When I was a kid, I had no idea what farmers markets were. I didn’t need to know. My neighborhood, just outside Winston-Salem, WAS a farmers market.
The 1950s-era development had large lots and tiny houses – they could have built two homes the size of our one-bath, birdhouse-sized abode on our tract. People had to find something to do with all that space. Dads – it was always the dads back then – could not let the land be.
The answer was massive backyard gardens, which also tapped into their memories of World War II “victory gardens” and Great Depression deprivation.
The land had been scraped clean of vegetation to make building the boxy ranch houses and split-levels quicker and easier, so there was plenty of sun. A large cattle farm sat across the two-lane blacktop road from us, making it easy to acquire fertilizer. Sometimes the fertilizer came to us if a calf escaped through the fence.
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At the height of its production (before my father’s arthritis slowed him down), our garden covered at least a quarter of an acre. We always had tomatoes, lots of tomatoes, tomatoes of all shapes, sizes and colors. A few rows of corn. Carrots, radishes, Black Seeded Simpson lettuce, cucumbers and green onions for salads. Butter beans, black-eyed peas, October beans and crowder peas. Broccoli, green beans and Brussels sprouts.
There were bell peppers, cabbage, squash, zucchini and eggplant, a failed experiment that lasted just one season because my mother hated it. Greens, whose types I can’t remember because I couldn’t stand any of them back then.
We had an arbor with scuppernong grapes, which we never ate because the birds got them first. An apple tree spit out a few hard, sour specimens before my father chopped it down.
Neighbors would deposit more stuff on the back stoop whether we needed it or not. Because those dads were plowing and planting like reality show survivalists, a tremor of delight rippled through the neighborhood when a small family of artsy, urban-born non-gardeners moved into the rental house on the corner. The backyard farmers eyed them like coyotes spotting fresh meat – a new home for the bushels of beans and truckloads of tomatoes.
As lettuce and other early spring vegetables faded, summer crops took their places.
When the tomatoes gave up, fall vegetables went in. We ate Brussels sprouts until Christmas, and had frozen and canned things from the garden all year.
The closest thing to farmers markets were trucks pulled up to curbs at seemingly random times in seemingly random places. Although their appearances looked unplanned, people somehow knew when the man who drove down from the mountains with apples every fall would be in the spot by the side of the road that we passed on the way to my piano lessons.
Or during the summer, when the truck from South Carolina full of fragrant peaches would be in the drugstore parking lot. Word would get out. Those were things we wanted.
But if we saw a truck overflowing with green ears of corn or red tomatoes sitting on the shoulder, we’d keep going. That, we didn’t need.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are at least 8,000 farmers markets today and about 200 in North Carolina. And 10 just in the Winston-Salem area, including the Dixie Classic Fairgrounds Market, which has been around for 41 years. Good grief, the Greensboro Curb Market (which is not at a curb but in a building, just for confusion) was in the next city over and it’s 140 years old this year.
So markets must have existed back in my salad (and zucchini) days. We just didn’t care.
Today, yards are too small, houses are too big, lives are too busy – pick any reason, but the days of tending what my father called the “lower 40” are gone for most people. But the pull is still strong. Pots with tomato plants in driveways and patches of lettuce next to shrubs in front yards of my suburban neighborhood say so. So do the summer mobs at farmers markets.
That stuff tastes good, doesn’t it, y’all?