Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The time is ripe for farmers' markets

The farmers' market on Allegheny and Howard streets is in full swing.

Last Saturday's stands held bushels of corn, quarts of blueberries, heaps of bell peppers, beans, beets, cucumbers and zucchini, onions and eggplants, potatoes and cabbage -- a whole cornucopia of fresh food everyone has been waiting for after the long dry spell.

We've gotten so used to our growing season that any departure seems like an imposition. The vendors at the market would just smile when people asked when they were going to dig potatoes or pick corn. When they're ready, seemed to be the stock answer.

These folks know all about the seasons and the uncertainty of having everything ripe according to a schedule.

Food writers for the past several years have been sprinkling their prose with words such as "seasonal," "fresh" and "local" like so much chopped cilantro. Their reference point is mostly California, where something is always in season. But there is not much that is seasonal in central Pennsylvania in the dead of winter, which is why summer's bounty seems that much more of a blessing.

Anyone who grew up during food rationing in the 1940s understands the struggle to produce food for a family from a home victory garden. I remember those times too well.

My mother would hire a team to plow up the whole back lot, rent out some of the space, then commandeer my sister and brothers into the work of planting, weeding, picking off beetles and, finally, lugging baskets of produce to the kitchen door for canning.

We had a coal-fired cookstove then, so the kitchen was an inferno. There was barely a breeze to stir the fly ribbons dangling from the ceiling. In this heat we would scald the tomatoes and skin them, or snip the beans and slice them before they were packed into jars and subjected to a boiling time that stretched to the supper hour, by which time no one even felt like eating.

I was disillusioned not long ago to find out that collecting all that tin foil and bacon fat during the war was just a way to make people feel useful. The lessons of the victory garden, however, will always be with me.

Until the self-anointed (with triple virgin olive oil) high priests and priestesses of food come down to Earth and get their hands dirty, their words are wasted on me.

Forget the heirloom and the organic, just give me a good, ripe tomato -- soon.