Some people go because of the carnival-like atmosphere -- it's entertaining and they enjoy shopping in the fresh air. Others go because they believe the prices are low and the products are fresh. And the real down-to-earth ones are there because they can ask tough questions about how the food was grown and what pesticides, if any, were used.
They're headed for the farmers' market -- the ultimate symbol of the 1990s back-to-basics lifestyle where consumer meets farmer face-to-face and buys everything from organic strawberries to smoked pheasant.
Farm markets are a new way to bond with an old-fashioned lifestyle that had been shunted aside in the high-tech world of computers and life in the FAX lane.
Suddenly farmers' markets are back in style. Bigger and sometimes even better than before. Many have evening hours so working folks can join the crowds, too. Public Markets Collaborative, a group which works to establish and preserve markets, says the number of farmers' markets has nearly doubled in the past decade -- to 2,000 nationwide. During the same time, trend-setting California's markets went from five to 140.
Marylanders have always loved their markets -- with Baltimore's elaborate system of seven permanent city markets and 42 open-air seasonal markets that are opening in the next few weeks. Even here, markets are bigger than ever. Several new ones have appeared in the last few years, doubling the statewide total in the past decade, according to George Roche, marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
This renewed interest in earthy market pursuits has not escaped the cookbook publishers. They are churning out guides to tell you how to buy the things you can find at the markets and what to do with them once you come home -- from Judith Olney's "The Farm Market Cook" (Doubleday, $25) to Curtis G. Aikens' "Greengrocer's Guide to the Harvest" (Peachtree Publishers, $10.95).
Judith Olney, a Durham, N.C., food writer and author of five previous cookbooks, calls this her "first cookbook with a cause." She sees farmers' markets as a way to be ecologically correct -- from taking your own European string bags to pressuring farmers to grow organic produce.
Ms. Olney visited indoor and outdoor markets in 15 states for her research -- from the enclosed Lexington Market in Baltimore to the open-air Dane County Market in Madison, Wisc. She says she found the markets provide links with the past and predicts that they will create revolutionary changes in the way Americans shop and eat in the future.
"It's the '90s," she says. "I don't think that we need the escapist, inane, mindless gilding of fig leaves that we found in 1980s cookbooks. That age is over. We need to get serious about down-to-earth food."
Ms. Olney loves to ask farmers to pick out a peach or a melon for her so she can ask them why they are choosing that particular fruit. For example, a melon grower once told her to look for a green rather than a brown stem. A brown stem, he told her, means there was a piece of dead vine between the plant and the earth. And that dead vine means the fruit won't grow to be as sweet because it didn't receive proper nutrients.
Talking to the farmer is just one of the many ways you can make the most of a trip to the farmers' market, according to Curtis Aikens, a college football player turned greengrocer, food stylist and cookbook author. He's also host of a weekly segment "Greengrocer" on Atlanta television.
Here are his rules for shopping the markets:
Rule 1: Go early before everything is picked over and before it has been sitting in the sun too long. Try to arrive no later than one hour after the market opens.
Rule 2: You gotta shop around. Before you buy anything, look at everything in the market and make mental notes of the best-looking items.
Rule 3: Look for locally grown produce. It's obvious that bananas don't grow in Maryland, but other items aren't so clear cut. Ask the farmer if he is selling his own crops. (In Maryland, farmers can buy from suppliers in Jessup and sell at farmers' markets. If you want to be assured that the farmer grew what he is selling, go to the "Producers Only" markets, such as the markets in Columbia and Highlandtown. Farmers are required to sign an agreement in these markets to pledge that they will sell only what they grow.)
Rule 4: Look for the three S's and one T. Sight (how does it look?), smell (the fruitier it smells, the fruitier it tastes), season (buy what's local or regional first) and touch (make sure it isn't overripe).
Rule 5: Look for neatness. Cleanliness is next to godliness, especially with food.
Rule 6: Don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask how it is grown, if pesticides were used and which fertilizers were used. More and more organic growers are taking their goods to the markets these days and purists can get the answers they demand.
Rule 7: Bargain. If you think the items are overpriced, try to get a lower price. This tactic works best for those who go to the market right before it closes. Often the farmer would rather take a lower price than haul the crops back home.
"A lot of produce buying is common sense," Mr. Aikens says, "and we often don't use common sense. Wake up. I want people to be as picky buying produce as they are in buying a new car."
But man does not live by produce alone. And many of these markets have everything from tempting desserts to seafood. The following is a recipe from Judith Olney's book, using one of the main items sold at Lexington Market -- crab. She loves the history and variety of Baltimore's Lexington Market, describing it as one of the "Top Ten" markets in the country.
Rillettes of crab
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup shredded scallions, including white and tender green parts, cut into 1 1/2 inch lengths
juice of 1 lemon
zest from 1 lemon
1 whole bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon mustard
1 clove garlic, pressed
1/2 teaspoon salt
generous grindings of coarse black pepper
1 tablespoon red or white wine vinegar
1 pound crab meat, picked clean
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
whole black or green peppercorns
Have all the ingredients out on the counter and ready before you start cooking.
Melt 1 stick of butter in a large frying pan. Add the scallions, lemon juice and zest, bay leaf, seasonings and vinegar. Simmer for 2 minutes. Set aside and reserve the bay leaf.
Add the crab meat, turn up the heat and, using a fork, cook and stir for 2 minutes. Shred the crab as you stir and turn. When finished, stir in the parsley, then pack the crab mixture into a small, attractive, rustic dish. Press the surface down flat.
