Column: They’re More Than Just Food Markets
I am a popcorn fanatic. I pop corn at least three times a week at home on the stovetop. But there is just something special about freshly popped kettle corn. I simply can’t resist the deliciousness of both sugar and salt.
On Wednesday afternoons in June, the smell of kettle corn wafts into my office. As an employee of Dartmouth College, it is hard to miss the summer series of farmers markets on the Green. The farmers’ tents pop up outside my window like precious kernels in the kettle.
At the end of the workday, I hustle to the “Howlin’ Good” kettle-corn stand. The owners, Debbie and Doug Howland, know me by name. They also know that I prefer the large bag of corn, since the smaller portion is never enough for my cravings. As I gobble down my treat, I check out the other stands. I listen to live music. I smell varieties of handmade soap. I admire gemstone earrings. I fill my arms with fresh produce and cut flowers as I chat with farmers who show off their produce like proud parents. I almost always bump into a friend who also is roaming the market. The day ends with a seat on a grass, as I share gossip and kettle corn.
A few weeks ago, I attended a farmers market in New Jersey. There was no guitarist. There was no goat milk soap. There was no jewelry. In fact, it was basically just a few stands selling strawberries and spinach. They might as well have called it Aisle 1 of the grocery store.
Being away from the Upper Valley made me appreciate the liveliness and diversity of our summer markets. Clearly, our gatherings are more about the festivities than the flowers. While many farmers markets in other regions are focused only on produce, the Upper Valley farmers markets are more about the party. With live music, food trucks and interactive displays, the farmers markets are a small-town circus, alive with energy and socialization. And although, we have series of indoor farmers markets throughout the seasons, the open-air summer farmer markets trump all others.
And lucky for us, there are a variety of markets available. In fact, I’ve been known to hop on the farmers market circuit. In the same week, I’ve been to the Hanover farmers market on Wednesday, the Lebanon farmers market on Thursday, and the Norwich farmers market on Saturday. And what I love about my circuit is that I experience a different vibe at each. The Hanover market is abuzz with college students, dogs and Frisbees. The Lebanon farmers market has a more funky style, with regular live bands and an assortment of food as diverse as you can find in the Upper Valley. The Norwich market is literally centered around family-time, with regular programming and music for kids in the middle of the market. (To my delight, there are markets in a number of other Upper Valley towns that I might visit someday.)
For me, the best thing about a farmers market is that it allows me to be inquisitive. I can ask questions and receive direct answers from the actual farmer. Does the purple heirloom tomato taste like its red cousin? How exactly do you cook a fiddlehead? What is the name of the indigo-colored flower with the long stems? How many bees does it take to make a bottle of honey? The producers are happy to educate the consumer. And, I, in turn, go home with a wealth of knowledge in addition to my bottle of honey.
While the price of a tomato at the farmers market might be more expensive that one at a grocery store, I know that I’m wisely investing my money in our community. Obviously, by supporting the farmers market, we are financially supporting our local farmers. However, in some way, I believe that we are supporting our own social needs, too. For less than the price of a movie ticket, the farmers market offers amazing educational opportunities and pure entertainment. And in my opinion, kettle corn at the farmers market tastes better than anything you can get at the movie theater.
Becky Munsterer, a Norwich resident, is the author of Mrs. Claus and The School of Christmas Spirit.