One day this April, a phone will ring in the drab Greenmarket offices on 16th Street off Union Square, just as it has rung every April for the past few decades. A farmer from New Jersey or the Hudson Valley will be on the line. He’ll say, “My asparagus are ready. I’d like to come to market.” That statement marks the opening of a New York season: farmers’-market season. Four times a week for the next six months, 160 farmers from as far away as Vermont will rise at 3 a.m., load their trucks, and drive to city parking lots where 250,000 customers a week will wait in line for the freshest produce to be found anywhere. These markets, now in their third decade, have not only saved the small regional farm but fomented a revolution in how New York City chefs cook and New Yorkers eat.
When Danny Meyer started Union Square Cafe almost twenty years ago, the sign that a restaurant was providing “a luxury dining experience,” as he says, “was that it offered raspberries in January.” The city’s best chefs now adapt their menus to the changing seasons. They’ve been brought up to seek out freshness, taste, variety. And that means buying local. “One of the most important things a chef wants to do is minimize the distance between dirt and plate,” says Mario Batali.
Meyer even chose the locations for Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe for their proximity to the Union Square farmers’ market, the city’s biggest. “If the Union Square farmers’ market were to close, I may as well not even have restaurants,” says Meyer.
Farmers’ markets began in New York City in 1976, when Union Square Park was known as a drug haven. They were the brainchild of Barry Benepe, who saw Hudson Valley farmers being forced out of business by the economics of selling to wholesalers and by the boredom of growing single, shippable crops. Benepe’s solution was to create city markets where upstate farmers could sell direct to the urban consumer. By cutting out the middleman, the farmer got a much better price for his produce.
In fact, farmers have done more than survive—they have proliferated. On any given Saturday, a shopper can spot the natives and hybrids at the Union Square market: the back-to-the-land farmers with anti-globalization politics and knitted wool caps from their own Merino sheep, fifth-generation-Republican farmers with bags of produce set aside for half a dozen restaurants. In a strange twist, farmers have recruited urbanites, too. Half a dozen farmers have married customers, including, famously, Batali, who likes to say he met his wife at the Coach Farm stand. (Later, he learned that her family owns it.)
Farmers and chefs now exhibit a near mania for variety. Already there are 1,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables, more by a factor of ten than you’ll find in the average supermarket. Alex Paffenroth, who once grew three types of onions, now plants thirteen, including three kinds of cipollini. On any given Saturday, he’ll have blue potatoes, purple carrots, white carrots, black radishes, and a little Zagat write-up on the side of his truck. Ted Blew, who sells almost all his produce at the Greenmarket, grows more than 300 kinds of hot peppers and more than 100 kinds of herbs, including a dozen varieties of basil.
For some chefs, the market at its height is a kind of psychedelic experience. “September, October, November, the whole place blows up,” says Batali. “That’s when I can think of a thousand dinners on one full-length trip of Union Square market.”