You know it's spring when the locals come to a stand at Doug's produce tent

IN SEASON

June 13, 1993|By Carol G. O'Neil

In our small corner of suburbia, the passing seasons are marked by a produce stand in the rear parking lot of a liquor store. Up on the highway, other, larger vegetable markets come and go, never working their way into the psyche of the locals the way the striped tent at Doug's Produce has over the years.

Doug's fruits and vegetables, jams and honeys, cider and Christmas trees are a fragile link to nature we are otherwise too busy to notice as we scurry from place to place. Seasons have almost disappeared from the produce aisles of the supermarket. Year-round fruits and vegetables, picked at the peak of not-quite-ripe, usually taste closer to the plastic they're wrapped in than the product they're supposed to be.

Spring doesn't officially arrive in our community until Doug's old, white "Produce" sign that has leaned against a tree stump all winter is joined by a sign whose hand-painted letters tell us the stand is "Opening Soon." This year, it went up before Easter, but it can appear any time from just before Easter to a couple of weeks before Mother's Day.

For many of us, the posting of Doug's sign is a symbol of jTC renewal as surely as a crocus or the first few robins. Word spreads: "Did you see Doug's sign went up?"

It isn't the baskets of fuchsias and geraniums he sells those first weeks that excite us, it's the promise of vegetable and fruit harvests.

Soon after the hanging plants and flowering azaleas arrive, the first bunches of asparagus appear, propped up in a pan of water next to the register. Who can resist? I begin making several stops a week for them and other early vegetables.

I can get all of them cheaper at the home center store but the colorful display catches my eye as I drive past. Besides, I always feel good coming home from the stand with new plants, assured by Doug that I will be the envy of my neighbors. Not to mention that growing my own tomatoes will save money.

In late spring, the first baskets of strawberries are placed next to the register and the last potted geraniums are sold. These strawberries are from California, which is why they are so expensive, Doug explains; the sweeter local strawberries will be in soon. This year, he says, we will have to wait even longer because it's a cold, wet spring.

Anticipation builds. When the local strawberries finally arrive, we eat a dessert featuring them every night; the season lasts only a few weeks. Occasionally, even a basket of local raspberries is offered for sale next to the register -- the spot for either high-priced or highly profitable merchandise (I haven't figured out which).

Before the local strawberries have run their course, Doug's customers are starting to clamor for local tomatoes and corn.

Doug teases us with tomatoes from Georgia and early white corn from Virginia. But he can't fool us; it isn't summer yet. Even he can't hurry Mother Nature.

Just when we know they will never come, vine-ripened Maryland tomatoes are advertised by a small sign. Small brown baskets overflow with the "real thing."

In the coming weeks we discuss among ourselves, "Are they as firm as last year?" "As meaty? "As flavorful?" A resounding yes to all three. We have become experts on what it takes to make a perfect tomato. These juicy, red specimens don't come from some "other" place. These are local products -- something we can identify with.

The occasional less-than-perfect product elicits comments such as it has been too dry or too wet, or too cold or too hot too early.

If we really knew anything, we'd be eating our own fruits and vegetables from the plants we bought from Doug in a rush of optimism two months earlier -- but that's another story.

The real symbol of the season is still to come: fresh-picked Silver Queen corn, so sweet and tender that other varieties seem superfluous. With absolutely no fanfare, the small sign proclaiming sweet white corn is changed in early July to Silver Queen. It's as good as hanging a banner over the street. Summer has officially arrived, and with it daily stops to pick up corn.

Everyone knows the schedule. The corn arrives about 10 a.m., fresh-picked that morning. It is thrown by the bushel onto a large table at the edge of the tent. Corn-selecting is a fairly genteel process on weekdays, until late afternoon when the commuters descend for their share of the spoils.

Everyone has his or her own method for picking out the best

ears, usually a variation of peeling back the husk and looking for: even rows, plump kernels, no worms and who knows what else. The squeezers and pinchers are only slightly less scientific. The whole process is time-consuming and requires a lot of throwing corn back on the pile.

All of us are experts, of course, and wouldn't dream of taking corn someone else has rejected. As the crowd at the table gets more dense, there is more digging and throwing. Jostling for position is considered fair; bad attitudes are not.

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