Melt the remaining half stick of butter and pour it over the surface. Press in the reserved bay leaf and scatter a few peppercorns around the leaf at center. Refrigerate when cool. Remove the bay leaf before serving.
Note: This dish seems to taste even better a day or two after it is made. It makes a good spread on crackers or toast points.
Gooey butter cake is a St. Louis tradition and Ms. Olney found it at a fund-raising booth run by St. Mary's Hungarian Church at the Soulard Market.
Chocolate gooey butter cake
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
FOR THE TOPPING:
8 ounces soft whipped cream cheese, at room temperature
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted
1 box (16 ounces) confectioners' sugar, sifted
FOR THE CAKE:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 stick butter, melted
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch cake pan.
Prepare the topping first. Whip together the cream cheese, melted chocolate and egg. When smooth, stir in the sifted confectioners' sugar. Set aside.
To make the cake: Mix the dry ingredients, preferably in the bowl of a mixer.
In another bowl, stir together the butter, eggs, milk and vanilla. Slowly add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and beat for 3 minutes. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Gently spread the cream cheese topping over the cake. Bake for 40 minutes.
Cool the cake completely and then some (a good 4 hours) before cutting. This stays moist and delicious for 3 days.
Where the markets are
Within the next couple of weeks, Maryland's farmers markets will again be in full gear. They offer fresh-from-the-farm food at low prices plus a variety of other items -- from flowers and honey to homemade sausage.
The following list of markets and their specialties is provided by the Maryland Department of Agriculture. Opening dates are official; some markets may open earlier with limited selections. A complete list can be obtained for free by sending a stamped, self-addressed, business-sized envelope to: Maryland Farmers' Market Directory, Maryland Department of Agriculture, 50 Harry S. Truman Pkwy., Annapolis 21401.
Anne Arundel County
* Annapolis Farmers' Market, Calvert Street in front of Arundel Center; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays; fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, baked goods, jams, jellies, pickles, honey and dried flowers. OPENS: June 27.
* Anne Arundel County Farmers' Market, Corner of Riva Road and Harry S. Truman Parkway; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. (until sold) Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, baked goods, jams, jellies, pickles, honey and dried flowers. OPENED: April 16.
* Baltimore Farmers' Market, Holliday and Saratoga streets, under the JFX viaduct; 8 a.m. till sold out or noon; fruits, vegetables, seafood, smoked meats, baked goods, cheese, plants, fresh and dried flowers, herbs (fresh and dried), eggs, honey, jams, jellies, seasonal crafts, holiday fowl orders, homemade sausage. OPENS: JUNE 23.
* Gardenville Farmers' Market, 4400 Frankford Ave. on St. Anthony's Church parking lot, 7:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays; fruits, vegetables, baked goods, eggs, seafood, flowers, plants. OPENS: JUNE 29.
* Highlandtown Farmers' Market, 3700 Fleet St. (between Eaton and Conkling streets); 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays; vegetables and fruits, baked goods, honey and jams. This is a "Producers Only" market; farmers must sell only what they grow. OPENS: JUNE 15.
* Howard Park Farmers' Market, 3500 block of Woodbine Ave. PTC between Gwynn Oak and Liberty Heights avenues; 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays; fruits, vegetables, seafood, smoked meats, eggs, baked goods, nursery plants. OPENS: JUNE 15.
* Irvington Farmers' Markets, 4021 Frederick Ave. on the municipal parking lot; 6 a.m. to noon Saturdays; fresh fruits, vegetables, baked goods, fresh butchered meats, smoked meats, cheese. OPENS: JUNE 8.
* 32nd Street Market, 400 block East 32nd st., off Greenmount avenue; 7 a.m. to noon Saturdays; fresh fruits, fresh and organic vegetables, seafood, fresh butchered organically fed meats, smoked meat, poultry and rabbit, cheese, baked goods, flowers, plants, herbs. OPENS JUNE 8.
* Dundalk Village Farmers' Market, Commerce street and Shipping Place; 9 a.m. to 12 noon Saturdays; produce, seafood, plants, crafts. OPENS: JULY 13.
* Essex Farmers' Market, Essex public parking lot 512 Eastern Blvd; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays; fruits, vegetables, eggs, baked goods, potted plants, honey. OPENS: JUNE 18.
* Owings Mills Farmers' Market, Owings Mills New Town Visitors Center; 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays; fruits, vegetables, plants, flowers, baked goods. OPENS: JUNE 25.
* Towson Farmers' Market, Allegheny Avenue, between Washington and York roads; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays; fruits, vegetables, baked goods, flowers, potted plants. OPENS: JUNE 27.
* Carroll County Farmers' Market, Smith Avenue at the Westminster Ag Center; 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays in the spring and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays in the summer; fruits, vegetables, free weekly food and craft demonstrations, baked goods, fresh meat, egg, crafts, flowers, plants. OPENED: MAY 11; SUMMER MARKET OPENS: JUNE 22.
* South Carroll Farmers' Market, W. Hemlock Drive next to library in Eldersburg; 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sundays; fruits, vegetables, some organic, grains, herbs, cut flowers. OPENS: JUNE 26.
* Bel Air Saturday Farmers' Market, Mary Risteau Parking Lot at Bond and Thomas streets; 7:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays; fruits and vegetables, handmade children's clothing, homespun handiwork, honey, plants, flowers. OPENED: MAY 4.
* Oakland Mills Farmers' Market, Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia; 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursdays; fruits, vegetables, organic produce, bedding plants, herbs, baked goods, jams, jellies, honey-smoked pheasant. This is a "Producers Only" market; farmers must grow what they sell. OPENED: MAY 23.