Thursday, August 17, 2006

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"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you that often things do not live up to their tag-lines in this culture of marketing gimmicks. But I think you would find that if you were to really invest in something- whether it be a Farmer's Market or something else, that you would find that there IS more than what is readily seen on the surface. But it takes investment. There are some really quality farmers who set-up booths at the South Pas Farmer's Market week after week, and while the behavior of the customers may be reprehensible, these farmers are the real deal, and have something invaluable to offer to the community. Give it more than a one-time "impress me or I'm gone" attitude. If you think like that, how are you any different from our typical consumer society, where we make demands and expect instantaneous gratification?

10:05 AM  
Blogger motoko said...

Thanks for your eye-opening comment. I think you are right in pointing out that I was falling into the very thing I was critique-ing. I did however hestitate before posting this because I felt I did not know the market well enough and could only present superficial impressions. It DOES takes investment to get beneath the surface of things. I've been going back every week since and have developed loyalties to certain booths -- they are indeed as you say the "real deal."

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an FYI- the Farmer's Market at Pasadena High School is much better. The focus is on produce there and some prepared stuff like bread and olives... oh, the olives! Saturday afternoons, rain or shine. :-)

11:55 PM  
Blogger motoko said...

Thank you!!! I will check it out!

1:07 PM  
Blogger astrodyke said...

Actually, the Pasadena farmer's market is on Saturday MORNINGS. 1 fantastic tamale stand, all the fresh produce you could want, and a few street musicians. A lovely way to spend a morning.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Elena said...

the Hollywood farmers market is really a great one, if u want quality, organic produce, as well as fresh raw dairy, goat cheese, free range, unrefrigerated eggs, and local unheated honey. i eat 100% raw and organic and i am able to supply about 85% of mine and my families' food from there. I have been meaning to check out the Pasadena market, as it is about the same distance from my house (I live in Silverlake), but haven't gotten to it yet. was just doing research on it and found your blog. hmm, i guess i'd have to see it for my self:)
also, i grew up in Europe and i understand your sentiment, but what is magical about LA is that it does not try to emulate an European city , like many other US cities, but rather has developed its own brave and rebel energy. This is where everybody who hated all the stuffy European bullshit ran to (along with all the "wanted" criminals and rebels), as far from the mother continent as possible...:)
Also, on a different note, LA is an insider's town, perhaps you need to explore the more idiosyncratic wonders of this territory. I have to tell you that i have been able to change the mind of many LA "haters", usually friends from Europe or NY. there is a lot of superficial and idiotic behavior here, i agree, but the magic is stronger than that, you just need to choose to see it:)

12:46 PM  

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