Most days of the week it is just another downtown parking lot. But at 8 o'clock on Sunday morning, the lot under the Jones Falls Expressway at Holliday and Saratoga streets becomes an open air market. Instead of being the domain of shiny station wagons and sedans, muddy trucks take up residence. And instead of exhaust fumes, the lot is filled with the aroma of ripe berries, onions, smoked meats and fish.
It is the Baltimore Farmers Market, the largest of the 18 farmers markets in the metropolitan area that operate one or two days a week from now until the fall.
Last Sunday, the 15th season opener of the farmers market, was not a major news event. The anniversary celebration will be July 19th. But last Sunday it was quiet. No celebrity tossed out the first squash of the season. There were no camera platforms, no klieg lights. Instead the market was filled with small news, the stuff that gives life its gentle rhythms.
Like finding some local strawberries, big fat ones with excellent flavor. With all the quirky weather patterns we have had -- wet, then cool, then dry -- I figured all the strawberries would be gone by now.
But there they were, red and luscious, sitting in boxes at the stand run by Robert Cowdrick. The strawberries, he said, came from fields near the Maryland-Pennsylvania line.
Big plans were made for the quart of berries. Maybe a shortcake. Maybe a pie. But they were gone by sundown Sunday. The berries were so sweet I ate them in their au naturel condition.
I got a pound of sweet cherries too; they were gone by midafternoon. I bought the cherries from one of the daughters of the Zimmermans, the family that runs Thanksgiving Farms. Not so long ago, the clerks who waited on us were little girls. Now some are grown women. "How could that be?" I asked my wife as we walked away from the stand. It wasn't that long ago that we began buying produce from those kids. It was at least 7 1/2 years ago, my wife said. She used an indisputable measuring stick, the age of our youngest child, to prove her point.
I knew it was too early for cantaloupes, but I got an informal crop report from Robert W. Knopp Jr., a Severn farmer known for growing sweet melons.
They need rain, he said.
He was listening to another cantaloupe farmer, whose name I didn't catch, talk about the trouble she was having with crows. The crows were eating her cantaloupes as they sat in the fields.
"They say you shouldn't shoot a crow," the woman said. " But I don't know . . ."
Across the parking lot, Pam Pahl was simultaneously minding the family stand and watching her two kids scoot around behind the table. They had some nice-looking radishes and beautiful lettuce, but it was too early in the year for their big crowd-pleaser, sweet corn. Her husband, Les, had taken advantage of the light crowd to walk around the market visiting other farmers.
Pam and I talked about the weather. The rain, or lack of it. And a recent cold snap.
She told how they almost lost their tomato crop. During the recent cool snap, she and her husband awoke up one morning, looked out on their fields of their western Baltimore county farm and saw that the ground was white. It looked like frost in June.
Worried that the cold night had wiped out their tomatoes, they checked the plants. Somehow even though there was "frost on the car windows" the plants had escaped damage. Nature is tough.
So it looks like there will be tomatoes in August. And peppers. And corn.
We did a little window shopping too. We eyed a giant white radish, the size of zucchini, and trays full of herb plants. I was tempted to buy some tomato plants and resume my battle with blight. But I walked away from the stand before my common sense was overwhelmed, once again, by an urge to grow tomatoes.
Since the kids weren't with me on this trip, I missed two usual stops. The honey man, who puts a display of live bees next to their honey, is a kid-pleaser, as are the pastries sold at the Rudy's Patisserie stand.
I scooped up three loaves of bread, two whole wheat walnut and one pumpernickel raisin from Roger Testud's stand. He told me later he bakes the bread in Rockville then sells the loaves at four different farmers' markets. The Sunday market downtown, the Saturday market on 32nd Street in Waverly, the Thursday afternoon market in Towson on Allegheny Avenue between Washington Avenue and York Road, and the Tuesday afternoon market in the Owings Mills New Town Sports Center.
The walnut bread later became the outer edge of a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Life was good. And it promised to get even better, once the local tomatoes get to market.