Pike Place Market is one of Seattle's must-visit landmarks, but the 102-year-old icon is not the best place to meet actual farmers. Most of the purveyors sell the same produce you can buy in the supermarket. (Except on Wednesdays and Sundays in the summers when local growers set up shop on the street outside the rambling tourist attraction.)
To find the true farm-to-table connection, savvy shoppers know to head to one of the dozens of neighborhood markets that sprout weekly around the city this time of year. It's possible to hit a different neighborhood each day of the week and truly get a flavor for this food-loving community.
On Wednesday afternoons, the action heats up in historic Columbia City, just south of Seattle. On Fridays, there's a market on Phinney Ridge and in Madrona. In just a couple of weeks, the market in my hood will open on top of Queen Anne Hill. On Sundays, there are markets in West Seattle, on Capitol Hill and in Ballard. The mother of all neighborhood markets is near the University of Washington. Each Saturday, this year-round market draws farmers, ranchers, fishermen, foragers and cheese makers from across the state.
One highlight you don’t want to miss is the booth run by Seattle Youth Garden Works, which is like an evolved version of the Edible Schoolyard, where homeless and at-risk kids sell the veggies they grow.
On a recent Saturday, my shopping bag was stuffed with spuds from my favorite potato grower, Brent Olsen from Olsen Farms, who juggles some 22 varieties. He also sells grass-fed beef and lamb. So, it’s possible to get your meat and potatoes in one stop.
At various vendors, I also picked up fiddlehead ferns, early morels, super sweet asparagus from Yakima in Eastern Washington, tender greens and a small geoduck (a very large saltwater clam) from Taylor Shellfish. Fortunately, the fishmonger gave me a quick tutorial on cleaning this phallic-looking giant clam. (I made a crudo and it was magnificent, if I do say so myself.)
The 60 sellers who show up are seasoned at dealing with the crowds at this popular spot. It’s best to go early, but not too early. A bell rings to signal the opening at 9 a.m. and vendors will not sell before that time.
Last Saturday, movie star-turned-healthy-cookbook-author and Twitter junkie Mariel Hemingway (@Marielhemingway) hosted a cooking demo, which was a big draw. Still, the real celebrity at the University District Farmers Market belongs to the hard-working producers who bring their best efforts to sell to adoring fans of quality food.
About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant reviewer Leslie Kelly is currently working in kitchens around Seattle and writing a book about her journey from critic to cook. She blogs at LeslieKellyWhiningandDining.blogspot.com.