Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Westminster Market

It's Saturday morning at the Westminster Farmer's Market. White tents dot a small parking lot along an industrial road, and people stream in and out between the barriers that informally mark the entrance to the market. Beyond this invisible line, only producers are allowed to sell their goods. This distinction ensures shoppers that the cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans were all grown by the merchant behind the table. The meat sold is from Maryland farms, the cheese is from Maryland cows. Still, the farming practices may vary significantly. Some are organic, some not; some meat is grass-finished, some grain-finished. The great thing about a "producers only "market is that you can ask questions and have reasonable faith you'll get honest answers.

The market opens at the end of May and runs until early November. This spring I had waited with great anticipation of the fresh produce. To get things early I located local farmers who could supply asparagus, greens, and strawberries before the market season began. It was wonderful to get those items, but I wanted more! I arrived that first Saturday around 9:30 am looking forward to a bag of supplies for the week. I was not the only one. By the time I arrived, the farmer stalls had been picked clean of their early season harvest.

This past Saturday, it felt like a rainforest outside. By the time I arrived at the market, it was well over 90 degrees, and the humidity: oppressive. It had just hit 10 am. I noticed there was less traffic in the parking lot, and soon realized I had arrived too late. Mind you, there was still produce available, plenty. But I had come with my mind's eye set on gnarly, full flavored, heirloom tomatoes. Those had all been snatched by early shoppers. Except one.

As I stood chatting with Josie of Truffula Seed Produce ( I spied a single, giant, Brandywine tomato on a table behind her. Pointing to it, I ask, "Are you going to sell that one, or, better said, will you sell that one?" She explains that it has some rot on it. This kind of thing occurs when bugs- in this case Josie said stink bugs- take a few tasty bites and move on. The exposed flesh begins to decay soon after. But this is easily overcome by cutting the bad bits out. Josie agrees to sell me the tomato, and at a generous price. Yum! That night it gets chopped and mixed into bruschetta. The flavour and texture are fabulous.

While I was standing there, an older woman, probably in her mid-60s, came by. "What's that?" she asked Josie, pointing to small green and purple bundles on the table. "Basil" is the reply. The woman continues, "What does it taste like? Peppermint?" How do you use it?" Her friend assures her she has cooked with basil before, and surely she has. But it occurs to me that she hasn't seen fresh basil before, and she is genuinely interested in our suggestions of how to use it. At the next stand, she asks about fresh eggs and buys a chicken. Its clear this is her first time at the market. Later, I ask Josie if she bought any basil. She did. How cool is that?!

I rounded out my purchases with peaches, plums, cucumber, tomatillos, and Peruvian Purple hot peppers. The peaches and peppers made their way, along with a yellow Brandywine tomato, into grilled peach salsa. The tomatillos went into a fresh green salsa -- a resounding success for my first experiment with these tomato-like veggies.

I left the market just in time to stop by Serpent Ridge Winery, just south of Westminster. More on that to come ....

Friday, July 23, 2010


Five years ago, I was headed on a plane to live in Europe for a few years with my family. While we were excited to see history and experience new cultures, I never would have predicted that those experiences would trigger a radical change in how we live. In 2005, I think my lifestyle was relatively typical for a two-income, one kid household in central Maryland. Our workload and commute, with a small child to care for, had us reliant on the Big Box economy and easy to prepare foods. I was an advocate for small business, but my habits didn't support that claim.

Over our three years in Europe, we were slowly exposed to a new lifestyle. Food and free time were appreciated in an entirely different way in our new neighborhood. On Sundays, stores were closed and the noise of lawnmowers forbidden; instead people were found strolling or biking the maze of trails through the fields and woods around us. We weren't eating locally, but our perspective was still changing. Cooking class in Italy showed me that good food could be prepared easily, and my interest in simple, healthy, meals continued to grow. I began reading literature about food production and the environment, and I became more and more concerned about the food we ate. By the time we returned to the States, I was determined to cook fresh meals, with as little reliance on processed foods as possible, on as many days as I could manage. More research, and pivotal works like those of Michael Pollan, turned me to local produce and, eventually, local meats.

Luckily, I had also met up with a small group of others with similar interests, and over the last few years we've been able to learn and change together. Community makes all the difference. I've also encountered a lot of interest in local living. When I mention that I buy beef from Carroll County farmers, I am frequently peppered with questions. How does that work? How did you find them? What's it like? And sometimes I'll be asked where to find certain products. In our household, we now buy all of our meat locally, and most of our produce. Our fish comes from a large purchase from local Seattle fisherman that I brought home as luggage.

But, this blog isn't about me. It's about the people who are, to one degree or another, living locally and why. It's about the very independent decision processes that people undergo to choose how they live their life. Local living choices are particularly interesting because they largely involve "opting out" of society's accepted means to buy our foods and other goods and services. Nowadays, if people choose to live organically, they can do so as part of the mainstream. Local supermarkets and industry giants like Walmart carry an array of certified organic products. But buying local produce means finding alternative suppliers, most commonly in farmers' markets. The more you buy that is produced in the local economy, the more you veer from conventional practices. It takes more effort, and yet the practice is on the rise.

I want to explore why and how people become invested in the local economy, and how their connection with local business influences their future purchases. How do they weigh the inevitable trades of local living against other admirable qualities, like organic or sustainable? What influences the decision of growers? How are people convinced to make a change in their buying habits? What are the real barriers to expanding local living to large segments of society?

But these are really all academic questions surrounding more grounded purposes. I hope to use the stories of individuals integrated into the local economy, particularly the local food economy, to inspire, motivate, connect, and empower readers. It is my hope that these stories will motivate readers to think about the impact of their buying choices, inspire them to consciously engage in the local economy and connect them with producers and consumers in the surrounding area.

By focusing on people, rather than science or economics, and the process of choice, rather than an edict of what is good and bad in the world, the complex realities of living locally will become more tangible. Hopefully the reader will find much to relate to in the backgrounds and perspectives of those portrayed.

These are the faces of local living.