FLOSS: fresh, local, organic, sustainable, seasonal – Seattle’s Farmers’ Markets

September 13th, 2008


By Jesse Oona Nickerson LEED AP

“Eat your vegetables” has become a battle cry of mothers against presumed unwilling subjects. What’s a mother to do? Apparently she’s to shrug and hand the kids a gigantic cup of carbonated corn syrup. Corn is a vegetable, right? Good because on average we are consuming 54.6 gallons of soft drinks per person per year.

Mom is losing no doubt because our vegetables have come to lack two features of interest: nutrition and flavor. Storage and transport take predictable tolls on the volatile plant compounds that subtly add up to taste and food value. Breeding to increase shelf life also has tended to decrease palatability. Bizarre as it seems, we’ve accepted a tradeoff that amounts to: give me every vegetable in every season, even if it tastes like a cardboard picture of its former self.”

From Barbara Kingsolver’s: Animal Vegetable Miracle [1]

When I was growing up in Italy, the trip to the local open market on Saturdays was a tradition.  My mother and I would head out at lunchtime to beat the crowds.  Equipped with knapsacks and various tote bags, we hit the huge parking lot where the vendors displayed their produce from sunrise to sunset year round.  As we rounded the corner I remember being met with the cries of the vendors advertising the qualities of their merchandise in often picturesque and theatrical ways.

These were years – the mid 80’s and early 90’s – when what was available in the markets, but also largely supermarkets, was what was grown locally.  Fresh, local, organic, sustainable, and seasonal was the only thing I knew.  We only ate fresh tomatoes in the summer and resorted to the canned and dried variety in the cold months.  As spring arrived, also came the artichoke season.  At times we even carried home as many as ten at a time, and, although their thorns scratched my legs all the way back, the reward in a risotto or salad was worth it.  Then came the crisp and tender asparagus that I adored, followed by an explosion of strawberries in late spring.  As summer announced itself, along with the apricots and peaches would appear the first tomatoes, a sign that we had truly entered the hot months.

Close to three years ago, I moved to Seattle after an interval in New York City in my mid to late twenties.  Shortly after my arrival, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who love food in this town. Their interests span cultures and travel into the specifics and quality of taste and tradition.  I was mesmerized: not only could you find coffee just as good as in Italy, but also prosciutto crudo at a tiny hole in the wall called Salumi [2] just around the corner from my work near Pioneer Square.  In addition to the huge variety of excellent restaurants the city has to offer, I discovered Washington State’s very own abundance of local produce from berries, peaches, apricots, and apples, to all kinds of fresh vegetables. [3]

It was with great joy that shortly after I became aware of the presence of the Farmer’s Markets. [4] Throughout Seattle there are seven markets in different neighborhoods, on several days of the week.  Local producers bring their best assortment of seasonal goods: fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables, herbs, nuts, honey, dairy products, eggs, poultry, mushrooms, meats, fish and shellfish, flower arrangements, and nursery stock.  Some processed foods include jams, preserves, wine, ciders, pickled vegetables, fresh pasta, artisan breads and other baked goods.

I was struck by the genuine quality and freshness of the products and I immediately became a believer.  In each season, and as often as I can, I venture to the Famers Market.  My personal favorite, and also the closest to me, is the one in Columbia City.  When I visit this ‘up-and-coming neighborhood’ that has maintained and grown around its small-town main drag, with its butcher, small bookstore, and brewery, I inevitably pay a visit to the bakery. [5]  I either buy a seeded ficelle (a thinner version of a baguette with various seeds), or a whole grain loaf and I often splurge on their famous “everything but the kitchen sink” cookies, their almond macaroons, or their Sicilian plum cookies.  These are small treasures that brighten an afternoon, or complete a late night dinner.

 I have became aware again of the rotational aspect of the seasons and of how wonderful it is to wait through the long and grey months, to finally taste the crisp greenness of early asparagus, or to spot the first peaches with their dappled fuzzy coats and warm aroma.  Nothing in the world to me compares to the burst of crimson flavor that is contained in a strawberry that has never boarded a plane.

 There is a chapter unto itself, and that is held by the tomatoes.  Having grown up in Italy, tomatoes not only are a staple to most of my dishes, but they also come in a huge variety of kinds and sizes, for eating raw, or cooking, for making bruschetta, or for drying in the sun.  I had long given up on them in the US as the store-bought kind had only resulted in a spongy, light pink, and tasteless mass that was not applicable for anything edible.

As my first summer wore on, I began to notice tomatoes at the market.  Hesitantly, I picked one up, and immediately remarked its smallness, firmness, and shiny coat, which was bright red but seemed to exude a sheen of green under its translucent skin.  Apart from its tactile and visual qualities, it really was the aroma that wafted up to my nostril from its skin that gave the little fruit away.  The vendor stared at me and chuckled under her breath, prompting me to try one.  Reluctantly, I glanced at her, as I did not want to disappoint with my notorious pickiness, and bit into the tomato.  I was met with resilience, and, as I made my way into its flesh, there was an explosion of flavor that denoted both tartness and sweetness: a world that told of summer, dry earth and heat.  Memories flooded my mind flying back in time.  I greedily bought two pounds of uneven little tomatoes and also grabbed some basil and small potatoes that ranged from gold, rose pink, and a dark sheen of purple that almost looked black.

I drove home flying on my Vespa.   After slicing a few tomatoes, I sprinkled them with sea salt, drizzled them in olive oil, and chopped basil leaves.  I cut myself a large slice of whole-grain bread and ate greedily.  As I finished the dish, picking up the last remnants of oil, tomato seeds, and basil, with half closed eyes, I mused on what I had just found.


[1] Barbara Kingsolver: ‘Animal Vegetable Miracle’, Harper Collins, NY 2007


[2] Salumi Artisan Cured Meats
308 Third Avenue South
Seattle WA 98104
206 621 8772


[3] For 2003, the total value of Washington’s agricultural products was %5.79 billion, the 11th highest in the country. The total value of its crops was $3.8 billion, the 7th highest. The total value of its livestock and specialty products was $1.5 billion, the 26th highest.

In 2004 Washington ranked first in the nation in production of red raspberries (90% of total U.S. production), wrinkled seed peas (80.6%), hops (75%), spearmint oil (73.6%), apples (58.1%), sweet cherries (47.3%), pears (42.6%), peppermint oil (40.3%), Concord grapes (39.3%), carrots for processing (36.6%), and Niagara grapes (31.6%). Washington also ranked second in the nation in production of lentils, fall potatoes, dry edible peas, apricots, grapes (all varieties taken together), asparagus (over a third of the nation’s production), sweet corn for processing, and green peas for processing; third in tart cherries, prunes, and plums, and dry summer onions; fourth in barley and trout; and fifth in wheat, cranberries, and strawberries.

The apple industry is of particular importance to Washington. Because of the favorable climate of dry, warm summers and cold winters of central Washington, the state has led the U.S. in apple production since the 1920’s. Two areas account for the vast majority of the state’s apple crop: the Wenatchee-Okanogan region (comprising Chelan, Okanogan, Douglas, and Grant counties), and the Yakima region (Yakima, Benton, and Kittitas counties).

[4] For locations, to find out what is ripe and ready or for more information see: http://www.seattlefarmersmarkets.org/


[5] Columbia City Bakery
4865 Rainier Avenue S.
Seattle WA 98118
(206) 723-6023

Entry Filed under: Green Lifestyles,Organic Living,Pacific Northwest

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