Community grows at farmers market

By Colleen Seidel

When I first moved to Pittsburgh, the thing I really missed about my hometown was the corn.’ … When I first moved to Pittsburgh, the thing I really missed about my hometown was the corn.’ Growing up among the rolling farm fields of Franklin County, my family never lived any farther than a five-minute drive from Hess’s, a Mennonite family’s modest farm stand which sells the fresh, seasonal produce it grows every summer. And to us, nothing said ‘summer’ more than slathering up ears of Hess’s corn with butter and salt and chomping down on the sweet, fleshy kernels typewriter-style ‘mdash; only to leave pools of slippery butter residue on our cheeks and chins. While I still lament the fact that I can no longer eat Hess’s corn whenever I want here in the city (save for the two times my mom brought me frozen Zip-loc bags full of it), there is something right here in Oakland reminiscent of my hometown days going to the farm stand and picking out fresh produce to eat for dinner that night ‘mdash; the Oakland Farmers Market, held Friday afternoons from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Sennott Street between Atwood and Meyran avenues.’ It’s no secret to anyone who lives within a couple blocks of the Oakland Farmers Market that the Oakland Farmers Market is the place to buy locally grown fresh produce, home-baked breads, meats, desserts and various other specialties. ‘We try to take the product to the consumer,’ said Sandi Christoff, one of the proprietors of the Christoff Farm’s booth, which offers an impressive array of fresh fruit and vegetables for passersby. The Christoffs have sold their goods from their farm in Bridgeville since the Oakland market’s inception in 2005. ‘Every week we see the same customers, and it’s such a diverse base,’ she added.’ ‘ ‘ Although it’s a smaller market in size, the Oakland market is still a hub of activity. People start waiting in lines well before the 3:30 mark, and within 30 minutes of the market opening, it’s full. There are college kids and South Oakland residents standing in groups, talking and, of course, eating. It’s as much a social event as anything else. ‘Last week we were swamped,’ said Christoff, commenting that they sell out every day. It’s not surprising.’ The market has been successful in Oakland since its commencement three years ago because it offers a unique commodity to students and Oaklanders that they can’t find elsewhere in the neighborhood. And since the emphasis is on bringing in local producers to sell their wares, it’s an option that supports local farmers. ‘We have a very receptive audience for fresh fruit,’ said Daryl Katice, a worker with Sand Hill Berries in Mount Pleasant, which sells jams, jellies, pies and fresh fruit at its stand in the market.’ ‘It’s all locally grown,’ said Katice, pointing to a pint of blackberries on the table. ‘This, this was just picked today, and it’s coming right off the truck.’ But it’s not just fresh fruit and vegetables that the market offers. You can buy freshly homemade Polish pierogies from Gosia’s, cooked right there to eat on the spot or uncooked in packages to take home. (I recommend both.)’ Vibo’s Italian Bakery of Brackenridge offers an assortment of breads, rolls, pies and sweet breads, but get there early if you want the house specialty, fried elephant ears. The bread guy comes with a limited supply, and he sells out quick. Mish Farms from Gibsonia sells cuts of all natural, steroid-free meats from its cooler stand in the middle of the market. If you’re ever in the mood for a nice cut of steak ‘- and who isn’t? ‘- you can find sirloins, porterhouses and T-bones here as well as chicken, sausage and ground beef. College students make up a grand portion of the patronage the market receives. Brendan Clune and Madeleine Siegel, both Pitt students, come every weekend once school starts to buy fruit and vegetables. ‘It’s a lot closer and less expensive than Giant Eagle,’ said Clune.’ ‘And it’s better people to support,’ added Siegel. ‘Before I moved to South Oakland, I lived in Israel, and this is how you buy produce in Israel,’ commented David Streeter, a Pitt senior who lives on Semple Street and usually comes every week to the farmers market. And that’s an observation worth noting. For most countries outside the United States, even developed ones, community open-air markets are the norm when it comes to food shopping, not the exception. In the United States, as inventions like the refrigerator, the freezer, frozen foods and processed, packaged goods became more affordable and available, open-air markets were phased out in preference to grocery stores. And, today, there is the super-grocery store, where all of these goods are readily available in mass quantities. And, like almost everything else, Americans buy their food in bulk ‘mdash; buying today to store in the freezer what they will eat in three months if not a year. In contrast, many people around the world still food shop on a daily basis, or at the most, a weekly one. It’s the result of many factors too complex to explain here, but it’s enough to say that going to the market is still a culturally relevant custom in many countries around the world. Which leads me to why the Oakland Farmers Market matters. It brings back a little more of the social connection we should have to our food.’ It means more to buy a pint of berries or green beans from a farmer whom you can see face to face. It’s when you have that one-on-one interaction with people that the food you eat has never tasted better.