It’s August and summer’s bounty is reaching its peak. I head to the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market with an empty straw basket and an open mind. A full wallet helps as well.
As the “buy local” movement has taken hold across the country, and locavores are proliferating, farmers’ markets have become more prevalent. Nationally, more than 2,000 new markets have opened within the past ten years. Here on the Vineyard, we have been blessed with our vibrant West Tisbury market since 1974, a reflection of the dedicated farmers and the committed public. For many of us, the farmers’ market is an event, an anticipated part of the weekly routine. This excursion also offers an element of planned spontaneity.
So much of our lives are organized to the utmost degree. However, shopping at the farmers’ market allows us to get seriously creative if we wish with an enticing palette of brilliant produce.
On market day, I challenge myself not to focus on a specific menu or recipe. What if the ingredients are not available? Strolling the stalls with an open mind and seeing what catches my attention gives me the opportunity to explore, to create. Fava beans just came in this week; I ask the farmer his favorite way to prepare them. Rainbow chard flashes among the other greens. Suddenly I envision sautéed chard with grilled swordfish or striped bass. Mountains of tomatoes like we dream of in mid-winter? I pick up a sackful along with several earthy heads of garlic and a bunch of herbs, already savoring their rich aroma as they slow roast in the oven on Sunday afternoon.
I developed two obsessions last summer: yellow and red beets which I grated raw into separate bowls to preserve their intense hues, then tossed with a simple lemon Dijon vinaigrette, and gorgeous squash blossoms which I stuffed with a spoonful of soft goat cheese laced with shreds of basil. Baked briefly until the cheese melts and the blossoms collapse upon themselves, these saffron-colored treasures won a few converts even from less adventuresome eaters. The beets added a crisp texture and stunning color to any meal.
At the market, vendors reveal their artistry with eye-catching displays. Tender carrots beckon like orange fingers; tangled masses of garlic scapes prompt conversation; tomatoes in mottled purple, sunset yellow, striped green show how we have broadened our vision beyond the classic scarlet orb. I pause at the squeaky clean onion bulbs in pure white and deep purple. I linger before the crates of dusty potatoes in blue purple red and white; some are no bigger than peas or shooter marbles, others like thumbs. Sunlight filters through the jars of thick golden honey and jams sparkle like rich gems.
Brilliant field flowers are essential, for what is a table of summer bounty without a vase of flowers in a riot of color? I cannot resist the simplicity of purple coneflower, crisp daisies, cheerful black-eyed Susans, sturdy zinnias in primary colors. I love the elegant stalks of gladiolas and the ever-popular clutch of sunflowers with faces of gold and maroon. These summer bouquets provide a gracious touch, a splash of luxury that brightens a room or a table.
But the heart of the market remains the dedicated farmers and craftspeople. These people have invested entirely of themselves and their families in this agricultural venture, working from dawn to beyond dusk. Hours of preparation bracket the actual market day: harvesting, cleaning, hauling, arranging, weighing, hefting, and then reverse the process at the day’s end.
Yet in spite of the endless hours of toil, the farmers are eager to meet and greet, just as we hope to connect with the men and women who have cultivated the products we load into our baskets. I take great pleasure knowing that my corn was picked that morning and my tomatoes were plucked from the vine and cradled into a box, then driven a few miles across the Island, not the country.
People say that shaking the hand of the grower who produces our food stands as a contract of good faith, but it surpasses a mere agreement. It reaffirms that both individuals believe in quality, connection, and community.
In Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner committed himself to trust a whisper, “If you build it, they will come.” His field of dreams was a baseball diamond, mine is a farmers’ market. If we commit ourselves to supporting our community of farmers and craftsmen, throughout the year where possible, we can make a difference, keeping our Island’s agricultural heritage a reality. And we will eat well and have some fun in the process.
Maria Buteux Reade is a dean of students at Trinity Pawling School in Pawling, N.Y. and a seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven, where her husband’s parents live year-round.