You say you've been to a farmers' market? Many of them?
Not like this one you haven't.
You say you've seen enough markets, country fairs and auction rooms to last you three lifetimes?
If you've been to the Bird-in-Hand Farmers' Market in the Pennsylvania Dutch village of Bird-in-Hand, then you have.
But if you haven't, you haven't.
Most people are suspicious of the word "great." The word is so overused in our time, mainly because television, our chief source of influence, calls everything and everyone great! So when someone tells you how great this market is, you may well lift an eyebrow. Show me, you may say. Well, visit this one and you will be shown.
The market is just east of Lancaster on Route 340. It lies amid the well-kept farms and simple but sturdy houses that typify the Amish and other Plain People, as they are called.
From the outside the market is nothing more than a huge building surrounded by monstrous parking lots. But step in. The moment you cross the threshold you will find yourself locked in for a good long while.
Bus tours take people from all over the area, so it is always crowded. But it is a friendly kind of crowdedness -- you run into people and no one minds; you stumble over children and they smile at you; teen-agers spill soda and hot dog mustard on you and some of them have been known to say, "Excuse me." Hard to believe but true. The atmosphere is like that of a carnival.
Lined along the inner walls are huge refrigerated display counters where they sell cheeses, cold cuts, salamis, baked goods, meats and much else.
These counters range all around the vast inner area, hugging the walls. Some of them are regular butcher "stores," with beef, pork, lamb, veal, chicken, sauerkraut, pickles and enough else in high piles to make your mouth water.
In between are the counters, smaller ones, with well-stocked shelves behind them, where are displayed all kinds of canned and jarred foods: relishes, pickles, pigs' feet, dozens of vegetables, fruits, jams, soups.
Other counters have more vegetables, more fruit, beets the size of grapefruit, oranges, grapes, foot-long carrots, apples with bright red cheeks, cabbages as big as basketballs.
And these are only the stalls that line the inner walls. In the large open central area are many more stands and counters. Some show baked goods: cookies, honey buns, shoofly pies, Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels and funnel cakes. Many of these are prepared and baked right in front of your eyes.
Lined along the counters, just under your nose, are rows of fragrant loaves of bread, just baked. The aroma is enough to make you buy and buy and . . .
(Hint: take a few large shopping bags with you when you go. Of course, you will go in with the knowledge that you just want to look because you won't buy a thing as you have plenty of everything at home. Wrong. It's almost impossible to spend half an hour here without making at least one purchase.)
One counter will have seafood, another will have endless varieties of candies. Next to it may be one with health foods, then one selling flowers and plants -- local plants as well as many types of cactus from some desert area far away. Then again one fragrant with baked goods still warm from the oven.
In one corner is the snack bar, where they sell coffee, pies, candy, salads, soups, ice cream. It will be layered with urchins whimpering for cones, asking for double- or triple-dips, with some heroic types wondering if they can have quadruple dips.
Many of the counters, stalls and stands are operated by Amish and Mennonite people from the Lancaster Pennsylvania Dutch area. Most will give you a smile whether you buy or not. Some have a friendly word, which is a pleasant departure from many of the stores you enter these days, where service and politeness are unknown quantities.
Spotted in various locations are crafts counters. One will display tremendous patchwork quilts, which must represent literally thousands of hours of close work. Another will sell leather goods, intricately worked; another carves names into slabs of wood to plant outside of houses for identification purposes. Several are gift shops.
There is more to see. On an upper floor is a branch of a glass company outlet. It takes up an entire floor wall-to-wall with glasses and glass products in hundreds of varieties. Keep elbows well tucked in. . . .
On a lower floor is a large clothing store, with mostly everyday items -- no Pierre Cardin or Saint Laurent.
Across the road is the Old Village Store, a friendly country-store type complex with many rooms full of things to buy or just look at. Near it is an old-time hardware store which sells items useful today as well as many old things which aren't used much anymore but which have great nostalgia value.
Back to "great": If size means great, then this market is great. If variety means great, this certainly is. But it really matters very little.
What does matter is that it is hard to conceive of any other market being livelier or more interesting.
The Bird-in-Hand Farmers' Market: P.O. Box L, Route 340, Bird-in-Hand, Pa. 17505; (717) 393-9674. Open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m; in winter, closed Wednesdays. Free admission and free parking.
If you're in the mood to view more of Pennsylvania's agricultural bounty, there's the 75th Pennsylvania State Farm Show, beginning next Sunday and running through Jan. 11, in Harrisburg. The farm show was begun in 1917 and is billed as the largest free indoor agricultural exposition in the country.
More than 8,000 entries in livestock, poultry and farm and home competition will be on display. Sunday is Family Day, and the day's activities begin with a Christmas-tree judging at 8 p.m. Sheep judging and cooking demonstrations also are scheduled that day, along with a 1:30 p.m. show of bull riding, calf roping and steer wrestling by the Pennsylvania High School Rodeo Association. Foods such as deep-fried mushrooms, lamb stew, potato doughnuts, honey ice cream, pork barbecue and cinnamon rolls can be obtained at the new Pennsylvania Food Court.
All activities will take place at the 14-acre Farm Show Complex, located along Cameron and Maclay streets in Harrisburg, just off Exit 23 of Interstate 81. Admission to the farm show is free; parking is $2. For information call (717) 787-5085.