It's a farmers market, of course, my local — Culver City.
I'd always thought of this comfy neighborhood farmers market as a small market. It's just one block long with about 15 to 20 farmers and an equal number of prepared-food vendors (sausage-makers, tamales). Some of the farmers who sell here also sell at the big markets, and we have a Röckenwagner bakery table where I always buy pretzel bread.
But it's not a food-insiders scene. You might spot a well-known screenwriter or director among the studio folk, but you're not likely to see chefs from restaurants other than those on the block. Instead, it's the kind of market where office workers on their way home shop for vegetables for dinner or seedlings for their gardens. Where parents, having picked up their kids from day care, enjoy an al fresco family meal.
The area's big farmers markets — Santa Monica, Torrance, Hollywood — are big business for farmers and festive outings for the shoppers. Cookbook signings, celebrity chef sightings and high prices for exquisite produce are part of the scene. Soaking in that scene, it's easy to forget the original mission of the late '70s farmers market movement.
But at the smaller markets, that mission — bringing fresh produce to city dwellers while making it possible for small farmers to sell directly to consumers at retail prices — is thriving. As it turns out, Culver City is mid-sized — an Accord, not a Mini Cooper. L.A.'s smallest, the Saturday morning Los Angeles (Harambee) farmers market on Crenshaw, often has a mere half-dozen booths and just one farmer.
And what a farmer he is. The tables set up by Will Robinson and his wife, Marcella, in the tree-shaded parking lot next to a community center are like an old-fashioned farm stand — one that you didn't have to drive to Fresno, where their 80 acres are — to find. The Robinsons, who have 40 acres in vineyards and sell raisins to Sun-Maid, bring their produce to just two markets, one in Oakland and the Harambee (Swahili for "Let's pull together").
Will Robinson, a warm, welcoming man, sells a little bit of everything in season, recently including carrots, green onions, squash, celery, cabbage, cauliflower and greens of all kinds. He also has small bags of heirloom butter beans and black-eyed peas dried from last summer's crop (this year's will arrive in a few months), raisins, peanuts and black and English walnuts (shelled and unshelled). He sets out a hammer and small anvil on his table so kids can learn what kind of muscle it takes to shell a black walnut.
From coolers behind the table, Marcella Robinson unpacks yam muffins, pickled okra, Texas caviar and other farm-kitchen goodies.
The Harambee market may be L.A.'s smallest (runner-up is the three-farmer Saturday morning Los Angeles market at 43rd and Central, across from the historic Dunbar Hotel), but like other small farmers markets, it exists because of a combination of state and local initiative. Among the local nonprofit organizations that sponsor farmers markets are food banks, benevolent associations, redevelopment agencies, churches, growers associations, a hospital foundation and economic empowerment organizations.
While you won't find designer vegetables at every one of the smaller markets, you will often find a few of the producers who also sell at the larger markets, and, almost every time out, you'll find unique and unusual products — along with an amazing spectrum of Angelenos.
At the Monday morning market in South Gate, for example, I came across the Unknown Vegetable (well, previously unknown to me), a branchy, leafy green being tied into bundles in a truck bed by a worker from Santillan Farms. My fellow shoppers told me in English and Spanish that it was "like spinach." It was called simply quelites (a generic term for greens) and, along with a similar green identified as mora (or hierba mora), was selling for $1 a bunch. I still don't know its scientific name, but sautéed with garlic, onions and tomatoes (as I was advised to do by the woman at the Azteca Farm table, who also had it) it was delicious, very tender and light.
Crisscrossing the city, stopping at markets before and after work, on lunch hours and weekends, I also bought pink navel oranges in Glendale from Walker Ranch, Asian-pear jelly from Ha's Apple Farm at the West Adams and Vermont market, fresh blooming chamomile from ABC Herbs in West Hollywood, and a cherimoya from Buena Tierra Farm at the Chinatown market.
A real connection
The markets are hugely important to their communities. The Adams and Vermont market takes place in a tree-shaded corner of the parking lot at St. Agnes school, which has closed early every Wednesday since the market opened in 1980 to accommodate the farmers and shoppers. According to market manager Ida Edwards, this market has one of the highest volume of sales using EBT cards (electronic cards used in place of food stamps) in the city.
Not all small markets serve low-income areas, of course. The tiny Sunday morning market on Melrose Place near La Cienega is surrounded by the elegant storefronts of some of the world's most expensive and beautiful antique shops.
Often, the farmer-customer interactions cut across ethnic lines. In West Hollywood, Hmong farmers sell baby bok choy and Asian greens to Anglo housewives and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. In Chinatown, Latino farmers say "thank you" in Chinese. And in Burbank, Z Ranch vegetable sellers hand out Zebunnesa Zeba Zubair's recipe for Indian eggplant (with seeds from Bangladesh) that are picked up by Jewish and Armenian shoppers.
Wendy Reisman of Buena Tierra Farm near San Diego causes a small riot each week during the spring when she comes with her cherimoyas to the Thursday-afternoon market in downtown L.A.'s Chinatown neighborhood. You'll see a few cherimoyas in farmers markets everywhere around town, especially in markets known to have some Asian customers. But Reisman's cherimoyas are top-quality — large and incredibly sweet and refined. Her fans are intensely loyal.
"This is my third year in Chinatown," says Reisman. "I'm seasonal; I only come four months out of the year. If I went to Huntington Beach or Long Beach, I wouldn't sell as much. It's good to go out and educate people, but a small farmer needs to sell their fruit. Right now there's no competition for me in Chinatown. I have a very good customer base."