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From Planting to Plating

Photo by Anne Fishbein

At the Santa Monica Farmers Market, early on a fog-cooled morning in late June, See Canyon apricots are making their first appearance of the year. Fragile, blushing and intensely flavored — at once meaty, tangy and bursting with juice — Blenheims are an older variety that have been pushed out of the commercial market because of a stubborn propensity for green shoulders. Today, in the muted seaside light, they mostly just glow. Their grower and seller, Michael Cirone, explains that this week’s boxes are samplers to get everyone re-acquainted with the fruit. There are too few, he says, to sell by the box. But when Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard shows up right at 8 a.m. — she had a hunch he’d be here this week — it takes only a minimal amount of pleading on her part before Cirone sets two boxes aside.

This feature story on the Santa Monica Farmers Market was written and published before the deadly July 16 accident at the market. For a news report on that incident, click here.

Yard knows her fruit. These ’cots are destined to become pies, tarts, sorbet and her downright mythic dumplings. Cirone, meanwhile, knows his supporters. Such a relationship is replicated throughout this market ever more frequently — lately, exponentially — as more chefs avail themselves of the produce in these stalls. The Santa Monica Farmers Market alone has been slowly and steadily raising chefs’ consciousness about eating seasonally, regionally, and often organically, and that, in turn, is slowly and steadily changing the way we eat.

 

Twenty-five years ago in Los Angeles, there was minimal consciousness in restaurant kitchens about where produce came from, when it was in season and how it was grown. Produce came through the door from suppliers. Chefs were not shoppers. Nobody knew from heirloom then. Eating organically was something people practiced in the privacy of their own homes. At restaurants, crates and sacks of vegetables and fruit arrived, and the contents were prized for apparent freshness, beauty and, most of all, uniformity — which facilitated portion and price control. Flavor was important, of course, but often optional — nobody expected tomatoes in January to taste like anything, and yet they stayed on the menu year-round. Sauces and dressings — the gifts of Continental cuisine — compensated for the dearth of intrinsic flavor. You had to look long and hard in coffee shops, and in many restaurants, for a vegetable other than iceberg lettuce and potatoes.

All of that changed in 1978. Certain underground currents, slow streams of a new awareness, had been gathering force for years and began rising to the surface. Because by then, baby boomers had already been hippies, revolutionaries, health-food nuts. Moving away from home in the ’60s and early ’70s, many had dipped, at least briefly, into the counterculture. They’d traded Cheerios for granola, Roman Meal for whole grains; a good number had agrarian interludes during which they lived communally and planted organic gardens and sometimes entire farms; they shared the cooking, hung big hanks of fresh herbs from their rafters to dry; they swapped crops with other communes, formed co-ops; and it was all part of a world-changing plan.

Boomers also took grand tours of Europe, taste buds dilated by Amsterdam pot or Marrakesh hash, and noted that Europeans shopped daily in open-air markets, and that Continental heads were not turned by just a pretty peach . . . it needed to be tasty, too. They learned that tomatoes could taste like a summer day, and lettuce didn’t have to be water in a spherical green cellular form, and wine varied by region thanks to soil, sunshine and grape variety. A great number of young adults knew all this, and yet when they went out to eat, the flavors of quality, seasonal produce and artisanal products were not, as yet, widely found in the restaurants of American cities.

Except, of course, in Berkeley — that bastion of the counterculture — where a prescient French major named Alice Waters returned from a stay in France and ignited an American food revolution in 1971 by opening Chez Panisse. Waters insisted on the seasonal, the regional, the organic. She found small-scale farmers — gardeners, some of them — to grow delicious, often fragile varietals. She established committed, interdependent relationships with these purveyors and single-handedly made boutique farming in Northern California a possible vocation. L’Ermitage’s Jean Bertranou established similar local sources here in Los Angeles when he started his own duck farm and grew his own herbs out of frustration — he couldn’t find the kind of ingredients he was used to cooking with in France. Waters and Bertranou selected produce and other comestibles with a chef’s concerns — a European chef, that is; they not only looked for eye appeal but also selected for taste, texture, seasonality, healthfulness, whatever lent itself to a peak dining experience. Meanwhile, California’s large-scale agribusiness machine continued to grow and develop produce that had been designed with its concerns in mind: ease in handling — shippability, long storage and shelf life — uniformity and a limited, standardized concept of acceptable appearance.

 

In 1978, when Governor Jerry Brown signed the Direct Marketing Act, he was not thinking about peak dining experiences, but about the food that was being wasted while people in the inner cities were going hungry. Agricultural policy, dating from the 1930s, was and is one of the most heavily regulated sectors of the economy. The Tree Fruit Agreement, as one example, was especially perfectionistic, demanding that fruit either conform to a certain strict size and color standard or be destroyed. Tons of perfectly edible fruit — some of it simply too ripe — never made it to any market, and the farmers who grew it lost their shirts.

