Some people go because of the carnival-like atmosphere -- it's entertaining and they enjoy shopping in the fresh air. Others go because they believe the prices are low and the products are fresh. And the real down-to-earth ones are there because they can ask tough questions about how the food was grown and what pesticides, if any, were used.
They're headed for the farmers' market -- the ultimate symbol of the 1990s back-to-basics lifestyle where consumer meets farmer face-to-face and buys everything from organic strawberries to smoked pheasant.
Farm markets are a new way to bond with an old-fashioned lifestyle that had been shunted aside in the high-tech world of computers and life in the FAX lane.
Suddenly farmers' markets are back in style. Bigger and sometimes even better than before. Many have evening hours so working folks can join the crowds, too. Public Markets Collaborative, a group which works to establish and preserve markets, says the number of farmers' markets has nearly doubled in the past decade -- to 2,000 nationwide. During the same time, trend-setting California's markets went from five to 140.
Marylanders have always loved their markets -- with Baltimore's elaborate system of seven permanent city markets and 42 open-air seasonal markets that are opening in the next few weeks. Even here, markets are bigger than ever. Several new ones have appeared in the last few years, doubling the statewide total in the past decade, according to George Roche, marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
This renewed interest in earthy market pursuits has not escaped the cookbook publishers. They are churning out guides to tell you how to buy the things you can find at the markets and what to do with them once you come home -- from Judith Olney's "The Farm Market Cook" (Doubleday, $25) to Curtis G. Aikens' "Greengrocer's Guide to the Harvest" (Peachtree Publishers, $10.95).
Judith Olney, a Durham, N.C., food writer and author of five previous cookbooks, calls this her "first cookbook with a cause." She sees farmers' markets as a way to be ecologically correct -- from taking your own European string bags to pressuring farmers to grow organic produce.
Ms. Olney visited indoor and outdoor markets in 15 states for her research -- from the enclosed Lexington Market in Baltimore to the open-air Dane County Market in Madison, Wisc. She says she found the markets provide links with the past and predicts that they will create revolutionary changes in the way Americans shop and eat in the future.
"It's the '90s," she says. "I don't think that we need the escapist, inane, mindless gilding of fig leaves that we found in 1980s cookbooks. That age is over. We need to get serious about down-to-earth food."
Ms. Olney loves to ask farmers to pick out a peach or a melon for her so she can ask them why they are choosing that particular fruit. For example, a melon grower once told her to look for a green rather than a brown stem. A brown stem, he told her, means there was a piece of dead vine between the plant and the earth. And that dead vine means the fruit won't grow to be as sweet because it didn't receive proper nutrients.
Talking to the farmer is just one of the many ways you can make the most of a trip to the farmers' market, according to Curtis Aikens, a college football player turned greengrocer, food stylist and cookbook author. He's also host of a weekly segment "Greengrocer" on Atlanta television.
Here are his rules for shopping the markets:
Rule 1: Go early before everything is picked over and before it has been sitting in the sun too long. Try to arrive no later than one hour after the market opens.
Rule 2: You gotta shop around. Before you buy anything, look at everything in the market and make mental notes of the best-looking items.
Rule 3: Look for locally grown produce. It's obvious that bananas don't grow in Maryland, but other items aren't so clear cut. Ask the farmer if he is selling his own crops. (In Maryland, farmers can buy from suppliers in Jessup and sell at farmers' markets. If you want to be assured that the farmer grew what he is selling, go to the "Producers Only" markets, such as the markets in Columbia and Highlandtown. Farmers are required to sign an agreement in these markets to pledge that they will sell only what they grow.)
Rule 4: Look for the three S's and one T. Sight (how does it look?), smell (the fruitier it smells, the fruitier it tastes), season (buy what's local or regional first) and touch (make sure it isn't overripe).
Rule 5: Look for neatness. Cleanliness is next to godliness, especially with food.
Rule 6: Don't be afraid to ask questions. Ask how it is grown, if pesticides were used and which fertilizers were used. More and more organic growers are taking their goods to the markets these days and purists can get the answers they demand.