Farmers Markets are way more culturally correct than Whole Foods. In fact, the more places you go to find your food, the cooler you are (all on foot or bike of course). If you are still buying organic lettuce that is flown in from California some 2000 miles away you are missing the point and probably a soccer mom.
The Farmers Market at Marion Square (every sat. until 2) is a pretty good way to add some local flavor to your life, though you won’t be able to find everything you need here. My favorite produce stand, “Owl’s Nest Plantation” is run by a very serious and friendly farmer. His produce is pristine and even organic— he went to the trouble to get organic certification which is increasingly seen as a big and unnecessary financial hurdle for small farms (look for “all natural, no pesticides used” as a euphemism for organic but not big enough to comply with the USDA’s long bureaucracy). Owl’s Nest has the nicest salad greens I have ever seen (no exaggeration) including arugula, baby spinach, and spring mix. Also, their garlic, especially the purple variety, is truly great, especially if you crush lots of garlic in your cooking. Likewise all of his fruits are top notch and his tomatoes are never refrigerated and without a doubt the best at the market. You pay a small premium at this stand though it is worth it.
Unlike Owl’s nest, a lot of the bigger stands sell things that are not local or seasonal. I know that each stand is allowed a certain percentage of non-local produce—but I can go to the grocery store for bananas from California. On the up-side, most of the bigger stands sell great corn, watermelon, peaches, and butterbeans in season.
Kennerty Farms has a small table that sells some of the best local honey available. According to the owners, they pay a lot of attention to the placement of their hives in order to draw the best flavor from wildflowers and other local vegetation. The result is an interesting and complex wild honey that will destroy any normal honey that you buy from the store.
The market is missing a lot of the upper portion of the food pyramid, with a few exceptions. Local food celebrity Celeste Albers sells her Sea Island farm fresh eggs and raw cow’s milk at her little stand near the food vendors—check out this great piece by Sarah O’Kelly about Albers’ farm and others alike:
Her eggs are uncharacteristically rich and completely unlike the pale yolked, liquidy eggs from the supermarket—these have rich, solid, almost fluorescent orange yolks that make baked good taste richer and are amazing simply fried over easy in some butter. I think that of all the local products one finds, this one will surprise you the most. Apart from her eggs and some produce, you can usually find fresh locally caught shrimp for sale.
Apart from these few offerings, there is nothing in the way of meat or poultry available for sale at the market. I truly think that pastured chicken, pork, and beef would add a tremendous amount of appeal to the market by nicely rounding out its offerings and making it it easier for the average person to find everything they need to put together a special, locally raised, healthful meal. Apparently the lack of meat owes to a lack of producers within the local geography, which stops at I-95 about an hour away. There is plenty of pastured meat available in the midlands and upstate, especially around Columbia and Greenville. Hopefully our market will carry these things in the future.
There are things I am leaving out for brevity’s sake; the other noteworthys are the famous crepe stand with a 30 minute wait, Evo pizza which has good ingredients but is sometimes too burned on the bottom, fresh handmade pasta, squash blossoms in season, good planted herb selection, and enough kitchsh crafts to keep the tourists busy.
9/15/07 This was the first week that a cattle farm (River Run or River Bend Farm-can’t remember the name) set up shop at the farmers market to sell their grass-fed pastured beef. This is certainly the real thing–the cattle are raised on a family farm in Santee–and it seems like the whole family runs the booth on Saturday as well. The patriarch, Mr. Oliver (I think it’s Ray Oliver) will talk to you about how much care and work goes into raising his beef and the nutritional profile of his beef versus grain fed beef from lesser animals. The meat is indeed delicious and distinctive with a clean taste and less of the unctuous mouth feel of grain fed beef (grain fed has more saturated fat). Definitely worth checking out at the market–talk to this family and you will experience the almost disappeared romance of buying great meat from a proud producer. This interaction, to me, is what makes a farmers market special and worthwile.