMMUNITY REVITALIZATION, the author states that the public market as a type of building was firmly established by the seventeenth century. In England they continued to be the economic and social centers of urban life until the early 20th century; they still play an important role in many English cities.

One fact stands clear: the market place, as a custom, has been with us for centuries. European immigrants brought this custom to the United States, where it has flourished for several hundred years.

And the topic of farmers markets obviously makes good copy—you can find newspaper articles throughout the USA, devoted to farmers markets; I can count on one or two a year from the L.A. Times and the San Fernando Valley’s Daily News. Since I first started researching material for this article, I have been collecting both magazine and newspaper articles on farmer’s markets. Some of these markets, such as the Farmer’s Market in Hollywood, California, and the 200-year old French Market in New Orleans, the Soulard Market in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Pike Market in Seattle, Washington, are so well known that they attract millions of tourists every year.

Which market place may have been first in this country seems to be open to debate. According to PUBLIC MARKETS AND COMMUNITY REVITALIZATION, “Among the first records of market activity in the colonies, is a 1634 entry in the diary of Governor Winthrop of Massachusetts, showing that a court order had established a market in Boston, to be held every Thursday. Some years later, Boston constructed its first public market building in the center of t own, leading to the town dock. Around the same time, New York City centralized food retailing into public markets. As new cities developed the pattern continued. In Columbus Ohio, local leaders erected the first public market building even before the city received its corporate charter from the state—a reflection, perhaps, of the relative important of food and government. By 1918, the U.S. Census Bureau found that more than half of American cities with 30,000 inhabitants or more had municipal markets.

The Central Market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, also claims to be the Nation’s oldest Farmer’s Market. (In 1730 when Lancaster began as a town, a market place was established).

The Baltimore, Maryland’s public market system dates back to 1763 when the first market was erected at Gay and Market Streets, with funds raised from a lottery. Eleven markets eventually encircled the heart of the city, each serving a distinct neighborhood and clientele.

Lexington, Market, in Baltimore, began in 1783 with the permission of Colonel John Eager Howard who allowed a farmer’s market to be placed upon Howard’s Hill. Thirty years later, the city erected a building on Howard’s Hill and officially named the market Western Precinct Market. However, in 1818, after the city of Baltimore expanded its boundaries, the market changed its name to Lexington Market. By 1822, Lexington Market was so famous that U.S. Attorney General William Wirt described it in a letter, “You may conceive the vast quantity of provisions that must be brought to this market when you are told that 60,000 people draw their daily supplies from it, which is more than twice as many people as there are in Washington, Alexandria and Richmond.”

And, Ralph Waldo Emerson, while visiting the Lexington market, described Baltimore as “the Gastronomical Capital of the Universe”.

In 1949, the Lexington Market burned to the ground; the market was rebuilt with a bond issue. Today, this farmer’s market holds many food stalls that have been in the same families for three, four and even five generations.

For a few decades in recent times, the popularity of farmers markets spiraled downward in decline, as American housewives discovered supermarkets and prepackaged cellophane-wrapped mushrooms and tomatoes, frozen TV dinners and microwave ovens. (And what brought people back to farmers markets and fresh produce? Could it be that the very same generation of children who grew up on TV dinners—of which I was one—tired of and became disenchanted with frozen tv dinners and shopping at supermarkets where prepackaged tomatoes and mushrooms usually concealed dark spots and bruises on the undersides of the vegetables, hidden from view?)

Some markets survived despite the efforts of cities to abolish them. The city of Chicago, for example began trying to disband the Maxwell Street Market soon after officially designating the area as a public market in 1912. Government efforts to close the open-air market occurred regularly in the decades that followed, including the removal of all site management functions in the 1970s, but the market miraculously survived to this day with over 800 vendors and perhaps 30,000 customers on a peak Sunday…

By the early 1970s, a number of cities began to re-evaluate their public, or farmer’s markets. Certainly, Central Market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was one of the first recipients of federal funds for historical preservation when it was restored in the early 1970s.

In her cookbook titled THE FARM MARKET COOKBOOK (Doubleday, published in 1991) Judith Olney writes, “That I am not alone in my need for honest food, for a sense of community and change, became startlingly clear when I began to work on this book. In my travels, editors told me of new markets started in their cities. An Iowa government worker report that every town in the state with a population of over 5000 seemed to have generated a market in the past three years. Bellweather, California, was booming – 5 markets ten years ago, 120 markets in 1989. All across America, behind city halls, in parking lots of malls, in refurbished deserted warehouses, farm markets were springing up like a bountiful nationwide crop of wild edible mushrooms..those wonderful institutions, many of them established by waves of immigrants who had maintstreamed into American society in the stalls of the markets, were coming back to life…”

“And,” she continues, “so life spins around. The booming markets of our agrarian past, those links to our foreign born heritage that we rejected in the 1960s and 1970s like brash teenagers disowning embarrassing parents, we now embraced in our wiser maturity….”

Ms. Olney visited heartland markets in over a third of this country’s states while researching her book and even provides a geographical index to markets across the country and a listing of mail order market items.

An important factor to all of this, explain Richard Sax and Sandra Gluck, in their book FROM THE FARMERS’ MARKET, is not just the ability of the consumer to be able to obtain fresh produce, but that it also provides one solution to agriculture’s financial problems, allowing the farmer direct market of his produce, thereby eliminating the middleman and some of his profits.

This has become a crucial outlet for the small family-run farm, at a time when conglomerates and supermarket chains have forced many such farms to close down. In 1820, according to a recent report in Newsweek, nearly 75 percent of the United States population lived on farms. Today only 3 percent do. (FROM THE FARMERS MARKET by Sax & Gluck.

END OF PART ONE – Next I will share with you some of the Farmer’s Market cookbooks in my own collection.

–Sandra Lee Smith

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2 responses to “VISITING THE FARMER’S MARKET – PART ONE

  1. When I was a child, we went most often to the Sixth Street Market in Cincinnati, but also to Findlay Market and Court Street Market (we lived on Court Street overlooking part of the market). Now, we have a small, nice farmer’s market in Loveland, Ohio, every Tuesday. Great fun.
    Lillian

  2. Thanks for the input, Lillian – I am hoping to get some more feedback about Findlay market. I had a lot more in my notes about farmers markets–acquired a folder packed to overflowing with clippings & notes–but decided the first part was long enough. Will focus on farmers’ market cookbooks next. – Sandy

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