I’m in love with farmers’ markets. Anywhere, everywhere. I don’t consider myself to have traveled until I’ve found the little stands, the real foods, the dedicated men and women who purvey the local produce to residents and passersby. Kermit Lynch, in his delightful autobiographical saga, "Along the Wine Route," rhapsodizes about Provence — "and especially in the Rhone, where the best food is found raw in the village markets." America is more rich than we know in these meccas of vibrancy. And one of the best I’ve found is in Trenton, in operation since 1948.
I do know people who know people at the Trenton Farmers Market. On a first-name basis. Choicest cuts and all that. But I don’t want to write of or for the cognoscenti, although they will be delighted there. I want to enter simply under that protective roofline. I choose to stroll concrete aisles of this food cathedral as morning light slants across foods the hues of stained glass windows. I want to enter reverently, into the presence of authentic people and their healthy provender. This, to me, is true communion.
I choose to enter TFM not as familiar, but neophyte. I want to know what first-timers experience. Oddly, when I propose a TFM-jaunt, most people, [as with outdoor excursions], have never been here. Some get a faraway look, murmuring, "Once, long ago…" Followed by, "I keep meaning to return…"
Well, please do return, or come with me now for an introductory tasting. We’ll go down Mercer Street or take 206 South, to the cusp of Lawrenceville and Trenton where Route 206 elbows abruptly west. Within a block or so, a shy sign alerts to the sudden right turn. Now we can spend a couple hours relishing what Paris and Manhattan friends call "Gastronomic Paradise." Of course, this time of year, it even specializes in apples.
In this "garden," the fruits and the vegetables are real. And reasonable. Best of all, here — as in Europe — we interact with the people who planned, planted, fertilized, hoed, weeded, harvested, and proudly carried their exuberant produce to these stands. We bring "tourist eyes," new eyes, to these, "Les Halles" of New Jersey.
I am awash in memory here. I feel the tug of my two young daughters: first to the tomato man; the merry cauliflower lady. We have to find the peanut butter grinders; last of all, the fresh horseradish woman. Here is where we quaffed fall’s first cider, while debating between bushels of Macs or Stayman Winesaps, but never Red Delicious — to transform into redolent applesauce. Here I purchased the richest turkey of our lives. Fresh — meaning never frozen — the bird roasted too fast for its accompaniments. Yet this Thanksgiving fowl was the juiciest, most flavorful to inhale, as well as to eat, that any of us had ever encountered. That turkey needed no basting, no tending. Just patience — which was in short supply — as the bird gilded itself before our eyes, through the thick glass window in the fat oven door. But, that was then; this is now.
We tote sturdy canvas bags and a lot of small bills, out of consideration for rural purveyors. This space, like Cannes’ marche, is roofed yet open at the sides. At TFM, we need not be canny shoppers. We can even come here hungry — it adds to the savory experience. This is no mega-supermarket where it is essential to resist commercial blandishments. Quite the opposite. Here we are in touch with the earth and those who tend it. With the exception of some of the meats, if you don’t grow it, you can’t sell it at TFM. We raise our sensory antennae, open all pores. We inhale deeply, taking in welcome outdoor air blessing this site, the better to relish fragrances of true foods truly grown by locals. The French know — from la presentation de luxe at Fauchon in Paris to the mistral-strafed arrays at Cannes’ Marche Forville — each feast begins with the eye. Ours are wide open, ready for visual banquets.
"Ah!," but you protest. "Why dangle these delights before us in the time of black frost? Isn’t the Trenton Farmers’ Market on the brink of closing until spring?" By no means! These bountiful aisles are open year-round. In November its hours are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Thanksgiving week will be slightly different: open on the Tuesday and the Wednesday, so you can pick up those great birds (not limited to turkeys); closed on Thursday for the feast, then open Friday and Saturday. December’s special openings for its vital holidays will be announced.
What’s around in November? Stellar meats are perennial. Those spectacular turkeys of, ironically, Cartlidge’s Meats (609-396-3966) are joined by other forms of healthy poultry, and fresh prime meats which they age and cut themselves. It is nice to find scrapple — delicate breakfast loaf, although meat-crafted, of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Loose pork sausage — fairly leaping from its container — is the color of new roses. Homemade bockwurst, andouille, and summer sausage join "Smoked Hot Grillers." Unusual barbecue sauces, pickles, and unique bottled dressings are available to gild lilies. Ironically, many pilgrims come to Cartlidge’s now in search of their veggie burgers.
