Noe Valley Voice November 1999

A Tale of Two Farmers' Markets

By Janis Cooke Newman

"How much you want?" the man with the cleaver asks me.

"About a pound," I tell him.

The man thwacks the cleaver down on the midsection of an enormous fish. My son Alex's eyes are huge, and I suspect he's seriously thinking about becoming a fishmonger when he grows up.

"That's $3.50," the man with the cleaver says, handing me a pound of yellowtail tuna. Only $3.50 for tuna steaks hacked to order, I think. No wonder everybody loves the Alemany Farmers' Market.

It happens every autumn. I don't know whether it's the chilly nights, the piles of pumpkins in front of my corner grocery, or the fact that Thanksgiving is bearing down on us, but suddenly all I want to do is cook. The calendar flips over to November, and I become obsessed with butternut squash and bear's head mushrooms, orange sweet potatoes and French butter pears. And in the fall, there's no better place to feed that obsession than at a farmers' market.

Today Alex and I are visiting San Francisco's two big Saturday markets -- the old-time Alemany Farmers' Market off Bayshore Boulevard, and the upstart Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market along the Embarcadero. These markets are about as different as sorrel and oregano.

At Alemany at the crack of dawn -- official hours are 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. -- I toss the tuna into my wheeled cart as a dad in a dashiki shows his two small sons a writhing box of live crayfish.

"Do they bite?" asks one of the little boys. The man with the cleaver lets out a sinister laugh.

Alex and I walk past iridescent pink snappers and angry blue-claw crabs, rough-shelled oysters and slick squid. Just beyond the fish stand, we come to the live poultry truck, where brown chickens and small game birds poke their beaks out of wire cages.

"Can we get one?" asks Alex.

"Not today," I tell him. Even my autumnal obsession does not extend to plucking my own bird.

From behind us we hear furious squawking. Somebody's chicken has escaped from its paper bag and is now hiding under a minivan. The van's owner crawls on the ground, trying to coax his dinner out from beneath the car.

Alex stops at a stand that sells Pokémon toys and Batman bottles filled with bubble liquid. On the tables around him I see packages of bras and men's briefs, hair scrunchies, and cigarette lighters. They make me think of the markets in Italy, where rayon slips hang above purple eggplant and weed-whackers lean against wheels of pecorino cheese.

Inside the market itself we're surrounded by languages: Vietnamese and African, Tagalog and Spanish. Two women from the Middle East, their hair covered with printed scarves, examine a couple of zucchini. A gray-haired couple in padded silk jackets shout Mandarin at each other over a wrinkled bitter melon. Behind them, a Caribbean man plays the steel drums, promoting a cassette of his music entitled Pan Is Love.

The produce is equally exotic. We see big bunches of Thai holy basil, deep green Chinese long beans, and bouquets of tiny redbird chili peppers.

About halfway through the market, we stop to watch the tap-dancing cat.

"I thought it was gonna be a real cat," Alex complains. But he can't take his eyes off the painted cat wearing a fringed skirt.

The cat's puppeteer, a woman in a baseball cap, accompanies the dancing feline on a guitar made from a washboard. As we watch, she puts on thick gloves and plays an old saw with a violin bow.

We buy shiitake mushrooms at $5 a pound and sunflowers for $3.50 a bunch, stashing them in the cooler in the trunk with the tuna. Then we head across town to the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, which because of the perpetual construction on the Embarcadero, is actually a couple of blocks west of the Ferry Building at Green Street.

Instead of trucks filled with live poultry and stalls selling nylon bikini briefs, the Ferry Plaza Market offers things like massage. A woman in a straw hat is massaging the tense neck and shoulders of a man wearing running shorts. When the woman finishes the massage, she flicks her fingers over the man's head, removing his negative energy before sending him off to buy baby artichokes.

Everyone at Ferry Plaza speaks English. I know this because nearly all of them are talking into cell phones. A dad feeds the baby on his back little chunks of soft white goat cheese. A woman with a French market basket sniffs chervil. Alex keeps circling a small girl who's handing out samples of crisp sweet Asian pears.

The Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market is a foodie's paradise. We pass by tiny quail and large-breasted pheasant. And I'm tempted by white-bottomed leeks and duck sausages, shiny black mussels and apples in every color from gold to green to deep red.

Alex is more interested in the cooking demonstration. Every Saturday at 11 a.m. a different local chef prepares a dish from whatever is in season at the market. Today, it's pork sirloin topped with chutney made from apples and pears. Alex sits transfixed as the chef slices an apple so fast his hands are a blur.

After the demonstration, we buy a jar of "Castro Street Honey." "Actually it comes from a garden on Diamond Street," the woman at the stand informs us. Then we visit the lady with the bears.

"You know what this is?" the bear lady asks Alex, pointing to a tangle of wire hanging from her stand. "It's a black hole."

Below the black hole, several stuffed bears are crammed into a metal canister. "That's their spaceship," the lady says.

The bear lady actually sells nuts -- fresh walnuts perfect for an endive and blue cheese salad. I get a half-pound, and the woman gives Alex a handwritten book titled "Space Report Black Holes."

When we get back to the car, we stuff the cooler with greening apples for baking, rabbit to roast with Dijon mustard, and sugar pumpkins perfect for soup.

"I'm going to cook all this," I tell Alex, feeling like a cross between Julia Child and Martha Stewart.

"Can I help?" he asks.

"Sure," I tell him. That's one of the nicest things about fall and motherhood: being able to pass on your obsessions.

Baked Apples

This is a classic baked apple recipe, and a good one for kids to make with you. Let them join in after the coring is done.

- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

- Wash and remove core down to 1/2 inch from the bottom of 4 large, tart apples. Good baking apples include Greening, Rome Beauty, and Spitzenberg.

- Combine 1/4 cup white or brown sugar with 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and fill the center of each apple with the mixture.

- Dot the filled cores with a pat of butter.

- Put the apples in an 8 x 8 inch pan with 3/4 cup boiling water.

- Bake about 30 minutes until tender, but not mushy.

- Baste the apples with the pan juices. Serve hot or chilled.

Getting to the Market

Alemany Farmers' Market: This market is located on Alemany Boulevard near the I-280/101 interchange. From Noe Valley, the fastest route is east on Cesar Chavez, then south on Bayshore to Alemany. In September, the city sparked a parking controversy by closing off the central parking area, but as of this writing (late October), the lot at the market is open. However, if you do drive, it's better to find parking on the surrounding streets and walk, since the traffic in the lot tends to jam up. Better yet, bring a wheeled cart and take the bus. The 24-Divisadero stops at Cortland and Folsom, a 15-minute walk from the market -- at 100 Alemany Blvd.

Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market:
If you drive, there's a free lot next to the market at the foot of Green Street (and the Embarcadero). If you take public transit, the J-Church stop at Embarcadero Station will put you about 10 or 15 minutes by foot from the market.

Noe Kids is a column about where to go and what to do with your kids. If there's a topic, activity, or outing you'd like to see covered, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at, or write to us at the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez St., San Francisco, CA 94114.