Let's face it. Some people just feel lost in the supermarket. It's big, impersonal and temperature-regulated, and you're not supposed to squeeze the produce.
Not so with the Burbank Farmers' Market. At that bustling open-air emporium at 3rd Street and Grinnel Drive, customers and stall operators greet each other noisily. A farmer explains how to cook Japanese pumpkins. And most merchants take the squeeze test one step further--by offering free samples.
The market, open Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., is one of two in the San Fernando Valley. A smaller market in Pacoima operates Saturdays from 7 to 10 a.m.
In Burbank, vendors turn over 3.25% of their profits to St. Joseph Medical Center Foundation, which runs the market. This year the foundation expects to receive about $10,000 from the market, spokeswoman Joanne Sugar said.
The colorful and pungent market draws an eclectic crowd. Ranchers from Bakersfield hawk 10 kiwis for $1. Sari-clad Indian women from central Los Angeles shop for unusual spices.
Some Riverside and Central California vendors get up at 4 a.m. to drive to Burbank to assemble their stalls. Customers often arrive early to be first in line. A number of older customers from the San Fernando Valley, lured by prices that typically run 30% less than retail, also frequent the 2-year-old market. Clustered around the stalls, they rub elbows with well-coifed women in mink coats.
More than 2,000 customers trek to downtown Burbank each week to peruse the pomegranates, ogle the whole Pacific snapper or load up on kohlrabi and collard greens.
Some, however, such as Burbank resident Zinita Sawyer, concentrated on more basic fare one morning. Sawyer bought carrots and bell peppers, which she planned to take to her son in Chicago.
"He can't get the selection or the variety over there," Sawyer said, holding a bag with 10 bunches of carrots. "I'll probably hand-carry it on the plane with me."
Sawyer and others insist that the plump, golden carrots sold at the market are sweeter than the store-bought kind.
June Imamoto, a vegetable vendor, said this is because the produce is grown on small farms and shipped fresh to the market. Her husband grows vegetables and herbs in Moorpark, for instance, and every Thursday night, the Imamotos gather on the porch of their North Hollywood home to sort and bunch the week's harvest in preparation for market day.
Like a vendor from Scarborough Fair, Imamoto sells fresh parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme--for 50 cents a bunch. For more variety, there's tarragon, dill, basil and marjoram. She also sells herbs in pots.
Imamoto's prices compare favorably with those in supermarkets. Gelson's markets carry many of the same varieties--but charge about twice the price for bunches half as large.
Some customers say they are drawn as much by the old-world, carnival atmosphere as by the prices.
"It's fun shopping outside," said Phil Kierstead of North Hollywood. On this day, he brought two friends with him. They wait in a long line to buy fresh clams and shrimp from a truck with a sign that reads: "BETHANY FISH MARKET."
"This is their first time here," Kierstead said of his friends, as if discussing a rite of initiation. "We must have $50 worth of food in the car already."
At the head of the line, Phuong Vane waited on customers. He shoveled large oysters--at 50 cents each--into plastic bags, and cut up slabs of striped bass that sold for $2 per pound.
Vane, a cheerful Vietnamese emigre, said the seafood comes from Monterey Bay. His brother catches it, his father trucks it to Los Angeles and Vane sells it, doing a brisk business. As he talked about the family business, his hands flew, wrapping fish, handing parcels to customers and collecting money.
"He's got very good fish," said a customer who was not queued up for seafood. "I'm waiting for the line to go down before I buy mine."
On the market's northern edge, Ledra Weigert, formerly of Georgia, prowled the stalls looking unsuccessfully for okra.
Weigert, who lives in North Hollywood, also likes turnip greens, but explained that at most grocery stores, the greens are discarded. At Masato Takahashi's stand, however, she found turnips with greens intact.
"Once you build up customers and they know what you've got, they come back," Takahashi said wisely.
Weigert agreed. "Now I won't have to run all over town," she said, gripping her packages.