With crooked-necked squash and miniature pumpkins precariously balanced in their arms, the women oh-so-carefully deliberated, spending serious minutes evaluating gourds, oblivious to the crowds bumping and pushing past them, determined to bring home the very best for their Thanksgiving tables.
To shop for the holiday as a family yesterday at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, one sister drove all the way from Philadelphia in the morning while another made the trek from Delaware. The three sisters and their mother start Thanksgiving just like this every year.
"This is a tradition," said Sharon Floyd of Randallstown. "It's for the camaraderie."
Although it was barely past 9 a.m., Floyd and her sisters Cheryl Lee of Philadelphia and Alice Hutchinson of Wilmington, Del., along with their mother, Jean Manns of Liberty Heights, had already trudged to their truck several times to lay down their loads - a bushel of collards, apples for pies and sweet potatoes.
"Of course we all think we're Martha Stewart," Floyd said. "It's exciting seeing so many people all doing the same thing."
The Sunday before Thanksgiving is the market's busiest day of the year. Typically, the market at Holliday and Saratoga streets bustles well before its official 8 a.m. opening. Yesterday even more so.
Beating the rush
Throngs of people looped their way through stands of fruits and vegetables, baked goods and crafts as the smoky scent of grilling pit beef mingled with fresh herbs, brewing coffee and doughnuts just out of the fryer.
Butchers Hill couple Gary and Ivonne Birmingham waited at the Hen's Nest egg stand to claim their fresh turkey. Next to them, Christian Broesamle of Roland Park held his 5-month-old, Louisa, and kept an eye on 4-year-old Valentin, as they purchased a frozen rabbit to roast for Christmas.
The Birminghams, market regulars, know the Sunday-morning shops are a big attraction, but the holiday rush still surprised them. Gary Birmingham joked that it was "a point of contention" between him and his wife that they weren't there earlier: "She wanted to get up early," he said. "I didn't."
The early birds had the right idea. By 10 a.m., tables that an hour before had been crowded with potatoes, beans and greens, were quickly emptying.
At the Brown's Cove Farm stand, salespeople hustled to keep up with the stream of customers. Dave Stiller stood atop the bed of a pickup piled high with cauliflower. He tossed the damp, basketball-sized vegetables to Jeff Markley, who set them down at a table for people to quickly grab.
"If you're not busy today, you'll never be busy," said George Zahradka, who helps man the Essex farm's stand. Last week he brought 16 crates of collards and kale to sell. This week? About 300.
Pie-makers kept Ruth Woerner of Orrtanna, Pa., hopping at her apple stand. Although her bounty included varieties such as Fuji, Gala, Red and Golden Delicious, Stayman and Granny Smith, everyone wanted to know: "What's the best apple for baking?" she said. "I just tell them it's a matter of taste."
As the market, which remains open Sundays until Dec. 19, wound down, Tonicka Gaither of South Baltimore stood off to the side, overflowing bags resting at her feet. Six of Gaither's family members were off snaring green peppers and carrots. She guarded the bushel and a half of greens, a "gigantic" head of cabbage, sweet potatoes, two kinds of apples, onions and pears.
The annual "big shop" is a family tradition, she said, adding, "It gets us into the spirit."