Last Saturday saw the first significant snowfall of the season in Madison, Wisconsin.
It was not -- as you probably guessed -- conducive to garden-like activities or visiting the farmers’ market. (Our family did, however, pick up our Christmas Tree at a fundraiser sale to support the Forestry Club at the University.) Nonetheless, the following piece is submitted for your consideration in the spirit of weekend gardening and fresh food shopping. It was written several weeks ago, in the early days of fall, while I was out on assignment for a journalism course.
My wife and I have been up since dawn with a toddler who doesn’t care that it’s the weekend.
A few years ago, we would have been shuffling around our tiny apartment in San Francisco, shaking off Friday night’s cocktails and live jazz. But we’re Midwestern parents now. The 1 p.m. breakfasts of our early twenties are gone. These days, Saturday morning starts early and outings – if they actually happen – center on farmers’ markets rather than hangover food. This is the social life of a parent.
So, as I have done on many other Saturdays, I shift the car into park. I hoist the stroller from the trunk. And we make our way across the parking lot. If nothing else, at least there will be other people here.
The crowd at the Hilldale Farmers’ Market is smaller than I expected. The whole thing is restrained, quiet, and simple – especially when compared with the crowded, destination-style markets. I’m glad. It may have been a while since I saw last call and I may crave adult interaction, but I still like to avoid loud noises and sudden movement on Saturday morning.
A twenty-something man with boyish good looks works solo. He stands behind a table that displays an organic variation on peanut butter. And, even though it’s cool enough to wear a sweatshirt, he repeatedly steps in and out of his flip flops over the course of a l-o-n-g conversation with two brunettes. He makes a lot of eye contact and the ladies are in no hurry to get away.
Meanwhile, a compact woman wears an apron with a silk-screened photo of her Dalmatian across the front. Her booth contains bell peppers, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, and emphatic signs reading “Toxic Spray Prohibited.” She is well-tanned, carries a massive coffee mug, and appears more than ready to take on the day. She calls out to a man in a red and white sweatshirt, “Are you going to the Badger game!?” He smiles and nods. She grins and tells – almost instructs – him to have a great day.
The array of personalities is endless among vendors. Two butchers compete for customers and, apparently, the championship title: Best Facial Hair of the Weekend. A mother-son team moves energetically behind mounds of beans and carrots – the very portrait of healthy living. A beautiful brunette with a round face tightens the bandana in her hair as she stands behind a display of fresh honey. And, on the periphery, a woman slips away from her tomatoes and zucchini to sneak a smoke behind her Chevy.
Unlike the mostly stationary vendors, shoppers move freely among the produce and each other. They come in pairs. They come separately and pair up. They bring the whole family and make sure to catch up with their favorite spinach growers.
Three men – undoubtedly fathers of teenagers – discuss the excesses of text messaging. “He’s right down stairs and they send him a text when dinner is ready!” A glowing, youthful couple moves, hand-in-hand, from one pile of vegetables to the next. A boisterous, curly haired woman compliments the grandmother selling baked goods. And a man around my father’s age puts his arms around his wife while she shops. They sway to the rhythm of the string band and smile.
No one is lonely – including the single, forty-ish woman who strides from booth to booth. The basket in the crook of her arm, the artfully draped scarves, and the too-polished cowboy boots would seem comical on anyone else. But she has confidence of someone intending to be noticed. She is playing the role she created for herself and the rest of us, her audience, take in the performance.
A baggie of oatmeal cranberry cookies is our only purchase. We mostly came to explore – to get out of the house.
My son, of course, is an explorer in his own right. Once freed from his stroller, he charges ahead without fear or hesitation. My wife and I follow close behind, walking the hunched-back walk of a toddler’s parents. I am, I think, just another dad in a flannel shirt and yesterday’s jeans. But, soon, I realize I’m not the only one who has been people watching. I catch knowing glances from other fathers of young children and thank the elderly couple who think our son is “just too cute.”
I have a haircut appointment at eleven, so we ditch our coffee cups and head to the car. As I adjust the car seat, my wife says we should come back. It’s nice here. We could get some butternut squash for soup next weekend.
Sure, I say. It’s not like we will be sleeping in.
All images by K. B. Connery