Graze St. Louis: Farmers' Markets Bring Together Fresh Food & Community Spirit

D – I have never met a farmers’ market that I didn’t like. Wandering through, eyeballing produce, nibbling on food and chatting with the vendors is an ideal way to spend the morning. Maybe a unique-looking pepper will catch my eye and inspire me to make a pizza with some interesting toppings for my wife. Perhaps that bevy of beef shanks will finally convince me to make stock. To me, this is the essence of a farmers’ market, the reason to go. Although the markets we explored did have similarities, each exuded a different personality. Some were hectic, filled with people on a mission for that week’s bounty. Others were far more relaxed, like a lazy stream, as customers meandered through all the stands before deciding what to buy. (These tended to be more up my alley.) Either way, they all teamed with life and goodwill.

E – To be honest, my greatest challenge has simply been deciphering a working definition for the term “farmers’ market.” There are what I think of as traditional farmers’ markets, where customers purchase produce and meat products directly from the original farmers. On the other side of things are produce centers (that may also refer to themselves as farmers’ markets) where brokers resell fruits and vegetables purchased from wholesalers. Finally, there are markets where both farmers and brokers are welcome to sell their products. Year-round markets, such as both Soulard and the Market in The Loop, especially rely on resellers to ensure that customers can purchase fresh produce throughout the winter months.

When it comes to running a successful farmers’ market, there are plenty of hidden challenges. Theresa Carper, Ferguson’s community relations coordinator, explained how difficult it can be for new markets to find local growers, who usually commit to several markets each week. Farmers must be careful not to spread themselves too thin, especially since most also maintain a stand back at the farm and must reserve enough labor to harvest the crops. Sandra Zak, Soulard’s market master, described how at year-round markets, vendors have the additional challenge of making sure their wares don’t freeze while sitting out during the winter months. But despite these challenges, new area markets just keep popping up – which this year include ones in the Central West End and Maplewood – proving that the St. Louis community has a passion for fresh food and is committed to supporting local farmers.

Emily’s market profile – A sucker for fresh flowers

Dennis’ market profile – Produce is fine, but I also love the extras, from cookies to barbecue

The Market in The Loop
6655 Delmar Blvd., University City / 314.991.3300
Year round, Thu. to Sat. – 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Indoor shops and restaurants are open throughout the week.

D – Sitting on a bench outside the Long Acre Farms stand in the Loop Market, I can’t wait for spring. Not because it is super cold – it’s not. Not because it is overcast – it’s indeed pretty sunny. My impatience for spring arises from the tranquility of the market itself. I know in my heart that if it was 85 degrees on a Saturday in June, this place would be JUMPIN’. Even in March, there’s a continuous flow of people through the open produce stand and the enclosed area of the market. This is, after all, located squarely in The Loop. There is always life here.

E – Dan Wald, who co-owns the market with his wife Robin, said that the Market in the Loop has been a center point of the Loop area, especially on the weekends, since the 1970s. It’s an eclectic, vibrant market that’s divided into two distinct sections. There’s the outside, where the more traditional “farmers’ market” is located, featuring fresh produce and meat. While some vendors have had a presence at the market for 25 years, like the ever-popular Long Acre Farms, owned by Jim Schneider, Wald said that this year he’s also planning to feature more small farmers and local producers, along with area artists. The other half of the market, located inside, includes a collection of small shops and restaurants like New York Burrito, Racanelli’s Pizza, Sushi and Smoothies, Wong’s Wok, The Silver Lady and the Zuma Beach Bead Company. “We’ve always tried to be a kind of incubator for new businesses,” Wald said.

D – The jewel of the inside section is Bob’s Seafood, fishmonger for many of the city’s best restaurants. The scallops appeared succulent and able to stand up to cold cooking, while the tuna steaks were the best looking I’ve ever seen inland. Yet, sitting there, feverishly taking notes, my mind kept wandering back outside to a tiny little … well, shack is the only fitting word. This place seemed to be in some distress; it was billowing smoke! Much to my relief, it wasn’t on fire, literally. Instead, it was just a fiery little barbecue shack called Mama’s Coal Pot that I had to try out – and to paraphrase a line from The Urge, “Darn, that stuff is good!” Without sampling Mama’s Coal Pot, your visit to this market will be woefully incomplete.

Clayton Farmers’ Market
Corner of Maryland and North Central avenues, Clayton / 314.645.5807
May 22 to Oct. 30, Sat. – 8 a.m. to noon

D – Located on the street, smack dab in the middle of downtown Clayton, the market takes up a full block. It makes an odd impression as the veritable cornucopia of nature’s abundance is surrounded completely by the concrete and glass of the urban landscape. I loved it.

E – Julie Ridlon, the market master, founded Clayton Farmers’ Market five years ago, after running a series of cooking demonstrations at the Soulard market and discovering that many people couldn’t tell the difference between brokers and farmers. Today, the Clayton Farmers’ Market is a total sensory experience, where people are “willing to teach you what to do with the products that are on the market,” Ridlon said. And she’s right. Each week, a different local chef sets up shop and demonstrates how to cook a particular recipe, while providing plenty of yummy samples. Last year, I witnessed the birth of an Italian Bread Salad, a dish full of bread, cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes, garlic, basil and “whatever else you have available,” said Ridlon, who owns Chanterelle Catering and was the featured chef that day.

