The Small Easy

Aug 8, 2009 | Day Tripping

Like many who choose a life of adventure and purpose over the pursuit of profitable careers and sensible savings, I’ve lately spent the end of each month scrounging in our junk drawer for spare change. Although sifting pennies for quarters can set me to mourning the exotic journeys I can’t afford, this time the jingle in my pocket returns me to a time I’d forgotten, when Mom used to give me spare change from her purse to seek adventure in my neighborhood.

This time, my husband Dale and I take our four dollars in quarters, dimes and nickels to the farmers market we’ve been neglecting, just four blocks from our house.

I remind myself, “These are my neighbors.”

As we walk to the market, passing parents pushing babies in strollers and dogs pulling owners on leashes, I remind myself, “These are my neighbors.” No, I don’t know them. But we share knowing smiles about how sweet it is to have this sunny day off, and chances are high that when I say, “Hi, how ya doin’?” most will say “hello” back, and maybe even comment on our mutual pursuit of locally-grown fruits and veggies. I collect these moments like more shiny coins.

The Farmers Market on Old South Pearl Street is small, and that makes it easy.

The Farmers Market on Old South Pearl Street is only one block long, and that’s one of the things I like about it. It’s big enough to sustain a festival atmosphere, and small enough so the choices don’t overwhelm me. When I arrive, I stop to listen to the amateur string quartet of adults and kids on the corner, knowing I’ll still have plenty of time to see everything. No pressure.

“Full Circle” is one of the music acts featured at the Old South Pearl Street Farmers Market on Sundays.

The quartet’s not bad. But as I move into the stream of the market, the sound of a professional acoustic folk rock duo pulls me like a golden thread, between two rows of little white tents on stilts. Behind the musicians of “Full Circle” and the tents of the vendors, storefronts peek out in flashes of red brick. Old South Pearl Street’s old-fashioned shops recall the days when South Denver became a sort of second city along Denver’s trolley route, from the early 1900’s to 1950’s, before I-25 split the city.

Today, fresh food is the star of the street. I savor the intense colors of every tomato, peach and carrot, trying to keep a catalog in my head, so I’ll know how to divvy up my precious change on the way back. There’s still dirt on the watermelons, reminding me that, yes, our food comes from the earth, not the supermarket. The sound of fingers tearing back corn husks in search of firm, golden kernels tickles my ear like the sound of a child rubbing a balloon.

The Hmong couple of Xiong Farm always brings unusual plants.

The Hmong couple of Xiong Farm always brings unusual plants, and even if I’m not buying, I enjoy asking the names and imagining exotic dishes I’ll never make. I admire the bright saffron of squash flowers, and recall the flower soup I ate during my last trip to rural China. It didn’t taste like perfume, as I’d expected, but imparted a delicate oil as subtle as a spring breeze.

I usually buy in bulk from the farm with the simple pricing: fill one plastic bag with any veggies and fruits for a set price of just a few bucks. But I won’t have enough money left for that economical option, because I’m already counting out two dollars in change to pay my favorite vendor for instant gratification: a fresh tamale. I’ve eaten my share of authentic tamales, and these are top notch: generous tender meat filling, with a spicy bite that still lets the subtler flavors through, and maiz that’s always slightly moist, never dry.

Rick canes old chairs to give them a second life.

Now I just have two dollars left. But that doesn’t stop me from chatting with Rick, who’s caning an antique rocking chair. A collection of old chairs, restored to charming second-life, circle him like grandchildren waiting for story time. Rick proudly shows me pictures of chairs that were once broken, whose wounds he bound and healed before weaving cane or rushes to give them new backs and bums. I imagine a fairy-tale, in which forgotten chairs dance on new legs. He tells me it takes more than a dozen hours to cane just one chair.

“You must be a patient man,” I say.

“Not really,” he says. “You should ask my wife.”

Rick’s fingers are so nimble, as he pushes loops of cane over and under, that I don’t notice until right before I leave that at least two of his fingers are missing the tips. I want to ask why. But customers are gathering, and the moment has passed to ask such a personal question. Next time, I’ll pull up a chair in the circle and ask for that story.

Now that I’ve inspected everything that has captured my curiosity, it’s time to make my selections. I dare to ask Miller Farms, the ones who sell produce by the bag, if I can buy just one slightly deformed peach.

“Go ahead, honey. I’m not going to charge you for just one peach,” a middle-aged woman says, smiling.

“I did,” her younger counterpart admonishes.

“Well, that’s you,” she says, nodding at me to go ahead.

“Thank you,” I say, and then turn to the younger girl. “It’s OK. She’s doing good advertising. I’ll be back next week.”

In fact, I plan to visit their working farm in Platteville, sometime between September 1st and November 24th, for the Fall Harvest Festival. Visitors pay $15 per person, or $50 per family of four, to picnic and take a hayride to the fields to pick vegetables. What a wonderful opportunity to connect with the source of our food, if I can find my way out of the corn maze.

Determined to spend my two dollars, I ask Dale if I should buy some zucchini from the Xiong Farm, but he informs me we already have some at home. Carrots? We have those, too. Broccolli? That, too. This is the problem when we forget to frequent the farmers market. Determined to take home something fresh and local, I buy two bunches of garlic for just one dollar. With a whole dollar in dimes left in my pocket, I walk home feeling rich. On the way home, Dale discovers that one of the garlic bunches is a dried out dud. The karmic price for a free peach, I suppose.

As I brush sticky, sweet peach juice from my lips with the back of my hand, I consider some of the satisfying reasons to buy locally grown foods:

1) More money stays in the local economy.

2) The produce is fresher, so it’s higher in nutrients.

3) Transporting food long distances to supermarkets adds to pollution.

4) By eating locally, we stay in touch with the seasons, and eat foods when they’re at their peak of flavor and freshness.

5) Fresher just tastes better.

By eating locally, we stay in touch with the seasons.

I think the best reason to visit my local farmers market is the least quantifiable. This eight-block, three-dollar round trip is a journey into our agrarian, communal past, to a slower time when Denver still had trolleys. I can’t calculate the good it does my spirit to stroll among red-cheeked tomatoes, peach-cheeked babies and all my neighbors: celebrating the bounty of nature and music and work done by hand.

***

The Old South Pearl Street Farmers Market is open every Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., on the 1500 block of South Pearl Street between Florida Avenue and Iowa Avenue. For more info on the delightful shops and fun community events on Old South Pearl Street, please visit www.oldsouthpearlstreet.com

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

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