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On the Road: Philadelphia's Neighborhood Farmers' Markets -- Clark Park

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Over the next four weeks my At Home blog will shift its focus from back road farm stands to Philadelphia's neighborhood farmers' markets.

Heirloom tomatoes and heirloom melons at Headhouse Square Farmers' Market.

Thanks to the efforts of The Food Trust and Farm to City -- and the support of neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia, the city is blessed with easy access to just-picked, farm-fresh local foods. The series begins this week with the Clark Park Farmers' Market and continues through Summer's end with Rittenhouse Square, Headhouse and Greensgrow in Kensington. Rather than On the Road, these could well be called On the Bus! (I will also be heading out to New York's Hudson River Valley and Long Island's South Fork during this time.) My goal in sharing my journeys is that I will encourage and inspire you to follow your own path to more enjoyable home entertaining.

From Country Farm Stands to Urban Farmers' Markets
We travel far and wide in rental cars and tour buses to discover distant back roads, while by-passing back roads close to home. We also microscopically examine insider city guides and the internet to discover the hidden neighborhoods of Prague, Paris and Shanghai, while rarely leaving the confines of our local neighborhood to explore all that is fascinating in adjacent zip codes.

Driving all over countryside hill and dale in search of a farm stands at times feels looking for a needle in a literal haystack. It is not the most ecologically progressive way to obtain just-picked produce and other local agricultural fare. In fact, cities developed because they provide a more efficient economic structure by centralizing people and products. Philadelphia's population density is about is 11,500 per square mile compared to rural Salem County's 190. Unlike roadside farm stands that are appendages of far-flung farms, farmers' markets are essentially farm stand "malls." With farmers' markets, we and the farmers efficiently come together in a designated central location.

With my long country drives in search of farm stands, what distinguishes each trip is not so much the farm stands. Yes, some farm stands provide lasting memories -- the Tomatoes at the Washington Boro Tomato Barn or Mr. Tkrach's Cucumbers. But, in the end, a ripe peach in Salem County is just not that different from a ripe peach in Lancaster County. (Actually, Salem County's early season peaches were cling and Lancaster's August peaches were freestones.) What most distinguishes each excursion is "the neighborhood" -- the distinctive sense of place you get when you travel the back roads of Salem or Chester or Montgomery Counties or Long Island's North Fork. And so it is with Philadelphia's neighborhood farmers' markets. What distinguishes each farmers' market is not the difference in the flavor of the tomatoes from neighborhood to neighborhood, but rather the flavor of the neighborhoods from farmers' market to farmers' market.

Clark Park Farmer's Market
Clark Park is located in the Spruce Hill Neighborhood of West Philadelphia's University City District.

The area was originally colonial farmland. Perhaps our Founding Fathers enjoyed just-picked corn from here? As Philadelphia grew and modernized, this area evolved into an early street-car suburb. The Park itself was established in 1895. It sits on land once occupied by Satterlee Hospital which during the Civil War was our country's second largest. Sixty thousand Union soldiers were treated at the hospital.

Today, the nine acre park, located between Baltimore and Woodland Avenues and 43rd and 45th Street, provides both green space and a community focal point. Clark Park sits at the southwestern edge of the University of Pennsylvania campus and the medical complex that runs along Civic Center Boulevard back toward University Avenue.

Adding to the academic underpinning of the area is the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia which sits adjacent to Clark Park.

The tree-lined neighborhood is home to a culturally, economically and ethnically diverse community -- more concentrated but akin to the West Mt.Airy-Germantown community in Northwest Philadelphia. Much of the housing stock to the immediate north and west of the park is made up of what were once large single family homes and twins that have long-since been broken up into apartments for students and couples with young children.

Across the 43rd & Baltimore corner of -- just north of Clark Park is the welcoming Green Line Cafe.

Much of the ethnic diversity that adds so much interest to the neighborhood is found in the area to the west of Clark Park and includes a large African and African-American community. Baltimore Avenue is lined with ethnic markets and restaurants. Here a Nigerian Food Market.

Queen of Sheba is an Ethiopian Restaurant and Bar.

An Indian restaurant.

Atiya's Ola's features Vegan and Vegetarian Spirit First Food.

They sit alongside more gentrified neighborhood hang-outs like Milk & Honey.

In addition to sandwiches, Milk & Honey offers the Spruce Hill home entertainer everything from hardwood charcoal and smart baked-goods to organic produce and cheeses.

This may be Philadelphia's only "Chaat House," located two blocks east of Clark Park on Baltimore Avenue at 41st and Baltimore. Chaat is a unique Indian Street food based upon a variety of spiced and fried doughs -- snack food, incorporated with more familiar Indian fare like biryani and somosas. You can get your chaat Mild to Wild.

A summer flea market, sponsored by Uhuru.

It's the sort of neighborhood park where you can get your bike repaired.

There are more than 300 trees to sit under and catch-up on your text messaging.

Or learn about the upcoming Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe.

Or just take in the scene at the foot of Charles Dickens.

But, by all means, become a Friend of Clark Park.

It is the unique neighborhood surrounding Clark Park that adds spice to the Clark Park Farmers' Market.

