Every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. I step off Commuter Express bus No. 437 into what feels like a street festival. A jazz combo plays, Sony Pictures Studio employees saunter by with bouquets of flowers, kids scarf up handfuls of popcorn.
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."
The Chinatown market has only about 10 booths most weeks. Vegetable vendors display 6-foot-long poles of sugar cane, giant daikon, piles of Chinese peas, various greens, Chinese broccoli. I was thrilled to find hot, fresh-roasted chestnuts from the Chestnut King (Rosemead) and peeled and ate them from a paper cone as I walked around. There were plenty of takers too (though the market's just steps away from dozens of restaurants) for the rotisserie Hawaiian chicken turning on large spits.
The vibe at each of these markets varies depending on the opening hours. South Gate's mostly Latino Monday morning shoppers are energetic and resolute, working out menu ideas as they stock up on produce. At the Melrose Place Sunday-morning market, which opens at a leisurely 10 a.m., the espresso bar is first stop for tousle-headed thirtysomethings in chic sweats.
Sunday morning at the Pacific Palisades market on Swarthmore near Sunset sees well-heeled customers buying armfuls of flowers. This compact but well-stocked market has a real Sunday-morning feel, people ambling slowly, nibbling at samples, chatting with friends. It's anchored on one end by a pet adoption booth and on the other by a tiny petting zoo, where earnest high school-age ranch hands oversee meet-and-greets between infants and young lambs and goats.
Toddlers in tow Kids are a large part of the smaller farmers market scene.
In Glendale, where the Thursday-morning market has about 15 vendors and the neighborhood's unique ethnic mix is reflected in the number of Armenian customers on hand, I thought at first that you had to have a toddler to get in. I hadn't seen so many 3- and 4-year-olds in one place since my daughters' preschool graduations. And everywhere around me women's voices were cooing, "Look at those beeeauuutiful carrots. Should we get some carrots?" And "See, honey, see the pretty oranges. Would you like some oranges?" There you have the farmers market as teaching tool.
The kids are a little older at the Adams and Vermont market as parents pick them up from St. Agnes school and then hover as the farmers set up tables and unload produce. But a few hours later, it's a mellow market, with couples strolling by after work, grabbing a snack from the ceviche truck and filling a basket with nopales (very fresh), lemon grass, bulbing onions, chayote. One farmer naps in his truck, while his son-in-law mans the table.
Even later, toward sunset on another day in Culver City, I linger as the farmers, many of whom have been up before dawn, fold up their awnings, finish the dinners they've bought in the market, and sell the few remaining heads of lettuce at a discount. I toss a buck in the jazz band's bucket and head home.
But I'll be back — and not only to "my" farmers market. From now on, I'm going to keep an eye out for those tell-tale white and blue canopies and take advantage every time I'm in the right place at the right time to grab a bunch of beets, talk to farmers about the weather and take the pulse of another neighborhood.
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Swing by with your basket
Burbank. East Olive Avenue at North Glenoaks Boulevard, 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., Saturdays. This 35-vendor market has lots of farmers, half a dozen plant and flower sellers and several bakeries or food vendors, so good choices abound. Look for great early tomatoes from Wong Farms; artichokes, asparagus from Sun Coast Farms.
Culver City. Main Street between Venice and Culver boulevards, 2 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays. Some of the farmers have been coming since the market began 10 years ago, but it's a real street festival, with prepared food and novelty vendors bringing the total to about 40 booths. Seedling man Peter Lee has a loyal following. Glendale. Parking lot 11 on Colorado Boulevard near the corner of Brand Boulevard, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursdays. Though it's in a temporary spot due to construction on the original site, shoppers are not deterred. They're serious buyers, loading up from about 15 vendors. Gless Ranch and Walker Ranch have had tons of citrus; Underwood has had spectacular carrots, radishes, beets and blueberries. Los Angeles (Adams and Vermont). St. Agnes Church and school, West Adams Boulevard at Vermont Avenue, Wednesdays 2 to 6 p.m. There are usually around 20 booths here, with at least 15 farmers. A shaved-ice booth and ceviche truck provide snacks; St. Moritz Bakery from Lomita and a couple of nut packagers round out the vendors. Produce is gorgeous and varied: golden beets, bright green nopales and bulbing onions were recent features.
Los Angeles (Central Avenue). 43rd Street at Central Ave., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. On a recent visit, there were just three farmers, but the selection was great, given the size. It's located across the street from historic Dunbar Hotel.
Los Angeles (Chinatown). 727 Hill St., 2 to 7 p.m. Thursdays. This market draws Chinatown-area residents and downtown workers. There are about 10 booths most weeks, half farmers. The discerning clientele favors farmers with high-quality Asian-favored fruits and vegetables.
Los Angeles (Harambee). 5730 Crenshaw Blvd., north of Slauson Avenue, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Begun five years ago, the market is a project of the African Firefighters in Benevolent Assn., says market manager Jabari Jumaane. "We try to encourage better health," he says. "Where do you start with that? With the food." That mission is echoed at prepared-food booths featuring vegan and vegetarian dishes. Farmers Will and Marcella Robinson are fixtures.
Los Angeles (Melrose Place). Melrose Place and Melrose Avenue, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sundays. The pace and atmosphere are very weekend-relaxed. Patrons wander with coffee cups in hand, hang out at the half-dozen cloth-covered tables provided for snackers and linger as long over a jewelry-vendor's items as over the eggplants. Pacific Palisades. Swarthmore Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Sundays. Here you'll find a plethora of flower vendors, along with a blooming social scene and a comprehensive selection of produce. If you want to visit a farm, you can chat with the folks from Vital Zuman Farm in Malibu, which offers kids' agricultural classes. If you want the farm to come to you, there's a petting zoo and puppy adoption stand.
South Gate. South Gate Park, Tweedy Boulevard and Pinehurst Avenue, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Mondays. About 10 to 15 sellers do a good business at this vibrant but easygoing market with super-fresh produce including medicinal herbs and a variety of Latino specialties.
West Hollywood. Plummer Park, north lot, 1200 N. Vista St. at Fountain Ave., 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays. It's easy to park next to this tree-lined market and join the actor types, moms and Eastern European grandmas. Signs are in Cyrillic and English lettering. Though the matrons aren't above bargaining late in the day, many of the vendors are of the upscale-organic variety.