Baltimore’s 32nd Street Farmers Market: Hula Hoops, 7-Up Pound Cake, and Slurpy-Ripe Peaches

Hula hoops

Hula hoops come in many sizes and colors.

From hula hoops and honey to bison meat and baked goods, the year-round 32nd Street Farmer’s Market in Baltimore is the market I wish we had in Boston.

This barren parking lot behind a 7-11 is not a place I’d want to hang out at night, but every Saturday morning, it’s transformed into a locavore’s dream, a multicultural community gathering, and a playground for all ages.

The Hula Hooper

Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis demonstrates how to hula hoop

In the grassy media strip across from the market, Andreas “Spilly” Spiliadis sells hula hoops that he makes out of rolls of PVC irrigation tube and brightly colored tape. As he stands on a Waverly neighborhood stone marker, he expertly swirls a hoop around his waist, knees, and neck, insisting that it’s fun and easy. As we chatted, a middle-aged woman drove by and was so excited by the hula-hoop display that she left her minivan running in the middle of the street, blocking traffic; Spilly gently encouraged her to park and come back. In addition to selling at the market, he takes his “People’s Hoop Party” to parks and parties to encourage people to take a trial swivel. For a taste of the action, check out this hip-shaking video of folks hula hooping to “Billie Jean” in the park.

While I strolled, shopped, and ate my way past the dozens of stalls, I was serenaded by flute, saxophone and guitar players; seduced by the smells of Ethiopian, Indian, West Indian, Thai and other ethnic cuisines; and sated by tastes of slurpy-ripe yellow peaches, fresh-roasted Fair Trade coffee from Zeke’s, and a delightfully moist raspberry bran muffin from Atwater’s Bakery.

The Crepe Maker

Travis from Chez G Crepes prepares my crepe.

The sight of crepes being made reminded me of the fabulous crepes at my favorite market in the world, Camden Lock in London, so I stopped at Chez G Crepes, where I chatted with Travis as he poured the batter for my Portobello, feta and spinach crepe onto the grill.

The Pound Cake baker

Leah Williams sells her pound cakes at the 32nd Street Farmers Market.

Not far from Chez G, I was charmed by Leah Williams’ display of carefully wrapped slices of plain, lemon, and 7-Up pound cake. Since I’d never heard of using 7-Up in a cake, I had to investigate. Apparently, the 7-Up acts as the leavening agent. Happily, the cake did not taste like a can of soda; the 7-Up imparted a lemony flavor, and the slice was dense, moist and delicious.

I purchased six different heirloom tomatoes for $3 a pound and a bouquet of local lettuce for another $3, along with some attractive white chard, which, confusingly, is actually green chard with white stalks. I also picked up 1/4 peck of those yellow peaches for $6 and 2 quarts of cherry and acid-free tomatoes for $5.

The Flute Player

Musician Esther Trueheart is also a teacher.

Hot and tired, I stopped to listen to Esther Trueheart play her flute. The notes wafted through the market like a stream of soap bubbles. In addition to performing at the markets, Esther is a substitute teacher and runs a music school she hopes to make into a full-time business. I told her the name of my blog is “The PescoVegetarian Times,” and she said she’s been exploring vegetarian foods. We agreed that you can’t get people to give up Kentucky Fried Chicken by lecturing; you have to provide convenient, affordable alternatives that taste good.

With markets like 32nd street, getting people to eat healthy local food is as easy as, well, hula hooping’s supposed to be.  If only I could shimmy like Spilly.

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A Tree Grows in Baltimore – Does Crime Grow, Too?

Baltimore Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtle blossoms come in many colors, including Barbie Doll pink.

Since I normally only visit Baltimore at Christmas time, I’ve never noticed the glorious crape myrtle trees bursting into bloom on seemingly every street here.  The tiny blossoms are said to resemble crepe, hence the name crape–also sometimes spelled “crepe.”

