The farmers’ market at Wooster Square, held every Saturday, is a feast for the senses. Vendors entice customers with samples of gourmet pastries, slices of goat cheese, spoonfuls of whipped honey. Market calls mix with sounds of cheerful chatter. Shoppers navigate their way between the two rows of white or blue umbrella stands, strolling with a sense of purpose but also an animated cheerfulness that reminds me of Christmas shopping.
The lobsters are caught at 6 in the morning, vegetables picked at 7, and the pastries, none of which travelled more than 55 miles to get here, are made at 1 AM. It’s all that fresh, that local. The market allows small-scale, nearby farmers to retail their products at premium market prices, and it gives New Haven residents access to a higher quality of produce.
Rachel Berg, market manager of CitySeed, believes that there are tremendous benefits in having face-to-face interaction between producers and consumers: “it increases transparency and accountability,” she says. “Farmers are more responsible towards their food.”
The market first started in July 2004, largely as a way to give the comm¬nity access to better products. Lamenting that there were not any grocery stores around the area selling fresh food, Jennifer McTiernan ’99 and her three neighbors decided to organize a farmers’ market. “Before that, you could find top-notch pizza, but not a fresh tomato,” says Erin Wirpsa-Eisenberg, executive director of CitySeed, the non-profit entity founded by McTiernan that runs the market. Over the years, CitySeed has expanded from one weekly market at Wooster Square to four markets around New Haven.
Sugar Maple Farms testifies to the power of the farmers’ market. Business has stepped up a notch ever since Jim Jahoda and Chuck Haralson joined the market three years ago. Their maple production has grown from roughly 100 gallons to 400 gallons per year.
“Normally small businesses like ours wouldn’t have a large opportunity to hit the masses without spending a lot of money on advertising,” Haralson says.
With the market, their products sell easily. “This is the most popular store with kids,” says Jahoda. As if to prove his point, a mother comes up with three little girls and pays for a jar of maple butter, letting all of them lick a spoonful of gooey liquid as they walk off, a whirl of pigtails. I try a sample of maple butter and instantly understand its appeal: it tastes more like candy than any of its constituents.
Another business that owes its success to the farmers’ market is Best Buddy Biscuits. The stall is surrounded by a middle-aged man, his two German shepherds, and a curly-haired girl carrying a yapping cocker spaniel. The baker at Best Buddy Biscuits, Linda Patenaude, is motherly and cheerful, the type, I imagine, who sings in the shower and whose kitchen is always filled with tantalizing smells. She works at the Davenport Master’s House and is a professional pastry chef. She was inspired two years ago, when she first visited the farmers’ market. “Best Buddy would probably have never happened if it weren’t for us being so impressed and wanting to be a part of CitySeed so badly,” she tells me. “I loved the concept of the market.”
Finding the mass production of pastries difficult, she came up with the idea of making dog biscuits from organic or natural ingredients, giving them creative names: Nutty Buddy Peanut Butter, Chicken Littles, Hickory Houndz, Fresh’n Frisky Breath Mints. “I try to make them look appealing because humans are the ones buying them,” says Patenaude. Her husband, Wayne, jumps in: “Lots of times groups of Yalies would come and be like, ‘I dare you to eat it, I dare you.’”
As I watch Linda and Wayne chat with their customers and remember all the dogs by their names, it becomes obvious that the market is as much a social space as a commercial one. The market is about the relationships between people who like food, who enjoy its taste, who appreciate its process and production. An elderly man with a huge white beard approaches me and asks me where I am from. I tell him I am from Hong Kong, and his face splits into a grin: “Welcome to America! You can tell people you met Santa Claus.” I laugh. The comment is of the wrong season, but it somehow seems appropriate in this farmers’ market, resonating with the colorful characters, the tight community, and the prevailing idea of creation and celebration.