For me, there is no joy at the average supermarket. The whole experience is a chore. First off, the lighting gives me a headache. Second, there's the complete disregard of the seasons. Sorry, but offering me Bing cherries in the middle of winter gives my whole body the NO feeling. Then there's the sushi bar with "authentic" sushi chefs situated next to the end cap of Flaming Hot Cheetos on sale. There's no connection to anything that makes sense to me from start to finish. There are plenty of other reasons I could cite here that are much more alarming and unnatural but I'll save you the grief. It's alienating and sad. I get in, buy my paper products and get out.
That said, let me take you back to an experience I had in Los Angeles many years ago. I was aimlessly wandering the streets of Santa Monica, when I stumbled upon a farmers' market. Being from Chicago, this was a completely new experience for me: street upon street laid out with incredible produce the likes of which I'd never seen; I remember tasting multiple varieties of avocado and citrus I never knew existed. I had conversations with some of the growers. I sampled delicious, locally made food products. I ogled crazy-gorgeous varieties of dahlias and orchids. The day was warm, the people were friendly, the colors, smells and tastes were abundant and all of a sudden, I started to cry. I was so supremely happy. I never knew shopping could be so beautiful. For me, it was one of those "This Must Be The Place," moments, and it changed me forever.
This is one of my most passionate causes; If I had one column to write, one urgent message that might change some people's lives for the better, this would be it. I urge you to seek out your local farmers' market. You will eat better than you ever have in your life. I want to convince you to make this a priority. I set one whole morning aside each week to visit my favorite market. It's my absolute greatest pleasure.
Your local farmers' market is where you will find the most beautiful, wonderful tasting, alive, fresh foods you can possibly get your hands on. If you're used to eating bagged, flavorless lettuce or those "baby" carrots that were picked about three months before you bought them, shipped from approximately a thousand miles away and extruded through a machine, your mind is about to be blown. Not to mention you'll be meeting the people who are growing your food and doing something good for the environment and your local economy.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, my favorite farmers' market also sells incredible local cheeses, unhomogenized milk that is night and day from grocery store milk, breads and pastries from local food artisans, and fresh pasta made from local, organic ingredients.
I think it's fair to say that farmers' markets might be intimidating to some people. Here are some tips to put you at ease if you're a first-timer:
1. First, take a walk around the market and see what everyone is selling. Let yourself take it all in. See what looks best to you and see whose faces and spaces you're naturally drawn to. You should feel no pressure to buy until you're ready. That's not to say farmers don't get excited about their product -- they might chat you up, but I've never felt coerced into buying anything and neither should you.
2. Getting to know the farmers is a gift. I go back to my favorite vendors over and over because it becomes easy and comfortable. I've built authentic relationships with these people and I love to support them. I know a woman who buys her eggs from the farmer who has the most children! That's her feel-good way of supporting them.
3. You may ask to sample anything you like. It's common practice to sample the wares before you buy them. Today I was standing at a stall deciding between pea shoots and micro-greens and one taste made my decision. Just remember, whether you choose to buy or not, to acknowledge the vendor with your gracious thanks.
4. There have been many times I've been completely stumped by some gorgeous vegetable I had no idea how to use. Celery Root was one of them. Ask the farmers -- they know. Oftentimes I've stood around and overheard conversations on how people use this or that. People like to share their knowledge and there is no shame in being a newbie. Always ask and try something new.
5. Every farmers' market is different. Find one that's convenient but moreover find one that moves you; one that can be a happy meeting place for you, your friends and your children. Some are in parking lots, some are in parks, some take up city streets. Some invite you to linger, some don't. Do a little research and visit a few to see what feels like home.
If our lives are measured by the quality of our day-to-day experiences, then by all means, put this one at the top of your list: Find Your Local Farmers' Market!
Plug in your zip code and find farmers' markets, restaurants, CSAs and other food sources closest to you. An invaluable resource.
City of Chicago Farmers' Markets -- more than 20 neighborhoods have their own markets. Find yours.
(c) 2009 Dana Joy Altman, Real Food Rehab, Inc.