The Direct Marketing Act made it possible for farmers to bypass the packinghouses and wholesale distributors and allowed them, once certified, to sell directly to the public. Hunger activists simultaneously lobbied to create another standard for fruit, and succeeded in establishing a “utility grade” category for fruit that could then be sold directly to the public in farmers markets. Markets promptly sprouted up in Sacramento, Santa Cruz and San Jose. The first one in Southern California was founded in 1979 by the nonprofit Interfaith Hunger Coalition, in a church parking lot in Gardena. It consisted of four stalls. More nonprofit-generated markets, including one at Villa Park in Pasadena, soon followed.

In addition to nonprofits, markets could be sponsored by two other entities: the farmers themselves or a municipality. The first city-sponsored market in Southern California began in July 1981 in Santa Monica, started by a one-term mayor (1979–83) named Ruth Goldway. Goldway was part of the countercultural slow-growth, rent-control forces that somehow wrested control of the seaside city from developers who intended to make a coastline of high-rises (men with an “edifice complex,” she called them). Her goal was to create an open, accessible, people-friendly, “low-rise,” livable-neighborhood city. “If you are fortunate to live in a city that is connected with water and that has a beautiful environment,” she would later say, “the best thing you can do overall in planning is to make sure that people have a chance to meet one another and to experience their environment in the simplest, most straightforward way.” In other words, a farmers market. Goldway’s support base included the large senior-citizen population, a constituency that would appreciate access to high-quality, low-priced food.

Goldway knew exactly who to call to make her vision a reality. She had once been a CETA volunteer, along with a man named Vance Corum, who had gone on to work for the California Department of Food and Agriculture in the Direct Marketing program. At her request, Corum came down from Sacramento and helped locate a site and recruit farmers. They chose Third Street, then a commercial corridor recently laid to waste by a huge indoor mall. Many of the farmers were already involved in the Sacramento and other northern markets. Stall fees would be charged according to sales.

On the morning of July 15, 1981, the first Santa Monica Farmers Market opened with 23 farmers. There were eggs, lettuce, stone fruit, tomatoes. In all, between 1,000 and 2,000 curious shoppers spent $10,000.

To participate, farmers had to obtain a producers certificate — renewed every year — on which farmers listed everything they grew that they planned on selling. For each product, they had to state the variety, the acreage, the harvest period and the expected yield. An inspector’s fee — anywhere between $2 and $40, depending on the county — was paid. From the beginning this document was designed to discourage peddling — selling produce other than what a farmer has actually grown. The information on the certificates also helps market supervisors provide for a fair balance of items for sale.

Small farmers flocked to the market because they’d repeatedly been treated poorly by wholesale agricultural distributors. Tsugio Imamoto, who grows root crops, lettuce and herbs, has been coming to the Santa Monica market since six months after it started. He heard about it from a friend. “I was kind of leery at first,” he says. “But the wholesale market was hardly giving us anything. A big farmer would get $4.50 to $5 for a box of green onions while we’d get $3.” Selling directly to customers quadrupled his take.

 

Still, there was a learning curve. “All the farmers then were green as heck!” says Jane Lehman — who, along with her husband, sells stone fruit, grapes and vegetables. “People would push over the tables to get to the fruit. And then they’d argue over the prices — oh my God!” Also, there was a lot of theft. “Here we were, right off the farm. We’d left our doors unlocked, we trusted everyone. We didn’t realize we were going into a city! It’s much more civil now, but at the beginning it was an education.”

A single staff member in the Mayor’s Office oversaw the Santa Monica market at first. But after a year, it had doubled in size and required more attention and time. The city hired Laura Avery, the market’s present supervisor and spokesperson, who came to work in September of 1982.

A slim, articulate blond woman, Avery exudes capability. You can see her there on Wednesdays at 8 o’clock — she’s the one with clipboard in hand directing a truck or consulting with farmers. Her first tasks of the day are to close off the streets and to see that floaters — sellers who don’t have a permanent spot — are fitted in. “It’s a big jigsaw puzzle,” she says. “A dynamic disequilibrium — I hate to leave a place empty.” There are now 90 stalls every Wednesday, and Avery tries to keep them in equal proportion — not too many flower sellers, or too many lettuce vendors or strawberry growers. In her 21-year tenure, she’s seen the market grow from a short stretch on Arizona Avenue to a T-shaped affair that now runs up and down Second Street as well. Despite its unruly, green beginnings, it’s now a highly organized, tightly run, smoothly functioning institution.

 

Times change, trends rage, and constituencies shift. Today, every municipality seems to have its own certified farmers market — and Santa Monica alone has four. This has caused a drop in foot traffic at the Wednesday market — but has not, thanks to other factors, affected its economy. If the Santa Monica market was started for certain historical reasons — to revitalize a ravaged commercial corridor, to provide good fresh food for fixed-income seniors, to give the dwellers of a beautiful city a chance to get out and meet each other — its raisons d’être have shifted with the times. Today the Wednesday market flourishes and remains the mother of Westside farmers markets largely because of the recent, highly remunerative patronage of many Los Angeles chefs.