D – What I really enjoyed was just walking around and trying all the free samples, such as goat cheese topped with blueberries from the Wine Merchant and some tasty bison jerky. I topped it all off with a chocolate chip cookie from Companion Bakehouse. After that, I bought a cigar from a shop bordering the market and really started having a good time. But I have to admit, we were a little caught off guard when a man from the organic omelet stand darted out from behind his booth to inquire whether we were researchers from a competing market … which just proved that there’s really some fierce competition in this business.

Soulard Farmers’ Market
7th Street and Lafayette Avenue, St. Louis / 314.622.4180
Year round, Wed. to Fri. – 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sat. – 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

D – The granddaddy of them all. Founded in 1838*, Soulard Farmers’ Market’s longevity first sets it apart from all the others. After that, it’s the size and sheer diversity of product. Having spent a good chunk of my life living in Soulard, I’ve grown to know the market well, and there’s an air of an international street bazaar about it on the weekends. Zak, the market master, said that many immigrants and refugees from other countries – where markets are the norm and supermarkets are not – feel most comfortable shopping in a familiar environment.

E – Zak also challenged anybody to come up with a place in our region where there’s a gathering of people from every socioeconomic group, every ethnicity and every religion. “It’s just so cool when you see the interaction of the customers. I’ve seen a very prominent St. Louisan down here exchanging recipes with a family I just saw pay with public assistance. There’s this great sort of camaraderie. … We’re coming together in the celebration of food. And really, I can think of no other place where that happens every single week.” At the Soulard market, you’ll find local farmers during the area’s growing season, while in the winter, you can pick up bananas, pineapples and strawberries. As Zak explained, just because we’re not having a growing season doesn’t mean that they’re not having it in other parts of the country or even in other parts of the world. Having a combination of growers and brokers is “wonderful, if you have the right mix,” she said.

D – Begin your experience by grabbing a Busch and a brat at one of the permanent food stands and then start walking. Up one aisle, a photographer sells his framed photos of St. Louis landmarks (10 of which decorate the conference room walls at my office). Then enter the most hectic part of any market, the main produce vein, where strawberries go for $2.85 a box. Sound steep? Well, the box holds six pints. Off in the distance, a man plays the banjo. Move into the enclosed center of the market and you’ll hit Soulard Spice Shop – one of the best spice stores in the city. Once you’ve finished your brat, hit the pastry shop next door for dessert. Then head down the northeast wing, where a sign reads: “Fresh wild trapped rabbits and coons.” Buy a live one and get dirty, or they can clean it for you. Talk about fresh. Although I could do without the vendors selling CDs, jerseys and hats, just walk right past all that and you’ll find the pet store. All the while, the market teams with so much life (one older gentleman strolled around in tap shoes) that the city had to put in a stoplight and crosswalk just to handle the traffic the market generates. That, to me, is the ultimate sign of respect.

* According the market’s Web site, 1779, the ascribed date of its founding, has no basis in historical fact.

Kirkwood Farmers’ Market
East Argonne Drive and Taylor Avenue, Kirkwood / 314.822.0084
Thru Sept. 25, Thu. and Fri. – 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sat. – 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many merchants are also open seven days a week.

D – Walking toward the market last fall, my first impression was: “Holy moley, look at all the mums.” Without a doubt, this was the largest and most diverse selection of mums I had ever encountered. Overwhelmed, I retreated to buy a favorite comfort food, meat-on-a-stick (better known as a kebab), and then, braced for anything, I marched into the market. Much smaller than Soulard and Clayton, it still has plenty of the seasonal staples you expect from a farmers’ market. And while you won’t find a diverse selection of exotic foods, what differentiates this market are the onsite eats and sweets, such as Rusty’s Kettle Korn, Starr-B-Q and, of course, the kebabs at Café Manila. This year, Fajita Cantina is also spicing things up by offering made-to-order Mexican fare. For pure spontaneous on-site gluttony, this market rules.

E – The Kirkwood Farmers’ Market definitely has a family-friendly feel, and it will be featuring a beautiful new pergola this season, scheduled for completion by the end of May. The market continues to highlight many old favorites, including the 20-year veteran Summit Farms (selling produce and plants) and Year Round Farm (known for freshly cut flowers) while also introducing new vendors this year, such as Linda Nolle of the Soulard Spice Shop and Jean Waters of Farmers’ Market Flowers (she also runs Soulard Florist). The Kirkwood Mud Hut has also set up shop this season and will be serving Kaldi’s coffee and specialty breakfast items, while Parker’s Table has opened a satellite operation selling olive oil, vinegar, pasta, rice and bread. The market also has a tradition of hosting a variety of special events such as a Summer Solstice Dinner on June 26, a Homegrown Contest (yes, bring along your biggest and best produce) on Aug. 29 and a Dog Days Celebration – featuring a pet parade, pet adoption opportunities and even doggie snow cones – on Sept. 25.