I have tried to like them. I really have. I do not want to risk, after all, my membership in the White Person’s Club. But when I visited one of our local Denver farmers’ markets again yesterday, my initial excitement wilted into something akin to the listless, browning and over-priced bunches of kale on display in one lettuce booth. I will set aside the whole issue of leaving the house before 2 p.m. on a weekend because that points to a personal moral failing and a multi-generational, inherited fondness for what my brother-in-law refers to with a sigh of practiced annoyance as “ass-illating.” My real concern after all is: Where is the farm in “farmers’ market”?
Like most markets, the one I visited was more like a cheesy street fair or grade school carnival than the vibrant, bustling center where people do their actual shopping. Purveyors of hemp baby togs, vegan candles and prepared foods outnumbered produce booths by at least 2:1. What produce I found was nothing special or even interesting.
Even the tomatoes—that most local of local food—more closely resembled the anemic offerings on sale at the local Safeway than the produce available at the Whole Foods across the street. Yet again I felt the sneaking suspicion that the so called farmers had actually ducked down the street, loaded said tomatoes into recyclable cartons, labeled them organic and doubled the price. I would certainly do something like that if I had any huckster in me. Why wouldn’t they? Again, a personal failing, perhaps, this cynicism.
But then there was the fact that the produce I finally did buy—a tiny $5 bag of roasted chilies—was disappointing beyond measure. I should have known better. New Mexico chilies are not even in season until August. But I was dazzled by the sight of the roaster, which chars chilies so much better than I could ever hope to accomplish at home. I also, wrongly it turned out, imagined that said chilies would be sold peeled given that peeling a chili is about as easy as pulling off a pair of wet pantyhose while driving 90 miles per hour. Not only were they not peeled, they were not even spicy. I mean I have tasted sweet red peppers with more heat. Plus I had to listen to people make clueless comments like..Omigosh what are these?! Do you eat them plain? Come on people, we live in Colorado!
I suppose my main problem with the farmers’ market is that it is undemocratic. It is, essentially, a means of entertainment for affluent white people who wake up early on a Sunday morning and want to revel in their virtuosity-of-schedule with other early-rising white people. (Okay that was just mean.) As someone who enjoys visiting my city’s numerous “ethnic” grocery stores where people are actually doing their actual food shopping, often on tight budgets for large families, this just seems kind of..gross to me.
Also, the selection at these stores is just…better. The oyster mushrooms at H-Mart are NOT $10 a pound, you can buy the abalone still swimming and, in the process, learn about new fruits and vegetables that I at least never even knew existed just by wandering the produce department. The frozen roasted, off-season chilies at the Mexican grocery store are not only hot, they are peeled. (And local.) Dozens of tortillas, still steaming (you can watch them come off the conveyer belt in the produce department) are available for pennies a pound. The store itself? A local chain.
At the middle eastern store next to the enormous mosque on Leetsdale, a woman makes tandoori bread before your eyes and you can stock up on five different types of lentils and harissa by the gallon. Again—a local businessman trying to make his way in this country.
Although indoors and stocked with decidedly non-local specialties aimed at homesick immigrants, these stores are much closer in spirit to the real farmers’ markets I have seen in India, Italy and France. They are places where people buy their weekly sustenance, not their Sunday morning lattes. And those things we call “farmers’ markets” in Denver? To me they are, in the end, Epcott-like amusement parks for those who have either not considered venturing or are perhaps afraid to venture, into neighborhoods in which people have recently arrived from nations where real farmers’ markets—with all their beauty and flaws—remain a part of daily life.