What happens in the early hours at the farmers market? Early as in 6 a.m., those pivotal few hours before the opening bell rings and most of us are sipping coffee. It's around that hour that farmers start pulling into their parking spots at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market, some after an all-night drive, to fill the orders of chefs and soon, very likely, your dinner plate.
It's a beautifully orchestrated produce symphony, really, that time of day when Santa Monica is at its most honest and best, the air still oceanfront salty. One farmer, the first on his stretch of block to arrive, guesstimates how much room trucks trickling in over the next hour will need and parks. Old-school instinct works just fine here, and a truck is one thing that can always easily be moved later. Thirty pounds of potatoes, not so much.
The first to arrive are often those who drove the farthest, as no one here can afford to be late; Wednesday is the biggest sales day of the week for many farmers. In those earliest hours, you'll usually find a truck or two, windows down, a farmer in the front cab with a hat pulled over his eyes. A quick nap, a brief moment of quiet.
As other trucks trickle in, the folding tables and tents are hauled out. The rhythmic -- and yes, loud -- energy of metal tent rods clacking together and produce crates thumping on the sidewalk begins, pulsing down every block. A homeless man shows up at one farmer's stand, as he does every Wednesday, asking what he can do to help; He's put to work unloading the truck. Not so much because the farmer needs help. She can handle it with her stand workers, who have just arrived, bearing essential gifts (coffee, pastries). But because the farmer appreciates, in the literal sense, hard workers, and someone who needs work. And so she hires him to do a few chores every week.
It's in these early hours that you also see hints of the personalities of each farmer -- the rest of the morning, they're often too busy, focused on the work ahead. At some stands, farmers take a more utilitarian approach to produce presentation. The chubby cabbages and gorgeous greens are tossed on the display table en masse, a dirt-covered, handwritten sign with the price scribbled on it in their midst. They really don't need any dressing up, anyway. To them, the sales side of the business has never been more than an uncomfortable necessity. (It's wise not to take the occasional gruff exchange the wrong way.)
At other stands, those neatly tied bunches of rosemary carefully arranged on floral tablecloths become part of the sales charm of the produce. But really, the well-dressed stands are more for the farmer than for us. These are the beautiful baby lettuces they've tended the past few weeks, and they want them to look their best. For these farmers, the market means a few welcome hours away from a dearly loved but hard labor-driven life. A chance to chat with customers, some now considered friends, possibly even convince new ones to appreciate the pockmarks in the leaves of those sweet, organic lettuces as much as they do.
The chefs and food wholesalers arrive first, lingering on the sidewalks and peeking into trucks for their call-ahead orders. Chefs and wholesalers can begin scouting for and yes, buying, their produce a half-hour or more before the market opening bell rings for the rest of us. It's a hard-earned privilege, really, as they're buying produce in large enough quantities -- the ones taking the grilled peach salad sales risk -- to keep the farmers coming back, not those of us on a singular summer salad quest.
You can hear the comfort -- the tension from the business side of the restaurant business gone in their voices -- as they lean against a farmer's truck and taste the heirloom peach varietals. Here, chefs can spend a few unhurried minutes with their friends (other chefs, gregarious farmers), talking about their work week. That really great new sous chef they lucked into; the line cook who is, unfortunately, going to have to go. And what they might make with those green zebra tomatoes they just bought on a whim (they were too good not to), for a half-hour of experimental salsa fun before the harried kitchen life creeps back in.
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And then the market bell rings.
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