Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Weird Vegetables: Nevada City Edition

Composed on the train from San Francisco to Chicago, then to New York but posted in New York a couple days later...

As I chug eastward on the Amtrak rails, in search of New England weird vegetables, fireflies, and culture shock, my mind skips back toward the western frontier to linger for a moment over the July fourth weekend I spent in Nevada City for my friends' wedding (but it's in California! what?). My always-companion Erin came along and shared what was most likely a haunted room at the National Hotel, which toots its horn as the oldest continuously running hotel in California, open since the Gold Rush days of 1852. The whole town feels a bit like a Universal Studios Wild West set, with its Mine Shaft saloon, quiet, almost too-pristine streets, and brick building fronts dating from California's first glittering burst of urban concentration.
On Saturday morning, while I snoozed away in the saggy old iron-framed bed surrounded by flowered wallpaper and ancestral portraits, Erin was up and exploring the town. From our balcony she had spotted the tell-tale tents of a farmers' market and came back to rouse me for a vegetable adventure.

Our hopes were not high for a one-block market in a wilting-hot small town of 2,800, but as we strolled past a guitar strummer and various farm stands, I was struck by how meticulously arranged the produce displays were, with their carefully drawn up chalkboard signs and beautiful, well-selected produce.

It was all so... so... good-looking, so functional, so normal but in that TV normal way that makes you think everyone and everything is always supposed to look so fresh and clean and healthy. Even the farm people fit the ideal of my imagination: hippie-happy, earthy in a rosy-cheeked, sun-kissed way, not a farmster in sight (what I call the vaguely artsy urban farm stand worker whose aloof manner emphasizes your inferiority for having a less direct connection to the land's natural treasures).

The Four Frog Farm crew

Heaven and Earth Farm

The lovely ladies of Living Lands Agrarian Network

Not only did the Living Lands Agrarian Network have the most good-natured workers and very tempting produce, they also ran a stand across the way where we picked up some sourdough buckwheat pancakes topped with peaches and different kinds of mint. I was beginning to think we would have to make a special guest post for Cute 'n' Perfect Vegetables, when we happened upon this elongated creature lounging with the wee gherkins:

It touched a chord in my memory, and when I asked the farm stand worker for an i.d. check on this pale, ribbed growth, she confirmed that it was an Armenian cucumber, which I had formerly associated with a curved shape. Our excitement and my camera frenzy over the cucumber, as well as the nearby sunflower sprouts or sun sprouts, caused the young woman at the Heaven and Earth stand to ask, "So you guys just like weird vegetables?"

And BLAM!--our cover was blown. We introduced ourselves and our blog to Jess, and it later turned out that everyone else whose name we learned at the market was also Jess, or Jessie, or had a J name. I haven't pieced together the meaning of it yet, but it may yet come to me in a dream one day.

Offering further proof that strange and beautiful are not mutually exclusive qualities was a pile of gigantic Jabba the Hut romaine lettuce heads at Olala Farms (though originally grown at You Bet Farms). This Willie Nelson of a man, below, whose polo shirt's embroidered message read, "Older than dirt," was swaddling these heads in brown paper like flower bouquets for awe-struck customers and eagerly invited me to lift a plump specimen so I could experience its heft firsthand.

At Mountain Bounty Farm we talked a little berry shop (red berries ripen earlier in the season, April-May, whereas darker berries get sweet in the late summer months, we learned). They were so friendly and cheerful that I decided they would be receptive to a farewell pun, and said, "Have a berry nice day!" Turns out Jess of Mountain Bounty not only shares my love of weird, twisty carrots but is also a produce pun connoisseur and shared with us a joke she had learned that morning from an elderly man.

The customer shambles up to the stand and announces:
"I need the ingredients for a Honeymoon Salad."

"What's in that?" Jess asks.

Pregnant pause.

"Lettuce alone!" he shouts, then falls into hearty laughter, I imagine.

It seemed an appropriate prelude to the wedding we would attend later that day in a shady grove but not before taking a quick dip in a secluded swimming hole on the South Yuba River.

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