Monday, October 8, 2007

Chinese Eggplant and Armenian Cucumbers

In the interest of partial disclosure, I'll reveal that I am half French. Perhaps my earliest memory is of accompanying my grandfather to the outdoor market near my grandparents' Paris apartment. Kindly merchants would cut me a sliver of cheese or hand me a plum while "Papapa" examined the day's offerings. He was brutal. The swiss he bought last week tasted soapy, the grapes were overpriced, the peaches were hard as cannon balls. You call that a peach? The merchants nodded stoically. Ultimately, we had to bring home whatever "Mamie", my grandmother, had put on the grocery list - or else!

Naturally, Berkeley's outdoor farmer's markets hold an irresistible attraction for me. There are three, each with its own location and day of the week. On Thursday, the vendors set up shop on the grounds of the local high school. Tuesday and Saturday, farmers hawk their wares on cordonned-off side streets. So far, I've checked out Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesday is small but 5 minutes from home. Thursday is big enough that three old Black guitarists and one white chick with an accordeon can simultaneously play for their suppers without creating a cacaphony. As for Saturday, I'm pacing myself. I have a feeling it's the mother of all farmer's markets.

Just the smell of fresh-picked organic produce makes me feel virtuous. After all, I'm buying organic, supporting local agriculture, and stocking up on enough fiber to keep my entire neighborhood regular. Fact is, shopping here better make me morally superior, because it sure isn't making me richer. You'd think, since these folks eliminate the middle man by shlepping and selling their stuff themselves, it would result in savings for the consumer, right? Wrong. I could get myself a dozen long stemmed roses for the price of a single bunch of arugula. That's a lot of green for not a lot of greens.

The fruits and vegetables may be pricey, but the experience is priceless, even if nobody takes American Express. First, you do a once-over, to find the best of the best. I can almost hear Papapa's running commentary. The pears were picked to soon, but the baby lettuces are beautiful. We're not buying that meat - it's wrapped in cyro-vac! (At the insistence of the California Board of Health). I imagine my grandfather's indignation in front of the soy cheese booth. "Qu'est-ce que c'est que cette cochonnerie?" Loosely translated: What kind of pig slop is this?

Once you've cased the joint, you double back and start shopping. Can you say cornucopia? Can I spell it? One couple sells nothing but tomatoes. Tiny pear-shaped, bite-sized tomatoes. Gigantic misshapen heirloom tomatoes in wierd colors like bright orange or lime with vivid green stripes. Deceptively average-looking red tomatoes that teleport you to Tuscany in one bite. One stand over, a large Asian family keeps their pretty daughters busy putting out slivers of plums for tasting. Shoppers cluster around the sample bowls like bees. Each bowl is labeled: There's Flavor Queen, Flavor King, September Flavor, and my favorite, Flavor Grenade. They're all delicious, and by the time you've tasted them all, you've forgotten which is which and you have to start over. Then, you feel so guilty for gorgeing yourself, you buy enough plums for an army, which just might explain "Flavor Grenade."

I pass up the bakestand where bearded young men in wool caps sell brown bread lacking in sugar, salt and basically, taste. Nearby, frighteningly articulate small children with uncombed hair and mismatched clothes beg their mommies for something from the taco stand - a great place to stop for some saturated fats if you're starting to feel too healthy. Across from the moveable taqeria, an old Chinese gentleman is selling vegetables that look like something from a Star Trek movie. Those long, mint green wart-covered things? Armenian cucumbers. I play it safe and pick up some Chinese eggplant and four miniature bok choy. I'm also part Armenian, but it's a very small part.

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