I did a little poking around on the web and learned that the crape myrtle can grow as far north as Boston, but the trees are much more common here in the Southeast.  This hardy, drought-resistant tree comes in many colors and sizes, although Barbie Doll pink seems to be the most popular. Like the stone and brick houses in East Baltimore, the crape myrtle seems built to last.

The Deck

The crape myrtle that used to grow where this deck was built keeps trying to come back.

In fact, my mother-in-law, Doris, had a lovely deck built on the side of her house where a crape myrtle tree had been growing.  Although the tree had been cut down before the deck was built, the roots keep coming back.

Like the crape myrtle, crime seems to live on nearly every street in Baltimore. But is crime really growing here? While there are many forms of crimes, for the purpose of this discussion, I’m just going to look at homicide.

The evidence is contradictory. Although the number of homicides in Baltimore increased slightly in 2009, to 238 from 234, the homicide rate has actually decreased from the record high of 379 homicides in 1993.

There were 7 murders here in the past week, but the one that captured the most media attention was the Sunday night, July 25 robbery/stabbing of a 23-year-old white male in the supposedly safe Charles Village neighborhood, close to the Johns Hopkins campus and just down the road from my mother-in-law Doris’ house, where I’m staying. Although this particular victim was white, 88 percent of Baltimore’s homicide victims are African-Americans, even though they only make up 63 percent of the city’s population, according to the Baltimore City Paper.

The Crape and the Stone

Crape myrtles can grow as tall as 40 feet.

I’ve been visiting Baltimore for the past 21 years. While the number of homicides may not actually be increasing, it strikes me that the residents believe it’s getting worse.  Surveillance cameras look down on virtually every street corner.  A police car is permanently parked at the gas station near 33rd St. and Greenmount Ave. And my brother-in-law, Michael, used to love exploring the bars in Fells Point and other parts of the city, but now he sticks close to the house at night because he thinks it’s too dangerous to go out.

My mother-in-law blames the situation, in part, on TV shows set in Baltimore, like “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” and “The Wire,” because she thinks they glorify the violence.  While I’m no fan of crime shows, I think they reflect reality more than they shape it. And violent crime is devastating communities all over the country, not just Baltimore.

Whatever the cause, it saddens me that the warm-hearted people who live in this city of beautiful parks, row houses, and the world’s best crab cakes cannot hang out on their decks without keeping one eye on the street.  Like the crape myrtle, they’re strong, resilient people, so I believe that some day they’ll push up from their roots and reclaim this city from the thugs.

Twinking: Wine Not?

Urban Grape LogoWhile we were out shopping this afternoon, Michelle and I saw a sign for a wine tasting—we should get a “We stop for wine tastings” bumper sticker–and wandered into The Urban Grape, a new wine store in Chestnut Hill. Urban Grape is attracting both an alcoholic and electronic buzz because of the innovative way it’s selling wine and the innovative way it’s marketing the shop.

Photo of co-owner

Urban Grape co-owner, TJ Douglas

Urban Grape displays wines by body weight (light/medium/full).  Co-owner TJ Douglas has brought a common practice on many restaurant wine lists to life by arranging his 750 bottle selection by body rather than by region or grape. The purpose is to encourage you to try wines you don’t know that have a similar body as wines you like.

I asked Douglas about where I could find the Malbecs. “The body of a Malbec can really vary,” Douglas explained, so the Malbecs were shelved according to where they fit on his scale for wines, with 1 being the lightest body and 10 being the fullest.

Michelle and I wanted to do a tasting at home, so we asked Douglas to select two Grüner Veltliners for us to compare.  He suggested two bottles from the Gruber winery in Austria, both rated 3 in body on his scale for whites. We’ll be sampling the Huber “Hugo” ($12) and the Huber “Obere” ($20) tonight.

The art of displaying wine

The shop is long and narrow, like a sleek, upscale diner, with gorgeous wood shelving displaying the bottles like they’re works of art. It’s got an 11-foot table at just the right height for holding a glass and lots of open space for free in-store tastings on Thursdays and Fridays from 5 -7 pm and Saturdays from 1 – 3pm.

