I admit I am not a fan of all things Iowa. In fact, I am not a fan of much of anything Iowa at all. The weather in Hades is more pleasant, narcissism is the favored character trait, and the official pastime is political campaigning; all wrapped up in an unearned smugness that arises from a stubborn refusal by most Iowans to embrace or credit anything from outside of Iowa.
Local television stations refer to the national news as, “the foreign desk”.
All of that said; I absolutely love the Des Moines Downtown Farmer’s Market. It represents the twice daily correct time on Iowa’s otherwise stopped clock.
The first thing I noticed at my first visit to the market was its absence of Iowa’s usual Teutonic-Prussian obsession with order. Oh sure, the booths are lined up soldier-straight and there are stage-whispered complaints about “too many dogs and baby strollers” from the anal-retentives wearing identical college attire.
But the scene is virtually one of a world market. For a few Brigadoon-like hours, multicultural seasonings replace Iowa’s normal cream of wheat flavors.
Southeast Asian folk mingle with Africans balancing baskets on their heads. You can nibble on shwarma or munch a Hmong egg roll as you stroll between a group singing Christian hymns and a tatter of atheists determinedly passing out literature. Each culture brings edibles to vegetable stands that the local grocer tosses out, unsold, because it is not corn.
To its credit, the downtown market has shunned or limited the number of stalls selling overpriced, home-made bric-a-brac destined to sell in next year’s yard sale for pennies on the dollar or to become dumpster ballast. In fair play, the market organizers devote two, pre-Christmas “markets” to the home craft folks. I went to one…and fled.
A gay couple holding hands makes their way to buy pastries and nobody seems to notice or care that one of the men is pushing a stroller carrying an African-American infant. I wonder if the irony strikes anyone else that the scene plays out in the golden light reflected from the dome of the nearby capitol building?
On most other days, diversity on these streets is entirely represented by the kind of bird caricatured on a proudly worn baseball cap.
At 7:45, I stop by the Hmong Egg Roll stand for a veggie egg roll and to listen to sincere apologies from the vendor that they are not ready. They are never ready. But this is never a problem for me, because the whole shpiel is a weekly ritual between us. It is a pleasant day at the market, so I people watch while the vendor shouts to his crew to hurry with the veggie egg rolls…again.
Even when the weather is typically Iowan with its unforecasted torrential rain (Local weathermen have difficulty predicting sunrise) or freakishly early blizzards, I enjoy the market. Some of the best conversations take place on days when vendors outnumber patrons two-to-one.
During one such soggy visit to the market, a vendor at an Indian food stall grins and nods furiously in agreement with my observation that the pouring rain adds “authentic Mumbai charm at no extra fee”.
A group of very fit-looking young adults whips up a wheat grass drink adjacent to a stand selling Dutch letters and next to another stand selling “fried stuff on a stick” a la Iowa’s High Holy Days during its state fair.
Correspondence in the Netherlands must be difficult, there being only one letter in the Dutch language…”S”.
A guy playing a pan flute competes for attention from my ears with another street musician having a fetish for woodwind instruments of all kinds. The latter plays each instrument equally well.
It is the first time I have heard Moscow Nights played on a pan flute.
Down the street, a steel drum band promises a taste of something Caribbean, each blond-haired, blue-eyed drummer looking much more Aryan than Rastafarian.
They are wearing Hawaiian shirts for authenticity.
I buy some slightly over-priced sweet corn and toss it into the rucksack I carry for the occasion. The corn joins the three-foot long bunch of onions sticking up through the flap of an outside pocket like the antenna on a Viet Nam War era army radio.
Coincidentally, the onions were purchased from a smiling Vietnamese woman who squats comfortably on her haunches in a manner that would cause westerners to scream in agony. She is my source for Asian eggplant and for recipe tips using squash blossoms and sweet potato vines.
A stout, dark-skinned woman scurries by with an impossibly large basket of “stuff” on her head. Her companions keep her company with conversation that sounds like me clicking my tongue on the roof of my mouth. I politely ask if I may take her picture, with the Polk County courthouse in the background. She smiles and nods.
She is amused by my polite request.
I subsequently show her friends the picture and the lady with the basket protests that the woman in the picture is not she. “The one on your camera is too fat” she protests with mock sincerity. I offer one of her companions the opportunity to photograph me. They giggle and predictably decline the offer.
A few minutes later, as I sort through a pile of zucchini, I feel an urgent tap on my arm. An anal-retentive in Cyclone attire informs me that my onions “could poke someone in the eye”.
“Yes, they could”, I agree and return to my zucchini-sorting task. Keeping with the spirit of the moment, the anal-retentive stage whispers a complaint about the nearby bluegrass band being “too loud”.
I think about offering him a couple of green onions to stick in his ears.
Although bread baking is one of my favorite pastimes, one of my last stops is for Italian hearth bread from the La Mie bakery. A nearby barbeque stand offers challah, but I pass on it.
Above the traditional Jewish bread, a cartoon pig in a chef uniform advertises the name of the stand. There is something mildly off-putting about buying Shabbat bread from a stand that also sells fire-roasted pork products.
The pack is now full of zucchini, onions, sweet corn, eggplant, and a big bag of vines. I carry my loaf of bread like a priceless vase.
My marketing is now complete. I gingerly make my way past a worker at a Court Avenue bar as he hoses vomit from the sidewalk in front of the establishment’s elegant-looking façade. The deposit is a leftover from the previous night when the area is prowled by wannabe fashionistas bent on proving their sophistication by gulping down over-priced foo-foo drinks paid for with dollars they earned in a cubicle within one of the city’s many Yuppie terrariums.
The gay clatter of the steel drums fades behind me and the sky seems to darken.
I take a deep breath and begin pining for my next visit to one of my most favorite places on Earth.
This year, the Downtown Farmer’s Market resumes on Saturday, May 7th.