This is one in a series of short essays related to Myers’ work as a Forager for a chef in New York City. Each essay is focused simply on sharing something she has learned through her work, and is followed by photos taken while on the job.
The farmers market at Union Square comes to life four days a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Everyone who knows that and hears about my job wonders within five minutes – Where do you go the other three days of the week? And while there are more than fifty farmers markets in the five boroughs, I visit only a few others, only on occasion. My regular market routine revolves around Union Square. The reasons for this are many, and include habits and logistics on both sides of the equation. We, at the restaurant, have a relationship with the farmers at Union Square, we are accustomed to the market’s schedule, it’s the most convenient of the greenmarkets, and it has the most products and variety of all the Greenmarkets in Manhattan. That said, we might meet new farmers, adjust to the scheduling, and broaden our definition of convenience, if the benefits would justify the effort. For now, they don’t.
For over twenty-five years, Greenmarket has built up a network of retail farmers markets for city consumers. These markets – with their distinct regulations, cooking demonstrations, and vibrant atmospheres – are by far the primary source for local food for individuals and families in New York City. As more and more restaurants have begun to focus their menus on local, seasonal products, farmers and chefs alike have come up with new systems and venues for collaboration. Farmers like Guy Jones at Blooming Hill Farm take orders from and deliver directly to chefs in the city; delivery companies like Upstate Farms and Basis Farm to Chef bring in products from several farms without losing track of each product’s origin; local purveyors, including Saxelby Cheesemongers and Dickson’s Farmstand Meats, offer wholesale quantities of regional meats and cheeses to chefs throughout the city. But many chefs focused on regional food still go to a Greenmarket and pick out fresh, local products themselves. This allows them to speak with the farmer, to see what they’re getting before they get it, to learn about the variety each farmer is offering, and to buy products that have truly been harvested, produced, or processed not more than a day or two in advance.
As a representative of a restaurant, shopping at the Greenmarket in Union Square, it’s important for me to know which farmers will be at the market each morning, what products they’ll have available, what their wholesale price or discount is for restaurants, and what they have coming into season. Several farmers allow chefs (or foragers) to call in their orders a day or two before, so we exchange phone numbers, discuss what we’ll be looking for, talk about what will be available one week to the next, and coordinate harvesting, packaging, and pick-ups accordingly. There’s a sort of a system, but one that’s frustratingly inefficient, if endearingly homemade. The new website What is Fresh is a great (independent) guide to the greenmarkets, and helps me stay informally conscious of who has what where, but otherwise I have very little way of keeping track of the farmers at more than one market.
The improvement I imagine does not cut out personal relationships and conversations, nor the ability to pick out produce as you buy it, nor the education and collaboration that comes of marketplace interactions. The system I seek requires a bigger regional market – still a public, physical place where buyers and sellers gather and exchange, but one that is established to accommodate wholesale quantities of food and to offer much more information to buyers and sellers alike about what to bring, expect, and request. It is a market of a different scale, open every day, during the day, in a reasonably central location. It isn’t the Hunts Point Market. It isn’t a place where messy commerce is hidden, conducted at night, made ruthlessly efficient and large-scale. It would be a place where farmers could be in touch with consumers without having to be present at the marketplace all the time; where they could sell a lot more than they would ever bring to a Greenmarket; where they could come if they wanted to meet people with whom to collaborate, as well as compete; a place where they could talk about the things they need, and find some of them. The labor, schedule, and delivery systems necessary for such a market will require complex, new infrastructure and management, but it is high time we took this step to strengthen our local food system.
The last New Amsterdam Market of the season is on December 20th. I will be there. And if it ever does one day grow into the market I describe, the market I imagine, I will be there every day.