“The temperature is hovering around 100 degrees right now in Phoenix,” the pilot announced. Then, dryly, “We expect it to climb steadily to two or three hundred by the time we land.”
I have to admit to a little bit of dread over my trip to the Valley of the Sun. The temperate nature of the Willamette Valley has made me weak and intolerant of extremes. I hail from Chicago and Missouri, where conditions range from blistering to arctic with the occasional tornado thrown in. But I’m afraid I’ve lost my Midwestern heartiness.
Also, it’s all too easy of a thing to dismiss a place. “Phoenix is an wasteland of overcooked strip malls.” I didn’t actually say this, because my in-laws call this place home, and my wife and daughter enjoy visiting. I didn’t say it out loud. But I thought it.
On a recent visit to the Valley en route to the Prescott Film Festival for a screening of American Wine Story, I stopped for a short stay. As typical, I awoke before the others largely due to the need for caffeine to relieve the withdrawal symptoms. Being a Northwesterner now means that there’s only one real option for coffee in Phoenix. Thankfully, no matter where you are these days, you’re never more than an mile or two from a Starbucks.
I took a short walk, but by 7:00 the sun was blazing and the heat already radiating up off of the concrete. I returned to find everyone still asleep. Realizing it was a Saturday, I decided to check with the ever trusty internet for a farmers market.
I was doubtful.
But, fortunately, I was wrong.
The suburb of Gilbert offered a Saturday market only a few miles away. I decided to check it out.
It was too hot to walk by this time, so I borrowed my brother-in-law’s magnificent and battered 1974 Oldsmobile Delta 98. The three-ton, 40-year-old behemoth is about a dozen times less efficient than the typical Oregon Prius (incidentally, there was nary a Prius to be seen in all of Phoenix that morning), but that doesn’t matter. There is no closer sensation to flying that can be had so close to the ground. The Olds rocks, sways and glides, six thousand pounds of metal on washy suspensions. It’s like a couch with a steering wheel. Pure exhilaration and luxury, though no AC.
When I arrived at the market, I found a selection of food carts, specialty products, crafts and even a few produce vendors thrown in. It was a really nice market. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Maricopa County is one of the nation’s top agricultural producers. Plus there are a whole lot of people in the Phoenix area who need to eat. I’m sure the percentage of those who like good stuff matches that in Oregon, Chicago, New York and so on.
The wonderful thing about being alive at this moment is that there is a definite momentum around food, ingredients, wine, etc. I used to dream of European markets. But now I’m finding my hometown market in Corvallis has grown to rival some I’ve been to in France and Italy and once thought magical. We’re learning how to live, finally.
Some highlights of the Gilbert market included Pickled Perfection, offering a selection of pickled cucumbers, celery, asparagus and mushrooms ranging from sour to hot, and all of them hitting the spot as the heat climbed.
Peanut Butter Americano, another vendor, displayed a full range of nut butters that look healthy and taste real. The Dark Chocolate is a fresh, indie alternative to Nutella. I brought it home and ate half of the jar with a spoon. I didn’t feel guilty because the proceeds go for a good cause, supporting relief work in South America. I should have eaten the entire jar.
The produce was all very good, though it had a smaller footprint than you’d expect for this type of market. There was definitely more space dedicated to craft food. Still, you could find jerky, seafood and a range of meats. And there was an interesting selection of peppers and melons.
Folks were friendly, welcoming you into the shade for a chat.
Markets, like food carts, can be found anywhere now, signaling that we’re truly in a different age when it comes to food. One woman at a bakery stand shared a little bit of pessimism. She said attendance at the Gilbert market was off this year. “It’s a fad. And people in Phoenix are fad-driven. They’ll move on to something else.”
But others expressed a clear pride in what they’re doing. Frank Martin of Crooked Sky Farms started growing fresh local produce in his back yard. Now they have a metro Phoenix garden and grow and supply produce across the state.
I don’t think it’s a fad. Judging by the smiles and the people wandering in even as the heat climbed I’d say that market has a future. Government-funded agribusiness, industrial corn production, over-processed food, food deserts: all of these phenomena and forces push for homogeneity. There are some that would be fine, it seems, with world that’s an endless strip mall.
But for now, the Gilbert Farmers Market is an oasis from the heat, parking lots, box stores and tract houses. And I’ll probably return someday. As long as I can borrow the keys to the Oldsmobile.