Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rite of Spring.

Some may count the blooming of jonquils and dogwoods as the first sign of spring.

For others, it's children playing in the Easter sunshine, searching out eggs.

Some even note the vernal arrival through the dusting of pollen that sends them fleeing to a car wash.

And there are those who don't count spring as having sprung until the farmers have migrated back to their perpetual roost at the River Market.

These vendors and produce growers and distributors and just general folks return year after year to participate in the Farmers Market... specifically, the Little Rock Farmers Market, which is celebrating its 35th year of operation.

They come bearing all manner of produce, both local and non-local. Some bring local products such as jarred honey and salsa.

Others offer shucked peas and beans, okra, the first tomatoes of the season and the first dug sweet potatoes.

Still more offer spindly new plants to take home for you to raise -- tomato vines, bean sproutings, and any number of fresh herbs.

There are also those who bring in fruits whose time has yet to dawn here -- watermelons from hothouses, mushrooms from Pennsylvania, bananas from South America.

What makes these many items attractive are their prices -- and their freshness, and their not-picked-over-ness, whatever the word for that is.

It all creates such a colorful melange, a backdrop to the starting of the day.

Maybe not so convenient... I mean, you do have to go downtown and find a spot to park... but certainly lovely.

I didn't have a lick of trouble finding a spot at 7 a.m. along President Clinton Avenue. In fact, I parked mere yards away from St. Vincent Plaza, one of the streets that lies next to the River Market Pavilion.

The street is closed to all but foot traffic most of the time, and on market days it's lined with vendors of crafts such as patchwork pants, shopping bags, bible covers and knitted hats. In fact, the hats were a bit too much of a distraction for me, and I wasn't calmed until one ended up on my head, my wallet a shy bit lighter.

My companion had asked for cauliflower and cucumber, and while I saw none of the former there I did see many perky examples of the latter.

I walked westward from one end of the covered area to the other, snapping all sorts of photos as I went.

Being the first day of this season, I suppose I expected more bustle, perhaps live shots from the local TV stations or the bobbing sight of another photographer among the masses.

But there were no masses, just a handful of fellow gawkers and a few serious shoppers, buzzing about like fat bumblebees around an azalea.

The soft conch-shell echo of traffic over the I-30 river bridge didn't seem so loud here, though we were a mere block and a half away from its convergence over the River Market.

Orange hues graced the far-off sky over the blue and white peaks of the Riverfest Amphitheater stage.

I snapped away, asking a few questions but generally taking in a bit here and there.

Strawberries were everywhere -- being one of the few Arkansas crops that's all ready to go. They come from Cabot now, and in a few weeks Bald Knob berries should also arrive. The fat red berries lay flat after flat after flat across tables all along the way.

Some items seemed art-inspired, or maybe the other way around. I enjoyed the colors of young green onions and scallions and more, vibrant and far more colorful than any kitchen art could duplicate.

I saw bunches of carrots, parsnips, and radishes bound together with their roots out, like some wild sort of Dale Chihuly glasswork.

There were also flowers, loads of flowers in glorious combinations in hanging baskets, individually potted, and all still rooted in fine soil. The bursts of color amongst the green were yet another reminder that the long nights of winter are over for another several months.

After my little sojourn, my whetted appetite lead me over to the Old Mill Bakery truck. I'd crawled out of bed earlier than the rest of the family this morning and high-tailed it on down, and had missed my morning snack. A Lemon Raspberry Walnut scone was just the thing, along with a little Snickerdoodle Cafe au Lait from Coast Cafe.

It seems weird, Shaka Smoke Lodge being gone. Many of the other businesses inside forgo the morning breakfast rush. I was surprised to see that Casa Manana was not ready for breakfast -- which was a change, since I was craving a good Huervos con Machaca to warm me up a little.

As I savored the scone and coffee, I took down a few notes. There's a bakery operating in here, the Brown Sugar Bakery, and the selections looked mighty fine. But while there's plenty of bustle behind that counter, the lines tend to form further down the way at Boulevard Bread Company and at Coast Cafe. Perhaps it's the coffee. Perhaps it's the avoidance of calories. Who knows?

A group of men sat sharing a newspaper, talking little. A few work-bound suits hustled through, grabbing up orders and hustling right back out, barely noticing the near-perfect temperature or the market outside.

I finished my scone and my notes and took what remained of my coffee out with me, ready to knock out a bit of dinner shopping. First stop, of course, was the cucumbers, procured from a Little Rock based company. The glossy tubular orbs slipped into my handbag, to shortly be joined by other delights.

I was especially pleased to be able to pick up a couple of green tomatoes. My companion had seen them on TV the other day and had told me straight out he hadn't had fried green tomatoes in years. I had to correct him on that -- they appeared on his plate last summer, dusted with cornmeal and brown from a

cast iron skillet. But his short memory simply means they must be replicated rather soon.

I also picked up sweet potatoes to mash for my daughter, who's starting solids already and who can't get enough of the orange tubers. At 80 cents a pound and with all sorts of sizes available, I can easily grab several smaller specimen and pay out of my pocket change.

Adding in a whole quart basket of half-dollar sized wax potatoes, and I was off to head home before the rest of the family got about for the day.

It's the start of the half-year run of the Little Rock Farmers Market -- an April-October affair that meets from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesdays and Saturdays. If you need more information, check out the website.

1 comment:

Be kind.