Colonial Farms (609-396-6655) also specializes in poultry. Pulaski’s Meats (609-599-4206) proffers excellence you’d normally have to travel to Poland, or France, to attain. Charming people — who all seem related — take your number. They smilingly assist you with meats, sliced and unsliced, which you may and may not know: Veal loaf. Kielbasy. Jagwurst. Krabowski Bologna. Fresh liverwurst. Black Forest hams.
Each choice will be wrapped in thick waxen butcher paper that puts our priciest Princeton emporiums to shame. Flavors will be sweet yet piquant, textures silken. Needless to say, hams are the stars of this show. Accompaniments include three kinds of freshly made, real, (red-skinned is one) potato salads that scintillate with the essence of their basic vegetables. Pickles are in generous supply. Many Polish specialties beckon on all sides: Stuffed cabbage. Pierogies. You’ll want to try absolutely every color and shape of bread, especially sugar-free brown rye and rustic multi-grain. True fruit hard candy nearly bursts out of crinkly packages.
I purchase liquid shower soap for men, from Poland, label and fragrance translated by my sweet blonde "waitperson." This is to amuse a friend currently hospitalized.
Snowy cauliflower larger than our heads presides at Cedarville Farms, also source of handsome gourds, majestic leeks. Bonnie D’Amico of D’Amico Farms cheerily walks into sunlight, so I can photograph her with a handsome squash new to me. Although called Kabucki, this is Spanish in origin and very like its acorn cousin. People use it for everything from soup to the traditional butter-and-brown sugar bake. Bonnie’s daughter is a member of Future Farmers of America. In the seventh grade, this child is the only participant in their Agricultural Mechanics class who actually lives on a farm. This family grows turnips; collard greens; fresh hefty garlic; rotund onions; and hearty scallions. Their vegetables are as electric with life as their relatives in Cannes.
Colonial Farms amazes with smoked neckbones, smoked hocks, necks and oxtails. Gizzards vie with roasted meats. Hoagies join macaroni and cheese and homemade chili. Accompaniments include Spanish rice, mashed potatoes, homemade cornbread. I find stewing chicken, which I should have purchased for the sudden homecoming of my hospitalized friend. How long has it been since I’ve seen anything but roasters and fryers? Prepared foods — fried — line one set of shelves. Juices and take-home prepared vegetables and casseroles fill cold and coldest sections behind us.
At Deitz and Watson, before a spread of deli meats and salads, we hear a disgruntled customer (even though it’s 10-ish) realize, "I gotta get here earlier, that’s all! Stuff GOES!" The man behind the counter agrees ruefully.
Italian Peoples Bakery also has its bevy of loyal shoppers. One buys Kaiser rolls, as another chooses between sourdough and San Francisco sourdough. Rolls also include "torps" and "half torps" — torpedoes. Loaves round and oval bring to mind crowns and scepters. Try to decide among onion, garlic, rye, corn rye, and my favorite — the rich and sustaining sunflower. Thanksgiving cookies are shaped like turkeys, pumpkins. These will be supplanted by Christmas trees, Santa Clauses, and snowmen cookies, as well as cupcakes, in a timely fashion.
Walking to the other end of the Market, we stop near corn shocks and Indian corn, to marvel at the many shapes and colors of spicy peppers. I purchase fluffy ruffled lettuce, like a wedding bouquet; as well as ruby tomatoes still being grown in Jersey fields. Everything here is Jersey Fresh, and never was this more obvious.
Russo’s Orchard Lane Farm — from Chesterfield (near Bordentown) — also provides field tomatoes of vibrant hue and several forms. Soon, in time for Thanksgiving, their renowned greenhouse-grown tomatoes will find their way to TFM. These will be available until Christmas. Their ruddy apples and hefty potatoes are irresistible. Nikki Russo is proud of their winter squash, butternut and acorn. But she is most excited about the colorful "Sweet Dumpling." Gold and jagged green, it makes a wonderful addition to an autumn centerpiece. If, that is, you can resist cooking it. Nikki gave me two, one of which I’ve served to a dinner guest. The texture is somewhat like bread pudding; its almost-spiced flavor the essence of autumn. I did not profane it with additions beyond a touch of sweet butter, a grating of nutmeg.
