Farmers' markets: Better prices, better food, weird vegetables
When I was a kid, my mother was always on the lookout for food bargains. From wandering around the DC docks in search of really fresh fish to dragging me through markets in Chinatown, she left no stone unturned. Bereft of consumer loyalty, she used to switch grocery stores like a soap-opera heroine switches lovers, always willing to dump a favored suitor in search of fresher corn or a better deal on broccoli.
Sometime in the mid-1980's, she dragged me to a rickety shack in Northern Virginia, telling me that we were going to a "farmers' market." I remember asking her why we wanted to buy a farmer. I didn't receive a satisfactory response, but the maniacal gleam in my mother's eyes told me that this wasn't just another trip to the store. When we got inside, I realized that we weren't in the market for farmers; rather, we were in the market for fresh produce. My mom's face lit up as she surveyed the array of vegetables. Ignoring the straggly appearance of the organic veggies and the stench of the occasional rotten potato, she filled her basket with tons of veggies that I soon saw, boiled to death, on our table. Within a few weeks, she was back, buying bushels of tomatoes and cucumbers, assuring me that I would love the wonders of "pickling."
I never really understood my mother's enthusiasm for farmers' markets until much later. After cooking for a while, I grew to realize a few of the major downsides to grocery store vegetables: they tended to be expensive, didn't offer all that much selection, and tended to besomewhat flavorless. Farmers' markets, on the other hand, had fresh, tasty veggies, often at a greatly reduced price. Better yet, as I soon discovered, the produce at farmers' markets tended to feature fewer pesticides and non-organic fertilizers, and the farmers often carried strange or uncommon produce that captured my interest. My first persimmon came from a farmers' market, as did my first purple potato, my first green tomato, and my first habanero pepper.
Another thing that I soon realized is that farmers' markets generally have a lot more than fruits and vegetables. The farmers' market in my old hometown, Blacksburg, had an artisanal cheese maker, a florist, a baker or two, an herbal doctor, and a beekeeper, all of whom sold their wares at very reasonable prices. In my new farmers' market, at Union Square, there's also a maple farm, which carries homemade maple sugar; an apple orchard, whose mulled cider is delicious on a cold winter day; and several bakers, dairies, and beekeepers. I've kept coming back, week after week (in addition to the great produce, the maple sugar is addictive).
If you haven't found a farmers' market near your home, check the internet! In addition to the webpages that individual markets set up, there are also some great search pages at USDA and Local Harvest.
Have fun exploring, and watch out for the maple sugar!