Saturday morning, 10 a.m., and we’re standing in the chilly rain, drinking whiskey.
To which, those who know us, will say, “Yes, and?”
To which we say, “Well, we’re not usually doing it in the rain now, are we?”
Actually, we’re just sampling the product, the pride of Copper Run Distillery, of Walnut Shade, Mo., which is one of about 50 participants in the nicest farmer’s market we’ve ever visited, in Springfield, Mo.
In general, we think farmer’s markets are, like 3-D and Helen Mirren, overrated. But we really liked Springfield’s Farmers Market of The Ozarks.
We liked the place because it was loaded, absolutely crammed with local produce that wasn’t attractive because it was local but which was attractive because the quality—and the staggering variety—of it was amazing. You might be surprised at what’s available at a farmer’s market located in a place that has a lot of, well, farms.
Plump scarlet beets; bushy, verdant hedges of lettuce; and crinkly, dark kale. Ridged knobs of green and red okra. Bundles of the last of the season’s cucumbers share space with cheery globes of pumpkins and bright, warty-skinned squashes. Bok choy and lemongrass and bitter melon and shiitake mushrooms big as dinner plates. A dozen varieties of apples, Asian pears. If there’s a Vegetarian Room in Heaven, this is what it looks like.
And it isn’t just the vegetables. Racks of hand-ground spices. Every part of cow and pig, along with sausages, from local ranches. There are booths laden with breads, and one selling a panoply of pizza crusts, embedded with basil or oregano or other herbs. You can buy raw milk by the quart or by the gallon, depending on the level to which you want to roll the dice, gastrointestinally speaking. Fresh flowers, wreaths, handwoven scarves.
A guy named Larry Burt (right) makes weekly runs down to Louisiana and brings back some incredibly mouthwatering sea creatures, which he sells at his booth, Big Pop’s Fresh Louisiana Seafood, displaying an abundance offruits de mer. A creamy, glistening oyster shimmering in its shell. Fat blue crabs. This is the place that sells Ruby Red shrimp (top shrimp, at right), a deepwater shrimp that tastes like lobster. If you ever see them, buy them.
There’s even a booth that roasts chilies (the roaster is below), the kind that make New Mexico’s green chile sauce. And a number of booths peddling cooked food, along with some food trucks parked nearby.
Which is why we weren’t drinking on an empty stomach. We’ve made a stop at a booth selling Peruvian fare. The proprietor, a Peruvian who married an American, explained to us that when her husband retired, they looked around for something to do and decided Springfield could use another Peruvian eatery. Or, as they discovered, its first and only Peruvian eatery. Their booth is crowded at this hour; we have to wait for one of the most marvelous tamales, twice the size of the typical Mexican version, stuffed with a smoky-sweet filling of shredded pork. And while we’re there, we’ve concluded, it’s only reasonable to sample an empananda loaded with cheese and spinach. And papas rellenas, potatoes stuffed with ground beef, olives, and chopped eggs.
We also sampled a lot of goat cheese. The scrub-sprouting topsoil in many parts of the Ozarks is thin as an autumn leaf and grows rocks and goats with the same vigor. The goats make better cheese. We’ve worked our way through a tangy, herb-flecked chevre, and a crottin de Ozarks, a local take on the famous Loire Valley cheese that’s named after the horse droppings it resembles. The taste–at least the Ozark version– iscreamy and just slightly salty. Then we moved on to a splendidly pungent one called Jackie Blue, which will be mildly amusing to those of you old enough to remember the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
We stop by another table with a lot of Japanese vegetables, grown by a woman from Echigo, way up in northern Japan, who tells us she and her husband live in Seymour, Missouri now and sells us a flaky, traditional Japanese pastry filled with sweet, dark red soybean paste.
The Copper Run Distillery booth at the farmer’s market is having a surprisingly busy morning. We mention we’re from St. Louis and a young lady behind us says that’s where she’s from—she works at DePaul and given the fact that she looked about twelve, we make a big fuss about demanding she show some ID, which she does before tipping up a generous sample of the distillery’s un-aged whiskey: moonshine.
That’s how we ended up, that first Saturday morning in October, standing in a cold rain, having a taste. Which may mean we have a problem. If so, we have an idea the solution might be back at that Peruvian place, in the form of a chicken, sausage, and cheese-stuffed empanada.