The Clark Park Farmers' Market

The Clark Park Farmers' Market is located along 43rd Street between Baltimore and Woodland.

It is easily accessible by bus or subway surface trolley. There is also plenty of convenient and free street parking.

I often site Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities as providing the intellectual underpinning of my restaurant career. In her iconoclastic 1960's book, Jacobs described the important role of the neighborhood candy store in providing a common ground for otherwise disconnected urban dwellers. (A child of the 60's, what I have done in my 40-plus career with food has always been connected to building community...before in my restaurants. The At Home Project -- book, website and blog -- is about using food and home entertaining to build community.) I thought restaurants could do what Jacobs candy store accomplished, but with better food! In many ways, neighborhood farmers' markets play a similar role in the lives of busy neighbors as Jacobs' candy store. It is at their neighborhood farmers' markets on Saturday morning's where neighbors find moments of bonhomie. The Clark Park Farmers' Market is an essential component of the neighborhood. Plus it was amazing local food.

Farmers' Markets are generally not the random collection of farmers and food artisans that they may appear to be. They are put together by a "sponsor/organizer" to include a thoughtful cross-section of stands. Clark Park is organized by The Food Trust and includes a wonderful mix of about 25 stands. Smaller markets will, of necessity, have a more abbreviated mix.

The mix of farm stands will include an "organic farm stand."

Typically, an Amish farmer or two is included.

This Amish farm stand offered a hot summer's day refreshment of iced cold Blackberry Juice, Peppermint Tea and Root Beer by the cup, pint or quart.

A bakery stand is de rigueur -- gluten free offerings a plus. Some farmers' markets including Rittenhouse Square have gluten-free only stands.

A fruit specialist is a little like the Macy's -- the anchor store in the mall.


Ideally a stand will provide grass-fed beef and other meat and poultry. Landisdale Farm provided all of the grass-fed beef used in today's Homegrown Philly Cheesesteak give-away at the LOVE Park Farmers' Market.

Someone needs to provide the dairy products.

Fruit and vegetables are so easy to merchandise. They are things of beauty. Someone needs to figure out how to more effectively merchandise meat and poultry. A slab of beef and a raw chicken just don't have the appeal of heirloom tomatoes.

Farm-grown flowers add color to the market and neighborhood households. Some farm stands have "outlets" at several neighborhood markets including this Amish flower stand's Rittenhouse Square outpost where I have frequently buy zinnias and other summer flowers for home. On Saturdays you can buy Market Day Canele at Clark Park and Rittenhouse Square and at Headhouse on Sundays. It's a unique product and they are the only farm stand "canele" game in town.

The Clark Park Farmers' Market is sponsored by the University City District, a non-profit "Special Services District" modeled after the very successful Center City District, Phildadelphia's first SSD. The market includes a produce stand from University City High School.

I am always on the look-out for the unusual -- here late July garlic scapes and spicy dandelion greens along with early hard squash.

A pet peeve is that few farm stands have signs announcing who they are and where they are from. The overall look of farmers' markets would be improved if each stand were "required" to have a sign that reflects the specialness of what they offer. This sign from Fahnestock Fruit Farm is the exception.

These tomatillas are grown on two acres at The Schuykill Center for Environmental Education in Northwest Philadelphia by Urban Girls Produce. Farm stands such as these -- with unique stories -- add a layer of interest to farmers' markets. However, absent seeing Urban Girls Produce on the pricing tag, the story requires some investigation. In fact, every farm stand has a story, but, in general, there is little or nothing at the stand seemed to tell their story -- except, of course, the farmers and artisan. You could say that the fresh food speaks for itself. But I don't agree. And, hopefully, the farnmers and artisans are too busy to chat. It would be far better if these stories were more clearly "displayed" the customers through signage.

A bonus attraction at farmers' markets are food trucks. Some have them and some do not. Saturdays, Clark Park boasts the roving Honest Tom's Taco Shop where breakfast tacos available through lunch or until they run out.

An underlying principle of the At Home Project is that home entertaining can be a joy and not a chore if you plan ahead and spread your tasks over time. Shopping is a key part of home entertaining and what could be more joyful that spending a summer Saturday shopping at this farmer's market stand.

Or bringing a basket of these beauties home along with the story of Urban Girls Produce.

What about the joy of biting into a sweet tree-ripened white nectarine or a Ginger Gold apple, the first apple of apple's long season.

Or just pausing a moment to look at a basket of vibrant sweet and hot peppers. There they are, just looking for a good home.

I hope you get out this week to your neighborhood farmers market -- or someone elses neighborhood farmers' market. Buy lots of stuff, bring it home, make a meal and share with friends and family.

Clark Park Farmers' Market operates May through November on Thursdays from 3 to 7 PM and Saturdays from 10 AM to 2 PM. Some intrepid stands operate November through April on Saturdays from 10 AM to 1 PM.

Next week: The Rittenhouse Square Farmers' Market. If you are not a subscriber and want to continue to receive posts about neighborhood farmers' markets and more about sharing food at home with friends and family, subscribe to the At Home blog.