The Urban Grape is taking an aggressive social media strategy.  They’ve already hosted two Yelp Elite events. And every Tuesday afternoon, they announce their favorite wines of the week on Twitter and Facebook and make them available at a 20% discount through Saturday of that week.

On July 15, the Urban Grape and blogger Amanda Maynard of The Wineing Woman were the Boston hosts for the #PinotNoir Twitter Tasting and Smackdown, a national Pinot Noir tasting that took place in the actual and virtual worlds simultaneously.  Apparently, people from all over the US were gathered in wineries, wine stores and who knows where else tasting Pinot Noirs and posting their thoughts and voting for their favorites on Twitter. I’m sorry I missed it, because I’m always up for Twinking (Tweeting + drinking).

Since I enjoy tasting many different wines, I don’t feel I need any encouragement to try something new, but I’m happy that Urban Grape is just a few miles down the road from our house.  And I’m looking forward to some good Twinking tonight.

Is Local Food in a Pickle?

The Pickle Man

Travis Grilllo displays his pickles.

Interest in local foods is starting to spread faster than mint in a garden.  Despite the growing demand, the folks who make and sell local foods are often in a pickle: how can they produce and deliver fresh local foods AND pay themselves and their staff a living wage while keeping their prices affordable?

As I tasted a delicious local pickle and other wonderful products at the Sustainable Business Network’s Buy Local Workshop and Mini Trade Show for Restaurants and Chefs at the Seaport World Trade Center yesterday, I learned more about some of the challenges that the people who produce, cook and sell local foods are facing.

Grillo’s Pickles are the perfect marriage of sour and salty.  Travis Grillo started his company two years ago and produces his pickles at Katsiroubas Bros. in Newmarket Square. While he runs a delightful pickle cart on Boston Common and still delivers pickles to his small accounts personally, he also sells to Whole Foods.  While others would love to have this level of success, Grillo told me that he has unutilized production capacity. “People love the product,” he said, “but I need to expand my distribution.”

The Cheese Man

El Lawton of Foxboro Cheese Co with his Fromage Blanc

Despite the growing crowds at farmers markets, selling at the markets is not always profitable. Ed Lawton of the Foxbory Cheese Co. just started selling his fromage blanc and asiago at 15 local farmers markets this year. His fromage blanc is mild and pleasingly tangy.   Foxboro Cheese is part of Lawtons Family Farms, a dairy that sells raw milk and grass fed beef and veal as well as the cheese. So far, Lawton says, his experiences at the markets have been mixed.  “Some of the markets attract a lot of tourists who aren’t going to buy cheeses or meat they have to cook,” he said.  Learning which markets work for your business takes time and money that some farmers just don’t have.

The CISA Local Hero Member Services Coordinator

Devon Whitney-Deal of CISA displays their guide to local food

Fortunately, there’s also a loose network of non-profits, government agencies, and businesses helping local food businesses market their foods.  Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), based in western Massachusetts, launched their “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” campaign in 1999.  “It’s the longest running ‘buy local’ program in the country,” CISA Local Hero Member Services Coordinator Devon Whitney-Deal told me.   In a recent CISA survey, 69% of participating farms reported that their produce sales had increased.

In eastern Massachusetts, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Boston (SBN) , the sponsor of yesterday’s event, has a Local Food Committee that’s doing a great job promoting local foods by organizing events and programs that connect local eaters, restaurants, producers and distributors.  On Saturday, October 2, 2010, 11am-5pm, they’re producing the first Boston Local Food Festival at the Boston Waterfront on Fort Port Channel. If the event attracts the hoped-for crowds, the increased support for local foods could help producers sell pickles rather than be in one.

Hot Day, Cool Market

Berries

Angelic berries from Heavens Harvest

It was another sizzling hot day in Boston, but opening day at the Community Servings Farmers Market in Jamaica Plain on Wednesday, July 7, was pretty cool in all senses of the word.

I volunteered for a few hours and was pleased to see a steady stream of excited customers arriving for fresh veggies, eggs, bread, and free lemonade. The 4-7pm time slot made it convenient for people to stop on their way home from work, and by then, the heat had dropped, a pleasant breeze was blowing, and there was plenty of shade.