Curiously, the trend was rather slow in starting. Restaurants that cared about high-quality seasonal and organic produce already had their good suppliers, some of which overlapped with the markets. Andrea Crawford, who had grown lettuce for Alice Waters in Berkeley, moved south to grow lettuce for Wolfgang Puck and sold her Kenter Canyon Farms products in all kinds of markets, certified and super. Chino Farms provided fine varieties of seasonal fruits and vegetables to those willing to pick it up. Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel at Campanile had a good working relationship with Scarborough Farms in Moorpark and relied on a canny buyer known only as Mohammed for many products.

But Nancy Silverton was the first high-profile chef to shop regularly at the Wednesday market. About 10 years ago, she and her assistants began visiting the market, where they found Blenheim apricots and mulberries so sublime she put them on the menu with just a bit of thick cream. “At first the farmers didn’t know what to do with us,” she says. “They didn’t like being asked to save stuff for us to pick up later.” These days, the process has been streamlined. Chefs get parking passes for their vans to facilitate pickup, they often pre-order from certain farmers, and they’re allowed in an hour before the general public to execute their transactions. They get some fresh air, meet colleagues, and see what’s new and in season in the stalls.

“The quality at the market isn’t always better than what our suppliers bring us,” says Mark Peel. “And the prices aren’t any better. But we like being able to see what we’re getting before we get it.” And then he adds, “The biggest appeal to us is the connection between the restaurant and the farmer.”

This relationship is economic, of course, but it is also educational and creative. Farmers and chefs swap ideas, expertise and even seeds. They introduce each other to new items. They accommodate each other. And the Farmers Market, it might be said, is a kind of graduate school — or continuing-education classroom — for chefs.

“The market is a great body of knowledge, a place to learn in depth about food,” says Campanile pastry chef Dahlia Solomon. This sentiment is seconded by Mélisse’s Josiah Citrin. “You don’t learn about all these ingredients in cooking school,” he said one Wednesday, waving his hand at the Second Street stalls. “You don’t have the time then.” One Wednesday, we even ran into Jenny Benzie, the sommelier from Michael’s, who was roaming Arizona Avenue with Christine Banta, the restaurant’s co–chef de cuisine. What is a sommelier doing at the market? “I do wine pairings,” she explains. “So I need to learn the difference between, say, a strawberry that’s good for eating fresh, one that’s good for purées and one you cook with.”

 

The Honeycrisp stall alone offers a graduate seminar in stone fruits. Dr. Art Lange, a former professor of plant physiology in the UC system, has spent a large part of his life honing his means of selling perfect, perfectly ripe stone fruit to the public. “I had my taste buds titillated as a boy sitting in my dad’s hundred-year-old Royal Anne cherry tree. It was 70 to 80 feet tall with limbs as big as a person. We’d eat till we got sick . . . I grew up eating fruit like that. When I started eating commercial fruit — fruit from the grocery store — I thought, what is this? Since then, I’ve always been trying to duplicate the stuff that comes right off the tree.”

Over the years — Lange is now a hale, handsome 80 — he “sort of learned what to do” to offer fruit that’s “as fresh as you can get it and tastes as good as it can taste.” Lange initially clashed with inspectors who claimed that his fruit was too ripe. “I’d go into a blue rage. It’s what my customers want!” His tree-ripe apricots, plums, peaches, nectarines and pluots are shipped — and celebrated by customers and food writers — all over the country.

 

When I was a little girl, one of my odder relatives told me that every time I ate the first fruit of the season — my first apricot of the year, my first slice of watermelon or garden tomato — I got to make a wish. That wish, he advised, could be for anything, but traditionally most people wished to live another year.

For decades now, I have enacted this small ritual again and again as the seasons spin by. Many of my wishes were uttered over backyard or store-bought fruits, others in certified farmers markets, where the tree-ripe fruit and vegetables first show up. But lately, more and more, I find myself whispering in restaurants. First fava. First white nectarine. Oh, first Persian mulberry . . . And by the way, I wish to live another year . . .

This, I believe, is a very good sign.

Cooking and farming are both deep arts; they’re cumulative; they involve amassing vast amounts of knowledge; and both must be practiced for a long time, with often mind-numbing repetition, season after season, plate after plate, in order to know things as deceptively simple as how to make a straight haricot vert or how to cook a finger-size squash with a big old basil leaf.

As chefs and farmers work together, with flavors, variety, seasons and natural cycles, the dining public is fed on a more profound level. Eating seasonally, consciously, is a direct connection to the Earth. When we eat the last strong fava, and the first season’s apricot, we’re right up against what is: the fleeting nature of life, the constancy of change, and also the reassuring, faithful recurring turn of the seasons. If, however briefly, restaurants now provide us with these short, simultaneous bursts of flavor and reality, well, this is one more inarguably good thing in an otherwise increasingly troubled and complicated world.


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