A Rural Taste for the Urban Palette
Posted: May 23, 2014
It's a Tuesday. And, as is usual for Tuesdays and Fridays from April through November, the State College Farmer's Market--a community institution over 20 years old--has assembled itself along Locust Lane. The empty asphalt has been transformed into a series of ragtag canopies, tents, and tables. The vendors at the State College Farmer's Market represent a smal but important American population. Less influenced by Top 40 music, socialite celebrities, and big-box stores, these bakers, florists, artisans, and especially these farmers, represent a more traditional, close-to-the-earth lifestyle.
At the market, there's enough sunlight passing through the street to accentuate the nuanced reds of heirloom tomatoes, the bright, waxy greens of hot peppers, and the warm browns of freshly baked breads. Some tables display weaves of fresh fettuccini, while others show off homemade soaps in matte beiges, greens, and pinks. Spoons fill sample jams, salsa, and dips, beckoning prospective customers for a taste. Around the tables, flecks of paint chip off of the trucks as veins of rust carve their way down the exterior. Looking up into the underbelly of the umbrellas and display tents, it's clear that few are in pristine condition. Most have at least one cracked support rib, held together mostly by owners' faith that the other supports can pick up the slack. It's a home of sorts, with the blemishes and points of pride that every family has.
Today, the clear autumn sky is deceiving. The bright afternoon suggests warmth, but the nipping breeze of late October catches me by surprise. Clutching my jacket closer, I continue my walk towards the market to one of its ends at Locust Lane and College Avenue. Two orange traffic barriers stop incoming vehicles. And no one's feeling the breeze as harshly as the 15 or so vendors who, bundled up in thicker jackets and gloves than I, sell their wares from 11:30 in the morning until 5:30 in the afternoon. These vendors and the lifestyles they represent hark back to a simpler American life. Food may be a necessity, but sometimes volatile market prices, competition with industrial farming that drive down prices, and the desire to sell fresh produce rather than value-added processed item means pay is scant compared to work hours. But still, every week, these producers' tables are ful.
At this time of day--the final hour of operation--few people crowd the street. Still, there is an ever constant trickle of customers, curious passersby, and people rushing to class or getting their daily jog in that engage with the market. Everyone is wrapped up. Some speed by, while others slow their pace, interacting more with the market around them, gazing at pumpkin rolls and cherry pies sold by young Amish women.
Regardless of the amount of business, a constant murmur buzzes through the market. Vendors discuss the day's business with each other, explain their products to customers, or just gossip amongst themselves. Among the Amish vendors, Pennsylvania Dutch speckles speech on either side of the street. Between tables, prospective customers debate their purchases and share their own stories and gossip with each other in English, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. Here there isn't the cha-ching of cash registers, but rather the swish of hands going in and out of apron pockets, and the rattle of coins at the bottom.
On one side of the market is the Henry couple, Sharon and Tom. Both are in thick jackets and jeans that have been faded by years in the sun. Their calloused hands move quickly as they efficiently make deals with customers. I watch Tom wait on a customer. In one swift motion, he cracks open a plastic bag with the flick of one wrist and pours the contents of a pint of heirloom cherry tomatoes into it with the other. Whereas I sometimes feel like I and the people around me are up in the clouds, these people have their feet and often their hands literally on the ground as they tend to their land, and through the seasons it has made them hearty. In this cold weather, few motions are wasted. Among the older vendors in the market, their greying hair demonstrates they've had a lot of practice. The Henry's have been selling their products from their family farm for more than thirty years, about twenty of those including participation in the State College market.
Their booth is framed by an aging truck and a few weathered umbrellas. The paint of their used boxed truck has begun to peel off, the dusty white giving way to an unexpected robin's egg blue along the front hood. Along the side of the back trailer there are lines of rust, washed down by Centre County rains. Painted right in the middle of one side is a logo for the farm, equally flecking off after more than a decade of use. "I did it myself. I used a projector to sketch the design and used some old paints I had," Tom shares, "Clearly they weren't the best paints, but kids do point it out from time to time."
Despite a sense of dilapidation encompassing the Henry's set-up, his wares easily distract me. Rows of colorful, well-cared-for produce decorate their tables. Small orange and purple peppers and deep green and pale yellow tomatoes signal that this isn't a grocery store substitute, but its own distinct marketplace. Across their stand, these items sit in pint and half-pint containers. A bright turquoise when first purchased, these containers have been stained of their color by the sun, after weeks or maybe years of repeated use.
I ask about a product I haven't seen before, a raspberry apple cider. "We make a few batches of that as the raspberry harvest dies down," he says as he moves around the booth. "They get a little too soft this time of year. We use an Amish press for it. After we do our first press of apples, we throw the raspberries on top for another." The juice is a warm red, with the classic cloudiness of the pressed apple. "The mix helps get more juice from both. I think we actually lose a little money on it, but we like it, and the customers like it and buy it too." I purchase a quart before moving on to the next stand.
It hasn't quite hit 5:30 yet, the moment in which the market closes. But by 5:05 there are already visible signs of people packing up. The back of trucks open up and vendors disappear and reappear as they take out bins to store their goods. Potatoes, onions, and garlic are some of the first foods the be put away as vendors hope brighter fruits a vegetable will still attract newcomers as a clock ticks down. Just as their hands and bodies skillfully and easily set up their stand hours earlier, Tom, Sharon, and the other vendors easily pack and store their products up again. Years of practice and the ever-dropping cold create a natural quickness to their actions. Not a movement is wasted as bins are condensed, stacked, and stored, tables and umbrellas are folded, and trucks get ready to drive back to the countryside. Vendors like Tom and Sharon sell incredible products every week in one of the toughest industries. Still, these people devote their livelihood to being stewards of their land. And the quality of their products is proof that they love it.