With only four vendors—two farms, a bakery and a florist—the market is small, but the quality and range of products are good.

Blue Frog

Ethan Kiermaier purchases a giant cookie from Blue Frog baker/owner Brad Brown.

Brad Brown, pastry chef/owner of the Blue Frog Bakery on Green Street, was selling at a farmers market for the first time and didn’t know what to expect.  He’s there because Community Servings’ Social Enterprise Manager, Edith Murnane, is a friend and customer and asked him.

Blue Frog makes delicious pastries like strawberry shortcake, but such delights are too delicate for a hot day, so Brown brought an assortment of breads, cookies, and cakes.  “Next time,” he said, “I’ll bring more baguettes and fewer whole cakes. “

Millbrook Farm

Farmer Shaun Giurleo of Millbrook Farm with customer Brian Mazmanian.

Meanwhile, the folks from Millbrook Farm in Concord were busy selling a multitude of berries, including strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and gooseberries, as well as cucumbers, corn, and tomatoes for only $2 a pound, among other items.  “Business today has been more steady than last year,” farmer Shaun Giurleo told me.

Across the patio, Ashley Howard, co-owner of Heavens Harvest Farm in New Braintree with his wife, Ethel, presided over his giant scallions, fresh fennel, little bundles of lemon balm, and assorted other fruits, vegetables and herbs like the proud father of every stalk. He hands out free nasturtium flowers, telling timid tasters that every part of the flower is edible and has a different flavor.

Heavens Harvest

Ashley Howard's farm, Heavens Harvest, primarily sells through CSAs.

The primary focus of his organic farm is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), but since Community Servings hosts their CSA, they agreed to sell at the market. Howard seemed to recognize the names of every CSA customer and thanked them for participating.

As I left, I heard Howard suggesting a recipe for cooking fennel: slice it thinly, grill it, and serve it on a burger with mustard and fresh chives. Can’t wait to pick up some fennel next week and try it!

The Community Servings Farmers Market is open from 4-7 pm each Wednesday at 18 Marbury Terrace, near the Stony Brook T station in JP. For a list of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, visit http://www.massfarmersmarkets.org/.

July 4th: Flags, Fishing, and iPhones

American Flag

Our neighbor's flag

Are our lives really that different from the people who were around on July 4, 1776?  Although slavery, class, and gender differences greatly restricted people, I suspect that many of our daily activities are still the same.

This morning, I finally got around to planting my seed potatoes. Since our house was built in the 1840s, chances are the family who lived there spent July 4th catching up on their gardening, too.

Across the street, I saw that my neighbor had put up an enormous American flag. The number of stars and stripes have changed, but the first flag dates back to 1777.

Fishing

Juan teaches his two sons, Ariel and Gabriel, to fish

As I took a more leisurely stroll than usual around Jamaica Pond, I saw people sailing, fishing, and reading – things people might have done on a day off in 1776, provided they had the freedom and leisure time. 

I stopped to chat with Juan, who was teaching his two sons, Gabriel and Ariel, to fish.  The boys were sporting Mohawks, a hairdo that has certainly survived the centuries.

Island in Jamaica Pond

The island in Jamaica Pond

I also took a look at the little island in the Pond, one of my favorite sights.  According to the JP Historical Society, this willow-covered isle was ingeniously built up over a promontory some time before World War 1.  The island was devastated by Hurricane Bob in 1991, when all but one of the original willow trees was destroyed, but over the last two decades, the island has been built up again.  The precise view has changed, even while I’ve lived in Jamaica Plain, but the effect is the same.

As I eagerly snapped photos on my iPhone and thought about what I’d write in my blog, I realized the irony.  Sure, people have taken photos for nearly two centuries, but not on their cell phones. They wrote with quill pens, not with computer keyboards. The activities are the same, but the delivery vehicles have changed. 

So two centuries from now, what technology will people be using on July 4th?