Recently after a downtown cultural event with friends and our respective children I was waxing a little complimentary about the Milwaukee County Winter Farmers Marketat State Fair Park. A friend, who will remain nameless, said that her car never seems to make it over there, mostly because the location has “State Fair Park” in its name. Transportation snobbery aside, as the Winter Farmers’ Market comes to close this spring, it got me thinking about the market and why it does and doesn’t have the cache that someothers markets do.
People have come to flock to farmers’ markets in the last few years for the pageantry as much as the fresh goodness you can get there. By pageantry I mean the vibrant, full-of-life-ness that we imagine a farmers’ market can deliver. Farm to table. Even if we don’t come home with anything more with a handful of just-yanked-from-the-ground carrots,by osmosis we soaked in all that life.
The first thing The Milwaukee County Winter Farmers’ Market may have going against it is the word “winter”. The abundance of winter is usually the caloric hours of dark vs. daylight. Understandable. However, that is all the more reason to embrace the dissenting occasions and venues like the Winter Farmers’ Market. The diversity is deeper than one might think. Apples for sure, honey, some of the best soups you’ve ever had (frozen to take home), bison, elk, lamb, killer cheese (naturally) and some of the best winter vegetables available. In the category of winter vegetables, this is no small thing for anyone who cooks or simply likes things that taste good. Chef Dan Barber spells it out better than I can and has the science to back it up but, in a nutshell, as awinter vegetables grow in the colder months they crank up their natural sugars with each successive freeze in order to pursue life. The end result? Onions that made my homemade burger eligible for a James Beard prize, and carrots and beets that had even my vegetable-averse 4-year old begging for more. I’ve always liked winter because as aseason its treasures are less forthcoming. You have to look for them, but they are there.
Another plus to the Winter Market is the conviviality of the local chefs it inspires. This year the annual Fresh Market Breakfast has five local chefs, using ingredients entirely from the Winter Market (save for some sugar, salt, oil or flour) preparing a really top-notch buffet style breakfast that sells out each season. Seared lamb sausage and quichewith pancetta, buffalo bacon and Saxon cheese were two of the standouts.
Lastly, the market is structured around the democracy of food. You can take I94 to get there if your vehicle lets you, but you can also take County transit. This is crucial. The Winter Market is located where it is because of its accessibility. And accessibility is as imperative to creating a healthy life as the food itself. I have witnessed first hand inquintessential “food deserts” the existence of progressive food purveyors such as the Fondy Food Market, Alice’s Garden or Growing Power. They cultivate fresh and nutritious abundance that many Americans take for granted, and all of it can be paid for with food stamps or thequest card. That example of access is nothing short of profound. As this is the last weekend of this year’s MCWFM, it deserves a proper send-off. As much as I relish the advent of spring, I will be sad to see it disappear from my Saturday schedule.
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