The Working Waterfront

How to shop at a farmers market

‘Freshly grown’ is both new and a throwback

By Sandy Oliver
Posted 2024-06-10
Last Modified 2024-06-10

If you enjoy frustration, grab a recipe card for a dish you can’t wait to try, and then prowl among vendors at a farmers market. Likely you won’t find everything you need for your recipe at one time. That’s a kind of top-down market experience that you just can’t get in the produce section of a grocery store.

Alternatively, wander among the stands and canopies of a farmers market, observe the freshness and great beauty of the vegetables, herbs, maybe cheese, bread, and meat, and select the food that looks irresistibly delicious. Take it home, and then decide how to cook it. That would be a bottom-up approach that at first might be a little intimidating to the uninitiated, though you’ll be surprised at how quickly the ingredients suggest combinations you’ll enjoy.

We live in a world where almost any fresh food is available at almost any time of year. In January, slender stalks of asparagus appear in places covered in snow, and also in July when by rights it ought to be in full ferny leaf. Fresh raspberries in the dead of winter, eggplant anytime and, of course, tomatoes, even in our island markets. Astounding!

In January, slender stalks of asparagus appear in places covered in snow…

In ancient times, it was a kind of parlor trick among the royalty and elites to present that stuff out of season on their dining tables.

Speaking of ancient times, when I was growing up in the 1950s, iceberg was the only lettuce. No one expected to find corn on the cob in a store except in high summer, and tomatoes came in a little rectangular package wrapped in cellophane. They were very hard.

We had canned vegetables from the store because we had no garden, followed by canned fruit for dessert. Somehow I survived my childhood on this fare.

I doubt I had much sense of seasonality in the diet and certainly had no clue about local food, except that when my family ate corn in summer, we always picked it up at Mr. Cunio’s farmstand from the pile on the back of his pick-up truck.

When I began to learn about food history in order to recreate early 1800s cookery in a museum house kitchen, my first realization was that seasonal fare ruled. And that no one used the word “local” in reference to vegetables and most meat because there was hardly any such thing as not local.

Certainly, some food was imported, traded, and exported. Early 17th century settlers in Plymouth—i.e. the Pilgrims—waited hopefully on the shores of Cape Cod Bay for beef barreled in Ireland.

In the 1700s and early 1800s New Englanders traded cheese to the Middle Atlantic and brought back wheat which didn’t thrive as hoped in New England.

Cities were surrounded by farms and farmers drove cattle to abattoirs on the edge of cities where slaughtering produced meat sold in city markets. Spices, tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar, and molasses came from abroad. It isn’t like everyone always ate only food grown a few miles from home.

Certainly rural people, like islanders, had less access to fresh fare unless they grew it or traded locally for it. What fun to read diaries of 18th and 19th century people and read the joyful reports about the first garden strawberries, beans, or cucumbers. Imagine how good they would have tasted.

You’ve probably experienced the huge flavor difference between white-hearted California strawberries and those you eat from pick-your-own operations.

Once when I cooked in a bed-and-breakfast inn that served dinner, I brought in green beans picked from my garden before work. I blanched and chilled them, and then to finish them for serving, sizzled a little chopped shallot in olive oil and butter, added the beans and heated them through. The owners had their serving for supper, and said, “How did you cook these?” convinced there was some magic culinary fillip at work. They’d never had green beans only three hours out of the garden.

Nowadays, every town of respectable size hosts a farmers market, some only in summer and shoulder seasons, others year round. Even Islesboro. I sell produce at one of them. People tell me that they’ve never had such delicious corn, or such good tomatoes. That’s because they’ve never eaten vegetables only a handful of hours out of the garden.

Buy your produce at the market. Take it home. Eat it soon, prepared simply—some like it raw, or merely steamed or stir fried. Cool it on the sauces or complex combinations. If you recipe calls for something that ripens later in the season, wait a little while to buy it at peak perfection.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro. She may be contacted at