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Farmers Market Memories

06/23/2014 @ 9:42am

After being told for several months that it’s on backorder, our warm weather has at last arrived. And in yet another illustration of “be careful what you wish for,” I have lately found myself trapped in a Groundhog Day of lawn mowing and a perpetual war on weeds.

One sure sign of summertime is the farmers markets that spring up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. These open-air markets are a boon to those among us who don’t know anyone who has rhubarb and thus can’t get the stuff for free.

But there’s more for sale at farmer’s markets besides seasonal fruits and veggies. Homemade bread is a staple that my wife and I cannot resist whenever we visit a farmer’s market. The golden loaves glisten in the sunshine, evoking deep memories from our childhoods.

People my age grew up in a simpler time. For instance, when I was a kid, there were only three channels available on TV. It was a huge deal when Public Broadcasting came along and raised that total to four.

Nowadays, thanks to the miracle of fiber optics, we have approximately 500 channels from which to choose. Most are junk, so we end up watching only about four of them.

When I was a youngster, it was common to have a garden the size of Vermont. We kids were compelled to toil in our garden under the scorching sun, tilling tomatoes and cultivating corn. And the whole time, we were denied access to a high-speed Internet connection for our smartphones! Never mind that the Internet and smartphones hadn’t yet been invented. That tiny detail does nothing to lessen how put-upon we felt about being forced to work for our victuals.

After irrigating the garden all summer with our sweat, Mom would set about to canning its produce. But by then we had consumed so much corn, it was coming out of our ears, and we'd eaten enough green beans to make the Jolly Green Giant nervous. The mere sight of yet another cucumber would have driven me over the edge.

Back then, Mom baked bread nearly every day. Loaves of bread and pans of dinner rolls were always cooling on the kitchen counter. Unattended cinnamon rolls were particularly prone to poaching.

Then the TV began to hype Wonder Bread. We kids soon became convinced that this Space Age product was superior to Mom’s rustic homemade bread. We browbeat our parents into buying Wonder Bread, hoping that doing so would make us honorary members of the Jetson family.

Was Wonder Bread better than homemade bread? Yes, but only if you define “better” as “an industrial product.”

My wife and I recently espied a farmer’s market in operation. We stopped to see what they had to offer.

The first thing that caught my eye were vast flats of scarlet strawberries. I asked if I could have a sample and was told, “Of course!”

I picked out a strawberry that was large enough to choke a Holstein. There was dirt on the fruit, so I wiped it on my shirt, the traditional method for field cleaning. Sinking my choppers into the berry, I was instantly transported.

It’s late June and we kids are out in our garden, hacking at weeds. In the strawberry patch, a flash of crimson catches my eye. I lift a leaf and uncover a hidden treasure: the season’s first ripe strawberry! We had been instructed to save them until we had enough for a meal, but to heck with that. I popped the ruby fruit into my mouth.

Then, as now, that first bite opened up a universe of lusciousness. Lord, that is good! Sweet and tart and juicy, with notes of warm, sunny afternoons and intimations of refreshing midnight thunderstorms. This is why we endure our interminable winters! This fleeting moment of epicurean ecstasy is worth all that shivering and shoveling.

There was also bread for sale. Rustic, plump, hand-formed loaves basked in the sunshine, waiting to be taken home so they could begin their digestive journeys.

I spoke with a young lady who was tending her bread booth. I asked what had prompted her to enter the bread-making business.

“My fiancée and I both attended culinary school,” she replied. “And he worked at a commercial bakery for a while. But we think that the best way to sell bread is to bake it. And we both enjoy the connections we form with our customers.”

We were visiting about sourdough starters when something in a nearby booth grabbed my attention.

“Look at this!” I exclaimed to my wife. “Green beans! Cucumbers! And tomatoes! This can only mean one thing! Winter is finally over!”

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