Farmers' market in South Pasadena
Last week's Food section in Los Angeles Times proclaimed, "Luscious, at last!" reporting the summer peak in California produce and the astonishing bounties witnesssed at farmers' markets: "piles of peaches and nectarines, mounds of melons, tomatoes of every color, eggplants, squashes, cucumbers and all kinds of berries." I had to go see this for myself. Off I went to the nearest one in my neighborhood -- the South Pasadena Farmers' Market.
My first impression was one of confusion and disappointment. Instead of the dizzying mosaic of vegetable and fruit vendors, butcher stands, cheese stands, honey and spice stalls of my old neighborhood market in France, here I encountered a T-shaped alley with the longer stretch lined with stands selling street food. Thinking how typically American that the "greenmarket" should have more fast foods then fresh produce, I directed myself towards the shorter stretch where a few farmer stands stood scattered here and there.
One did indeed see piles of peaches and tomatoes of all colors. But the fruit stands resembled a discount sale, with buyers pawing through the mountain of peaches, casting aside the bruised ones, grabbing and filling plastic bags in bulk. A contrast to France where you would patiently stand in line for your turn, then say what you wanted and for when, whereupon the vendor would touch, sniff the fruit in question before choosing what would be ready to eat that evening, or in three days, before deftly wrapping it up in brown paper.
I went over to the tomatoe guy. Taking a pocket knife he cut for me a slice of the monstrously large and orange-colored "mango" tomatoe which, contrary to its great looks, tasted flat. The LA Times article had waxed poetic about the "grandeur" of these heirloom tomatoes, their perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, their indescribably savoury quality. All this eluded me.
More and more I was beginning to feel about the market the way I feel about LA in general, how there is a lag between image and reality. I thought about a recent friend's visit, how we kept driving along the freeways, from one place to the next but no matter what I showed her -- shops and cafes in Beverly Hills, neighborhoods around Melrose Place, even the Hollywood sign -- there was always a sense of letdown, these places looming so much larger in popular imagination and myths. In response to our frusteration though, somebody told us that LA is less a place than a state of mind. California, I remembered Pico Iyer writing in The Global Soul, encourages transcendence precisely because its surfaces are hollow.
Griller at Robin's Woodside BBQ, laconic amidst the smoky fires.
Corn on the cob grilled in their husks, popular with children. My favorite condiment was lime & chile pepper.
Hispanic flavor: tamales wrapped in corn husks, churros dusted with cinnamon and sugar, as well as Peruvian and Salvadoran specialties such as pupusas (small cornmeal pancakes filled with cheese, beans, pork.)
I decided to change tack and take an inventory of street foods offered. I watched the people having picnics in the grassy areas and decided to join the fray, getting a corn grilled in its husk and a hotdog for my daughter. The sun was setting and the warm air was filled with laughter and a festival atmosphere. It dawned on me that this is what the market was about -- not so much a place to buy fresh provisions but more a celebration of summer, an idea of barbeques and corn on the cob and biting into a giant peach, never mind the juices running down, a simulacrum if you like, or a nostalgic representation rendered all the more poignant since the season was in its final throes, with back to school sales just around the corner.
The unreality of places with synthetic surfaces, acording to Iyer, can have advantages over those with seductive ones ( ie quality and artistry of French markets) and I suspect he may be right. In the end it's the invisible things that make us feel at home.
The Farmers' Market in South Pasadena is located on Mission Street and Meridian Avenue. Every Thursday from 4-8 pm, rain or shine.
"It's a California Thing"