A Flavorful Marketplace 

Can the cooking at local farmers' markets stand up to critical scrutiny? Read on.

The wiry older gentleman at the keyboard wants to rock your Gypsy soul, but the only thing with an air of Gypsy this morning is the velour tie-dye playsuit on a peeved-looking six-year-old sprouting Punky Brewster ponytails.

Eight years after it began, the Saturday Oakland-Grand Lake Farmers' Market has come to this: an amiable weekly street fair, where performers like Rob Robinson — gently shaking salt-and-pepper braids while riffing on Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" — create a happy space for kids and their parents to troll for organic raspberries and peppercress, potted orchids, and Oaklandish T-shirts. All the necessities of modern urban life.

Apparently, those necessities now include Thai vegetable curry and omelets oozing Swiss cheese, Argentine empanadas doused with chimichurri sauce, and vegan tacos filled with textured vegetable protein. In case you haven't noticed, food cooked on-site is one of the fastest-growing amenities at farmers' markets, not just at Grand Lake but all through the East Bay's dense topography of markets. Some of it is even pretty good.

"It's more of a destination, more of a day out," says Tyler Thayer of the current market scene. Thayer is a manager with Marin Farmers' Market, which stages the weekly Grand Lake foodie fests. The Berkeley markets, too. These events, which launched twenty years ago, and still sport reputations as places where crunchy vegans and pork-fat-lovin' chefs come together over Little Gem lettuces, have seen a definite shift from the raw to the cooked. "That's been the whole thrust of society," says Kirk Lumpkin, special events director for the markets.

Convenience is one thing. And, okay, milling around in the open air nibbling protein grilled up on a stick has pleasures pretty much unrelated to what that protein actually tastes like. But, those things aside, can foods fired up over portable burners or kept warm over the blue Sterno flames hold up to critical scrutiny? And can they possibly bear any resemblance to the gobsmack beauty of the raw materials for sale all around them?

Tamearra Dyson's curly mustard greens and steamed yams may not be beautiful, exactly, but they seem as earthbound as the whiskery bunches of leeks sticking out of shoppers' canvas shoulder bags. Owner of Souley Vegan Catering (a conflation of "soul," as in soul food, and "solely"), Dyson cooks up some of the most honest-tasting dishes around. Like those greens: tangy, flecked with irregular clots of tomato pulp, with a minimally cooked texture that seemed somehow meaty. Steamed and left mercifully unglazed, fleshy yam pieces had a homely natural sweetness. And Dyson's barbecued tofu was a heap of craggy cubes stained delicately reddish. The smoky sauce seasoned without mucking up the curd's soft, beany taste. As for the slab of herb-flecked vegan cornbread: too sweet for me, but as dessert it might just have done.

Like Souley Vegan, the Uhuru Breakfast Cafe meets the Grand Lake market's mandate to feature local entrepreneurs, even if the food may not be strictly local or organic. It's part of the fund-raising wing of Oakland's Uhuru House, a civil-rights organization that sprang from the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Uhuru is one of the only market food stalls that focuses on breakfast, which makes it perfect for a market that by 1:30 has the air of a party that's all but over.

You can get scrambled eggs or a breakfast wrap, but the omelets — knocked out on a propane-fired two-burner rig — are just about diner quality. A recent special was a soft, pale membrane of eggs folded over a big mass of sautéed mushrooms and yeasty Swiss cheese that congealed quickly in the foggy cool of morning. The hefty berm of thin-sliced home fries were flecked with fresh thyme, and the spuds themselves weren't bad, though in the perfect world they would have had plenty of time to get all brown and crusty on the portable flattop.

As the Temescal market wound down one Sunday, a farmer in a green nubbly sweater was working out a little barter with Andrzej Szachnowicz, coproprietor of Andy and Cindy's Thai Cuisine, a popular stall at four weekly markets in Oakland and Berkeley. Green Sweater Woman was hooking him up with produce from Happy Boy Farms in exchange for plates of curried vegetable stew and chicken satay skewers for her crew.

"Basil?" He went for it. "Two cases of yellow zucchini?" He took it.

"Ninety percent of our vegetables come from the farmers," Szachnowicz — the first part of the Andy and Cindy's equation — explained later by phone. He and Cindy Yang, his fiancée, started selling mostly organic Thai food at the Tuesday Berkeley market two years ago after Szachnowicz, who grew up in Poland, learned to cook Thai at a defunct Berkeley restaurant he'd rather not name. The couple prep their market-sourced produce every day they're not selling, operating out of a shared commercial kitchen in Emeryville. On market days, the onslaught of customers is fierce.

And no wonder. Vegetable egg rolls, filled with still-crunchy zucchini and skinny, twiglike pieces of textured vegetable protein, had almost-crunchy skins despite being kept warm in a covered chafer. Who knew that TVP, the industrial-grade mock meat that was as much a marvel of the 20th century as Astroturf, could be downright toothsome?

You can get a heaped plate called the Curry Combo that offers a bit of almost everything on Andy and Cindy's roster. Under a heap of yellow-tinted jasmine rice, a portion of pinkish chicken curry had a mild coconut-milk sauce and plenty of nicely chewy hunks of dark meat from Fulton Valley birds. As a single satay skewer, that same chicken developed blackened edges and the carbon-y taste of grill flare-up. And a sprawling mass of veggie curry, studded with firm pucks of tofu the size of old-school marshmallows, was just about as sweet as dessert, too — the only clunker on a big old plate of wholesome goodness.

Where the Combo Plate is hefty and uncomplicated, the Red Snapper has a surprising elegance. Sheathed in a banana-leaf boat pinned together with toothpicks, the fish had steamed over thin spears of asparagus and fragrant leaves of Asian basil, with a dollop of coconut cream on top that solidified into a sticky little custardy topping. Szachnowicz says he uses whatever flaky white fish caught in the wild he can find, and that he can afford, in this case, Alaskan pollack. A distant visitor, but overall Andy and Cindy's cooking has such a connection to local farms — not to mention that it's produce-happy in general — that it's an easy fit at the market.

Like pretty much all the market grub I tasted, Andy and Cindy's seemed constrained by the inconvenient realities of nomadic cooking, which means the impossibility of doing more than the most basic preparation on-site. Good thing everything tastes better outdoors.


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