SMOKE RISES FROM a grill. It curls and arches and spreads under the dark steel and concrete pillars that support the Jones Falls Expressway where it reaches Gay Street in the city of Baltimore. It's Sunday morning, time for inhabitants to come out and eat roasted meat, to gather greens, to take part again in a weekly ritual that celebrates community, enterprise and abundance. Stock market experts will say whether this has been a good year or a bad year. There are other ways to measure prosperity. Most of us would measure the relative goodness of a year by the amount of food available as Thanksgiving approaches.
It's easy to forget the region's long drought with a walk under the highway at the farmers' market.
From what I see, there should be no shortage of turnips. Or of sweet potatoes. Yesterday, there were pyramids of them on tables. There were three-high stacks of overstuffed bushels of greens -- collards and curly kale and smooth kale. There was baby spinach -- the adult kind, too -- and sorrel. There were cabbages and cauliflower the size of basketballs. I saw Chinese cabbage and savoy cabbage, green broccoli and purple broccoli, yellow onions, scallions, leeks.
There were tomatoes and small boxes of string beans. "The Last!" said the hand-written sign next to them.
Men selling peppers offered variety -- ring of fire, ancho, lipstick, serrono, Caribbean red, and super chili.
Each year at this time the abundance and variety of apples present a great problem: Which to buy? In what quantity? The temptation is to buy a peck of each, then try to come up with as many ways of fixing them as possible. Yesterday, I found plenty of Stayman and Delicious -- Yellow, Golden and Red. Granny Smith was everywhere. You could buy Raeburns by the bushel, along with firm Gold, Jona Gold, Nittany, York, Fuji and Ozark Gold. I looked for Winesap apples, didn't find any, but something tells me they were there. I'll hunt for them again next week.
There was apple butter, too.
And plenty of honey.
A couple from Ellicott City sell salsa.
There were Asian pears and Bosc pears.
Did I mention the purple broccoli?
Did I mention the candy apples?
And have an organic muffin, if you like.
Or fresh bread -- sourdough bread, big Italian tavola bread, sundried tomato bread, little boules of bread.
You can buy Danish and sweet rolls.
You can buy slab bacon and salt pork.
You can stand there while someone cuts you a great wedge of cheese from a wheel. You can buy fresh fish -- rockfish, oyster trout, spot and croaker. You can get Chesapeake blue crabs.
How about chestnuts?
How about fresh apple cider?
At the far end of the market, where smoke signals pit beef and grilling sausage, you can find incense and body oils for sale, an impressive array of silver jewelry, and organic biscuits for your dog. (The Baltimore Dog Bakery makes these. I've tried them. My dogs have tried them. They're delicious. I suggest having one with a double espresso.)
Tanya Williams is new to the market. She caught my eye because she was demonstrating her product -- African-inspired soft puppets on a stick.
They're colorful dolls in kente cloth -- tribal kings and queens, witch doctors and warriors -- draped over and stitched to cones. Inside each cone is a long stick. Move the stick up and down and the puppet dances. Pull the stick all the way down and the puppet disappears into the cone. They sell for $20. Williams, an artist and photographer, designs and makes them.
"I started making them because my son asked for a Barbie doll," she laughs. "My husband is black, and I wanted my son to have something with meaning."
You can buy blooming flowers or cut flowers.
You can buy houseplants or dried-flower arrangements.
You can buy roasted peanuts.
You can buy fresh eggs, by the dozen, by the 18-pack.
You can bump into a friend or neighbor and compare notes on potatoes, or hear a joke.
You can do all this, of course, anywhere these days.
In the suburbs, supermarkets seem to appear about every half-mile or so. (Supermarket building hit a frenzy in the metropolitan area this year. The nice old field where Valley View Farms used to offer pick-your-own strawberries is now a Metro.)
Supermarket shopping is necessary, but it's never wholly splendid. I mean, it's good that Metro shopping carts have cup holders for Donna's coffee. You can sip Donna's gourmet blends while you shop.
And double coupons are swell.
I even like -- dare I acknowledge this? -- supermarket sushi.
But few things are more satisfying than a crisp Sunday morning -- or Saturday, if you prefer the farmers' market in Waverly -- spent savoring the smells, the people, the abundance, in fresh air, in a section of Baltimore that would otherwise be empty if not for this delightful weekly festival. You can sip coffee there, too. There just aren't any cup holders. And, so far, no sushi.