Wearing an A's cap and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shoelaces, 8-year-old David Wolf was playing bluegrass on the fiddle when a crowd gathered around him holding bags of vegetables. But he wasn't worried about being pelted. More likely, they would plop a few quarters at his feet. Such is the spirit of the farmers market. Part bazaar, part block party, the weekend farmers markets of Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto are among the gastronomic treats of summer. At the markets people can buy fresh produce right from the farmers who grew it.
And although Wolf said he wanted to get a toy Power Ranger with the money he earned, his accompanist and dad, Ron, confessed that the lure of the market goods might overrule that. "We will probably end up spending most of it right here."
Running from May to November, the markets offer everything from golden summer squashes and crimson tomatoes to brilliant sunflowers and sun-dried raisins, most of it organic, most picked and packed the day before.
And with every bag of vegetables goes a generous portion of charm that keeps people coming back. The people "are warm and friendly, and it reminds me of Paris," said Celia Barron, who shops the Menlo Park market every Sunday after church. "It is fun to see people selling things, and you kind of get a sense of where the food comes from. (The farmers) seem really proud of what they are selling."
"I enjoy the markets because you meet nice people," said Pete Trembois recently at the Menlo Park market. "People are friendly at these things."
Trembois is a full-time commercial farmer whose produce is taken to up to 20 markets a week. He owns 10 plots in the Bay Area, including one in Los Altos, ranging from one-acre lots to 80-acre farms. At any one time he can be growing up to 50 items. "Squash, salad mix, corn, beets, radishes . . . we grow it all, all organic," he said. To keep all that going he employs up to 14 people, including his wife, Sotiria, and eight others from his family.
Trembois was still in high school when he got his start farming from a neighborhood tree farmer. "I was walking home from school one day," Trembois said, "and a fellow said, 'Hey, you want a job?' I said sure, I will take a job. He said, 'start dragging branches.'"
Later on he joined the business, eventually becoming a partner. While running the tree farm he started to help people with their gardens. He had always had a garden at home, and soon he was farming full time. "I just saved my money and started doing it."
Now his operation is so big that he puts in 15-hour days. But despite the long hours, or the headaches of trying to manage so many crops, he said he still enjoys the life of a grower.
Asked what a great day is he says, "Going fishing," with a big laugh. But then he quickly adds, "Actually the best days, I enjoy working out in the field. If I can go out there and cut weeds and work on the farms and plant . . . that is what I really enjoy. It is so relaxing."
The self-satisfaction of growing is also what attracts June Tachibana, a Palo Alto market regular, though not on quite the scale of Trembois.
She and her husband, Shig, both retired from their own cut-flowers business, plant and harvest the acre surrounding their Los Altos Hills home.
"We always had a vegetable garden," said Tachibana. "I heard about (the Palo Alto market) in 1984 and I brought a few buckets (of gypsophilia flowers) in. I was not even assigned a stall, and I started selling like crazy."
That was all it took for her to get hooked on the market. She started bringing the excess from her vegetable garden, "and then people wanted more and more," she said. "So each year we tried to increase the amounts of the vegetables we grew."
Tachibana now tries to specialize in Japanese products, like Japanese plums, and specialty items, like hand-cracked walnuts. She is especially proud of the walnuts since some customers have said they refuse to make recipes with walnuts without hers.
Like Trembois, for Tachibana a good day is a day in the field. "It is good exercise," she said; "you are trimming (and) there is an aesthetic value to that, making things look nice." She tries to keep a Japanese aesthetic in her garden, which she says gives off a "serene feeling."
But no matter how popular her walnuts or how much money she makes, she says she is not in it for the money, "just self-satisfaction and giving quality stuff away . . . it is a good feeling." Not to mention, she said, that she and her husband get to eat the same good food that she sells.
Heru Hall knows all about both the satisfaction of growing and the possibility of making money at the farmers market, but he does not own a farm and keeps none of the money he makes from selling at the East Palo Alto market.
He is the volunteer coordinator of the Community High School South garden project, located in the former Weeks poultry farm area of East Palo Alto. The school helps youth who have had problems at traditional high schools get their diplomas and GEDs.
The garden is a project he helped design to help the school's youth learn self-esteem and economics through gardening. "Our goal was to sell at the farmers market and have the kids make the money from what we sell," he said.
To do that, students maintain a one-acre plot at the school where they grow a variety of vegetables and flowers. The garden is a year old and at the first market in May the students made $125.
And in a community where it is very hard for young people to find work, Hall said the importance of giving kids a chance to make money through gardening was immeasurable. "We just do not want to lose any of our kids (to the streets)," said Hall.
As important as making money is, Hall also believes the kids are learning valuable life lessons in the garden. "We believe that caring for another, helping one another is a real thing," he said, "and when you see these kids realize they are feeding people, or they bring flowers home to their mothers from the garden . . . it is like bring beauty into their lives." That is the best part, he says, teaching them the beauty of helping something grow, including one another.
Sotiria Trembois likes to cook with the produce grown by her husband Pete, and the following recipes are two of her favorites.
@recname:Feta Cheese and Spinach Pie
@quan: 2 pounds baby spinach, washed and chopped 1 package frozen fila dough, thawed according to instructions 1 pound feta cheese 1 medium onion, chopped 3-5 cloves garlic, chopped 1 bunch dill, chopped 1 bunch cilantro, or to taste, chopped 1/2 cup olive oil salt pepper oregano @direc:Saute the dill, garlic, cilantro and onions in a bit of olive oil for 3-4 minutes, adding salt, pepper and oregano to taste. Crumble feta cheese into a bowl. Mix in the baby spinach and add the 1/2 cup olive oil. Blend in the saute mix. Take a baking pan (a lasagna dish works well) and brush a light coating of olive oil on the bottom. Take two pieces of fila dough and lay them on the bottom. Brush the top of that layer lightly with olive oil, and layer on two more pieces of dough. Repeat the process until there are 10 layers. Put in the spinach mixture, spreading evenly. Put another 10 layers of the fila dough on top of the mixture just as on the bottom. Because of the fragility of the fila dough after baking, it is best to cut the pie into serving size portions before baking. Bake at 375 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Serves four to six.
@recname:Stuffed Squash and Tomatoes
@quan: 2 big summer squash, hollowed 2 tomatoes, hollowed 1 small can tomato sauce 1 pound lean ground beef 1/2 onion, chopped 4-5 cloves garlic, chopped 2 eggs 3/4 cup uncooked rice 2 hard pieces of bread for crumbs (or toast) salt pepper oregano olive oil @direc:Mix the ground beef, garlic, eggs and bread crumbs together in a bowl, then put in the refrigerator for two hours. Hollow out the squash, saving the filler. Chop up the filler and in a bowl mix it in with the 1/2 onion chopped and a bit of olive oil. Lightly brown the mixture. Add in the ground beef and the filler from the tomatoes and the can of tomatoes sauce, and brown another 7 minutes. Add the 3/4 cup of uncooked rice, brown another five minutes. Add salt, pepper and oregano to taste. Stuff the squash and tomatoes, leaving a little room from the top (the uncooked rice will expand during baking). Bake at 350-375 degrees for 45 minutes. Serves four to six.