It is the merry month of May and already, in Ontario, farmers are impatient to bring those first green shoots—three weeks early, this year, in what has been an uncannily heady and extended spring—to market. Previously this was a time of rejoicing for me. I work at home, in Toronto’s Cabbagetown. I have a farmers’ market a block behind me on Tuesday afternoons and another a short cycle away, on Saturday mornings. Asparagus, fiddleheads, ramps; you’d think I’d be delighted. But no, this is not the case.
In principle, I love farmers’ markets. I love fresh produce—don’t eat strawberries out of their short season, etc.—and in the summer months, I need no persuading about the common sense of a 100-mile diet. My romance with my wife, Sarah, started with summer trips to Niagara for the best of the peaches (it’s where she’s from), and August in Ontario reminds me unfailingly of driving through Quebec’s Eastern Townships with my late dad, whose idea of shopping for groceries was to bring 10 lb. of tomatoes or a couple of dozen corncobs home.
But in practice, I find farmers’ markets a source of almost unbearable stress. Come the end of April, the mere anticipation of them finds me tense as I brace myself for the next five months of six o’clock Saturday morning starts or, on Tuesdays, having to be in the park for the three o’clock ring of the bell if I am to have any chance at all of avoiding the horror of middle-class Torontonians at their competitive, grasping worst. Stupidly, I believe in things like civility, and queues. I sympathize with my teenage stepdaughter Nathalie who—having surprised me one recent Saturday by volunteering to join me on an early morning St. Lawrence Market run—was aghast when I handed her an old beaten roller bag that clearly did not match her Audrey Hepburn outfit. “But I thought I’d be carrying flowers!” she said, winning me over completely. (I took over the roller bag.)
At Toronto’s century-old St. Lawrence Market, it’s not so bad. For a start, there’s actually enough of most produce to warrant a little saunter, rather than having to leap once more into the breach amid customers who make me wonder how Toronto would behave if ever, God forbid, Eastern-bloc-style shortages fell upon the city.
There’s no sauntering in the farmers’ markets, that’s for sure. The restaurant sous-chefs in their lab-white coats make a bad scramble worse, infuriatingly buying up all the peas in one go, and you might as well give up if you’re behind one. Get your own damn market, I want to say—and do. But ordinary upstanding citizens are the ones who really make you feel like Cormac McCarthy’s Road is just a block away. Every week, I’ll be standing at what I’d figured was the front of the queue and ready to pay some absurd premium for a bit of taste and then I’ll feel like some Ridley Scott alien, as suddenly several pairs of arms that are not mine sprout from around my waist and snatch the choice vegetables that I was under the impression I was lining up for.
One time, quite politely, I dared to admonish a woman who’d made the reach. I explained that not just I but several other people were in a queue and the point of it was not for her to leap to the front of it and clutch and grab as much as she could and then go to the back of it, but to wait until those before her had been served. Next thing I knew, some octogenarian, a veteran of Dieppe no doubt, had pushed me into the stall and was raising his wizened fists in the air, demanding a fight.
This was quite off-putting and, to my mind, entirely not in the spirit of market shopping, but decking some teetering pensioner with an English accent was clearly not an option. Certainly it spoiled the fun of paying several dollars for a few peaches, a fortune for lilacs bound to wither in three days’ time, and twice the normal price for just about everything else.
In truth, come August, the farmers’ market experience strikes me as an excellent argument for shopping at the neighbourhood No Frills and revelling in that discount supermarket chain’s bright neon city light. I do remember a fight breaking out in my local branch last Christmas (the news travelled fast, I was actually in a store down the street when a deranged woman ran in with wild eyes screaming “Fight, fight, there’s a fight at No Frills!”) and, on another occasion, the catching of a cat-food thief that looked like it was about to turn into a lynching. But at least in its proletarian aisles I can have it out over the grapes with people who are actually hungry.