By Karen Hofstein
A hundred years ago, the scene was not unusual. Farmers with baskets of juicy orange peaches, crates of ripe red berries, and bushels of fragrant green vegetables would set up stalls in the village marketplace. Customers would flood into the market to purchase food for the coming week, bargaining and exchanging information about the news of the day.
Now the village marketplace is located within the busy streets of New York City. The small park in Manhattan known as Union Square is flanked by tall office buildings and megastores like Barnes & Noble, Babies ’R Us and Best Buy. Located on Broadway between East 14th and 17th Streets, Union Square is the year-round site of a farmers market that convenes rain or shine four times a week. Customers perusing the vast array of fruits, vegetables, dairy products, meats, and baked goods are likely to be plugged into their MP3 players, checking their BlackBerrys, or attending their cell phones.
Despite the prevalence of heavily advertised “fast-food” behemoths, many people seek more healthful food options. A number of shoppers, concerned about the environment, like to purchase organic foods that are free of pesticides. This explains the enormous popularity of the farmers markets, which are sponsored by Greenmarket, a privately funded program of the Council on the Environment of New York City.
In addition to the large market at Union Square, there are farmers markets at 48 other locations throughout the New York City area. Some open only at certain times during the year. One of these more popular seasonal sites is actually at Rockefeller Center, site of NBC studios and Radio City Music Hall. Tourists visiting during the summertime are surprised to see farmers selling produce, honey, and baked goods at the site of the world famous Christmas tree.
Heather Lindsey, a freelance health and medical writer, is a regular shopper at the Union Square farmers market. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, she says she was always used to having access to fresh produce. Since moving to New York 12 years ago, she was happy to discover the farmers markets.
Standing outside the Our Daily Bread stall after buying a whole wheat pan loaf, Lindsey says, “I love farmers markets.” She especially enjoys talking with the farmers from the surrounding New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania areas. “I buy bread here a lot,” she says, “I like the egg stand around the corner. There is a goat cheese stand. And any of the vegetable stands are great. I don’t like to focus on just one stand. I like to spread it out so I can support a number of farmers versus just one.”
A self-described “big fan of Michael Pollan and his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Lindsey says she liked the idea of healthful eating with more fruits and vegetables and reducing meat consumption.
She says, “We have been cooking in [at home] a lot more due to the economy. I love the creativity of cooking and I get a lot of satisfaction from it.” To that end, she recently took a course at the Institute of Culinary Education.
She goes on to list an eclectic array of mouthwatering meals she has whipped up in recent weeks: vegetable and egg tart with whole wheat crust; scrambled eggs with shrimp; whole wheat waffles; linguini with clam sauce; and quesadillas. The last of these, she laughs, is easy, “You just throw in whatever leftovers you have in the fridge.”
Her husband, Michael Mandel, a photo editor, notes that they cook a lot of ethnic foods at home, including Italian and Mexican. Lindsey adds, “I try to do some Thai dishes, some Indian dishes. I am sure it’s not totally authentic, but it tastes good.”
Mandel notes that when shopping at the farmers market, “you have a real connection to the food.”
Following a childhood of eating “classical American fast food,” he became a vegetarian 22 years ago. “At the time it was very political,” he says. “I just realized how everything about meat turned me off. The cost. The fact that so much grain and water goes to cattle and not to human beings. The fact that it wasn’t good for you.”
He adds, “It has been amazing over the past 20 years to see how [vegetarianism] has become more mainstream. When I became a vegetarian in the mid-1980s, it was still associated with a kind of 1960s revolutionary culture. And health food stores were sort of hippie-ish. Over 20 years it has changed. Now you can go to almost any restaurant and get veggie burgers.”
Another regular shopper at Union Square market is Shoshana Berkovic. A vibrant woman with sparkling eyes, she is a high school teacher who lives with her teenage daughter in Brooklyn.
Berkovic marvels at the freshness of the produce at the farmers market. Carrying an insulated bag with a frozen pack to keep things fresh, she regularly stocks up on the market’s fingerling potatoes, cucumbers, carrots, and tomatoes. She says, “The food here lasts much longer in the refrigerator.”
Berkovic laughs that her own cooking repertoire is somewhat limited. “I don’t have a big kitchen. So I mainly cut up things and cook them.”
With making sure that her daughter “eats healthy” as her priority, she says, “I am looking for different vitamins and I prefer to get them in food rather than a tablet.” She chuckles, “I usually forget to take my vitamins and calcium.”
As a teacher of biology and earth science in the New York City public school system, Berkovic has seen a marked change in the school’s cafeteria food in recent years. She says, “They have taken all the junk food machines out and have healthier alternatives.” Specifically, she has observed an increase in whole grain foods and low fat items. “I have seen a lot of improvement.” She sighs, “Of course they still serve french fries. They will always serve french fries. Some kids will only eat that.” She laments, “Kids are tough wherever you go. Kids are the same everywhere.”
The farmers market, in fact, is full of children who are learning what onion and garlic bulbs look like when they are pulled fresh from the ground. They are thrilled to find peaches still attached to twigs and leaves. They find potatoes still encrusted with rich-smelling soil. These are city dwellers who are becoming more connected to their bucolic past and love healthful food in its most natural state.
Karen Hofstein is a writer in New York City.