One of my favorite summertime traditions is the farmers market. You could call it my happy place.
You wouldn't expect it for a Jewish girl, but farming's in my roots. After immigrating to America from Russia in the 1920s, my late grandpa Harry fulfilled his lifelong dream of owning a farm with his brothers, earning the distinction as one of the first Jewish farmers in Wisconsin. (See story on p. 21.)
We don't often think about it this way, but the farmers market feels like a Jewish place to me. After all, our connection to the earth and agriculture-and the more recent focus on eating healthy, sustainable, locally grown food-is core to Judaism. In fact, a full one-sixth of the Talmud relates to agricultural matters. In the last decade, a variety of Jewish food justice organizations-such as Chicago's Gan Project, which unfortunately recently shuttered its doors-have peppered the Jewish organizational landscape. They're dedicated to producing food and championing issues like safe and fair working conditions, humane treatment of animals, and sustainable farming techniques, all in ways informed by Jewish values.
What I love about the market is its collision of the senses—the colors, the smells, and the tastes—the juicy peaches, the crusty breads, and the most delicious array of butters and cheeses. Oh, what an awful vegan I'd be.
I love bumping into other shoppers, with their babies and dogs in tow. People live in the moment at the market: They generally pay with cash, not credit cards, and the vendors and shoppers actually chat and smile. At least for a fleeting moment, we're focused on edible apples and blackberries—not the electronic kinds. And for most of us, who eat so much processed food, with little awareness of what it takes to get our food from the earth to our tables, the farmers market serves up a chance to connect with what we're putting on our plates.
The market reminds me of bonding with my father when I was a little girl. When I was growing up in Minneapolis, he and I would wake up early in the morning and visit our local farmers market together all summer long. We'd pick out produce for my mom to cook with, and I'd help my dad pick out impatiens and other annuals to plant in our garden. That was also one of my first experiences encountering other ethnicities and immigrants because Hmong people-a huge immigrant population at that time in the Twin Cities-grew produce and sold it at the market we frequented. Even now, in Chicago, I enjoy talking to farmers, a group I usually would not meet in the city.
Back home, my dad and I would sometimes take photographs at the market, the produce and flowers bursting with colors like a painter's palette. I once shot a photo of green peppers that I later submitted to a photography contest at the Minnesota State Fair. And guess what? My photo won first place. Wow, it doesn't get more Minnesotan than winning a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair. Next, I'll tell you how I molded a sculpture of legendary Minnesota lumberjack Paul Bunyan out of butter.
A couple decades later, life comes full circle. One of my favorite more recent visits to the farmers market was taking my pre-school aged nephew on his inaugural trip to the market in Chicago, when he was just about the same age as I was on my first visit. He enjoyed his time there, yet when I asked him what he wanted to buy, he selected the most unnatural, inorganic item possible—the most fluorescent yellow smiley face sugar cookie you've ever seen, with colored sprinkles for where a tuft of hair would be, something I'm fairly sure didn't come straight from the ground or off a tree.
But his joy in gobbling down that cookie put a grin on my face as big as the one on the cookie. And like my visits to the farmers market as a kid with my dad, I know what I'll always remember, and maybe my nephew will too, is that we went to the market together.