The institution of the Farmers Market is one of the redeeming features of urban living in the United States. These open-air markets held in local communities offer city-dwellers access to fresh seasonal vegetables and fruit and are a picturesque and “green” alternative to the gray, artificially-lit supermarkets stocked with insipid, genetically-modified produce pulled out of cold-storage. While a majority of Americans still go to regular grocery stores for their monthly mega-hauls of irradiated potatoes, artificially-ripened tomatoes, and bags of bland, mealy apples, once a week the cognoscenti sling on their reusable canvas/jute/cotton bags (jholas) and head, preferably cycling or walking, to the neighbourhood Farmers Market. These markets are promoted by local administrations and allow farmers and growers to sell their produce directly to the public – the fruits and vegetables are picked at the peak of their flavour, nutritional content is preserved, and, as the produce is locally-grown and does not have to travel far to reach the consumer, there is the additional benefit of reduced food-miles.. Along with the freshest in-season produce, many markets offer flowers, cheeses, baked goods, local artisans’ products, and all kinds of local and ethnic food. They also attract street performers, musicians and artists who put up little side-shows and exhibitions. Humdrum grocery shopping is transformed into a complete sensory experience- the colours from the vegetables, fruit, and flowers are a feast for the eyes, the tantalising aromas wafting from the food stalls pique the appetite, and as the sounds of jazz mingle with children’s laughter, the spirit revives in the air and sunshine.
For me, these Farmers Markets stir up nostalgia for the haats of small-town India. One of my earliest childhood memories is of accompanying my mother every Saturday to the Shaniwar Haat in Mhow. While my mother shopped for vegetables, my sister and I would walk around gingerly amidst the crowds and the bustle, fascinated by the sights, sounds, and smells around us. We would stare covetously at the colourful ghagras of the vegetable-sellers, marvel at the mysterious potions peddled in brown bottles-“guaranteed to cure all ailments”, and feel sorry for the bandar-wallah’s sad little monkey whimpering in his little skirt and cap. We would patiently follow our mother from stall to stall in anticipation of the reward promised at the end of the visit – roasted channas deftly twisted up into a newspaper cone, or bunches of green gram on-the-stalk to be painstakingly shelled at home, warm bhuttas pulled out of the coal angeethi, dripping with butter and rubbed with salty-tangy masala, or tart squishy bers in tiny little black earthen matkas. (The one thing we were never, never, allowed was the juice from the ganne ka thela.) My romance with the haat continued as an adult. Once every week, I shed my corporate persona and joined the housewives, factory-workers, students and all the other citizenry at the local haat of whichever town in India I happened to be living in. It was my turn to shop for gobhi and alu while my little daughter skipped blissfully by my side, a balloon in one hand and a paper pin-wheel in the other. The haat which was a shopping mall, entertainment center, and convivial watering-hole never lost its allure.
Here in Los Angeles, amid the steel-and-concrete of my structured life-style, I look for the relaxed ambiance of my haat experiences. So, once every week, I slip on my sneakers, put on some sun-block, and armed with a couple of re-usable grocery bags, join other jholawallas in the trek to the nearest Farmers Market. This Sunday it is the Hollywood Farmers Market held on the celebrated Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles.
Traffic-stops have been placed to block off a long stretch of the street. The notes of a saxophone reach me before I enter the little swing-gate. I am early. Some of the vendors are still setting up their stalls; unloading produce from small vans, arranging vegetables on make-shift stands, unfurling banners announcing themselves as “certified organic farms”. I have skipped breakfast, and my stomach protests. Not a problem – I move towards the section where the food stalls are already doing a brisk business, and am immediately engulfed by the tantalizing aromas of at least ten different world cuisines. There is Mexican street food and Korean barbecue, Thai curry, Jamaican sausages, Japanese Sushi, French crepes, falafels, and bagels. Pizzas compete with hot-dogs, a sandwich stand boasts of 25 different kind of cold and grilled sandwiches and there are at least four vendors offering variations on the standard American breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash-browns and toast. I get myself a pupusa which is the Salvadoran version of paratha – mine is stuffed with cheese and vegetables – and walk back towards the produce section.
The variety of the produce and the sheer visual impact of the colours takes my breath away every time. Piles of snowy cauliflowers are banked with green lettuce. Oranges and tangerines spill out like sunsets from wooden crates. Brinjals glow deep purple behind heaps of tender radishes flushed with the palest pink. Small boxes of black blueberries and rosy raspberries are stacked in a Mondrian-like arrangement. They are outshonee by the famous California strawberries –each perfect red cone smoulders like a ruby adorned with a fringe of emerald leaves, and I completely understand all the folk-lore associated with this enticing fruit. I see bell-peppers arranged in heaps by colour – green, yellow, orange, red, and purple. I stop by strange and hitherto un-encountered specimens; a many-tentacled citron called “Buddha’s fingers”, a leechee-like “dragon-fruit” with scales and fins, which looks like it could open its mouth any minute and spew out flames, a waxy orange “kobacho” which is like a persimmon crossed with a mango. There is a stall specializing in tomatoes – on display is an astounding range – from huge heirloom tomatoes the size of small pumpkins to tiny pearl tomatoes no bigger than pepper-corns.
By now the market is filling up with customers and the energy is building. There are the Farmers Market regulars; veterans who know which is the best stall for mushrooms, and when the first crop of spring asparagus will be in. Tourists rush from stall to stall with their cameras clicking. Earnest young people press flyers into my hands to solicit support for their particular environmental or political cause. Children gather around the cages where rescued dogs wait to be adopted. More street performers get into the act – a six-piece band starts assembling – the Farmers Market routinely sponsors emerging musical talent – a lone flutist squats at the kerb piping out plaintive New Age music. Customers mill around tarot card readers and massage booths. Since this is Los Angeles, celebrity sightings are common in this particular farmers market. But I’m too busy loading my canvas bags with green beans and leeks, cherry tomatoes and bell-peppers to look around for famous faces. (One could ask the vendors for plastic bags, but at the risk of disapproving looks from the regulars who are very “green-minded” and always bring their own re-usable bags.)
I then head for the flower section – a treat which I have reserved for the last. The flower stands are ablaze with all the glorious colours of Fall. Gerberas, chrysanthemums, sunflowers, birds-of-paradise bloom in every shade of russet, orange, gold, and amber. My eyes are suddenly drawn to tubs of marigolds standing in front of a stall, yes, actual genda phools lighting up a corner of the market. Delighted, I wrap my arms around a generous bunch and inhale deeply. Instantly, I am engulfed in a wave of nostalgia. The notes of “Careless Whisper” float down from the saxophone artiste. As I start towards the exit with my loaded bags, and an armful of flaming gendas, I reflect on the commonality between this experience and my memories of haats past. Instead of roasted channas, there is kettle corn, the bandar has been replaced by the shelter-dogs, and the gullible here have their bhavishya told by tarot card readers. And, as if to underscore the connection, there it is, just before the exit – an honest-to-goodness ganne-ka-ras stand! The years roll away, and I am back with my mother at the Shaniwar Haat in Mhow.