Walking TFM aisles, I feel a homesickness for Europe. Languages known and unknown — mellifluous, intriguing — burble on all sides. Polish and Russian are a conspicuous addition to the present-day market scene. I save the best for last: the Merkle family’s Olsson’s. No wonder this place supplied cheeses to Rats restaurant, and now to Souffle for museum openings at the Grounds for Sculpture and Ellarslie Museum. Princeton’s delightful Richards Market (behind Nassau Park) is also a steady customer.
It’s fascinating to sit on a chair at Olsson’s, hear Bob Merkle interacting with loyal visitors, serving up aromatic espresso with one hand, slivering cheese for a taste with the other. My own cheese monger was the norm in Cannes — but all too rare in my Princeton life. Bob helps me choose rarities for a Sunday Cool Women Poets meeting. I notice Fromage de Brebis (ewe’s cheese) from Napoleon’s native Corsica, next to Demi-Glace from the legendary D’Artagnan. King Arthur memories swirl back as I discover clotted cream from the Westlands of England.
Rare teas fill one shelf — Gunpowder, Lapsang Souchong, and the unusual red-leaf, non-tea, non-caffeine, but very restorative rooibosch. "Suitable for the whole family," this product has been grown in South Africa’s coastal mountains for 100 years. Pure Vanilla Extract rubs shoulders with "Baba Ghanouz." There are "rubs" for poultry, pork, and meat; one of which is called "Rodeo." Danish butter, Grafton cheddar from Vermont, and Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Yogurt bring visitors from many states to Olsson’s. I’ve watched Bob assist discerning customers in olive tastings: Calamata, Gaeta, Nicoise, Oil-cured, among others.
The Trenton Farmers Market is ably, even creatively, managed by a husband and wife team, Jack and Marcia Ball. Interestingly Marcia formed the initial connection, in an accounting capacity. Jack came along on the heels of a 40-year teaching career, 30 of which he spent in Trenton. Former mayor of Ewing, Jack embarked upon a new phase of community service on November 4, elected Ewing Township Councilman. The two of them weave productivity, gastronomy, and community service with unique intensity. Market personnel recently crafted 25 tall, deep gift baskets to support local troops. Even though the containers were "huge!", in Jack Ball’s amazed words, "everything wouldn’t fit in. We had to create supplemental cartons. People came in at 5:30 a.m. to start on this. We delivered to some to returned service people, others to families of those still in the theaters of operation."
Ball describes Corn Day, when they gave away around 1,500 roasted ears for patrons to consume as they strolled the aisles. Dessert Days may involve strawberries, peaches, blueberries, or melons. Around the same number of hefty walk-away desserts are eagerly given, with or without whipped cream. Ball’s commitment is to "the personal touch — to sell, to teach, to expand horizons."
Initially the market’s empty spaces were filled by farmers who rented long-term space. In the 1980s, under the Balls’ initiative, daily rentals were instituted. This program involves tables in the center aisles, utilized for three to six days. Fascinating wares — from coins to French lavender — beckon in these sections.
News to me is that gift baskets are the specialty of many purveyors. O’Hara’s Country Store, Dominicks, And Everything Nice, Pulaski Meats, Honey of a Nut, and Bob and Lorraine Merkle’s splendid global gourmet mecca will prepare baskets with a mix of perishable and non-perishable goods for local giving and for mailing. O’Hara’s, in particular, specializes in arrays for people without refrigerators, as in assisted living situations.
Jack Ball instantly knew all the merchants who were dear to my departed daughters. Annie Stewart was our horseradish lady. De Ficcio Brothers were the tomato-people. [Judy is still here, although her male relatives have passed on.] Favorite apples, and of course, blueberries, came from Pineland Farms, in Hammonton, as "Blueberry Capital of the World." Beatrice Estenes was our "cauliflower lady." She is now president of the co-op, "Trenton Market Growers’ Co-operative Inc." Ball’s relationship with these people borders on the paternal, pride sparkling in eyes and gestures as he recounts unique qualities. Ball visits the farms, watches crops-in-progress, so that the best is brought to those savvy enough to utilize the riches of Trenton Farmers Market.
At two pivotal times in my life, I was a food stylist in Manhattan, for General Foods, and for Zenja Carey Kitchens. We prepared and meticulously arranged food for live television and films, as well as for still photography, for packages and the media. We ordered from the best, believe me. And yet, the line that runs through my head as I stroll, then reluctantly leave, Trenton Farmers Market, is "Balducci’s, eat your heart out!"
Trenton Farmers Market, 960 Spruce Street, Trenton, 609-695-2998. November hours: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Thanksgiving week open on Tuesday and Wednesday; closed on Thursday, then open Friday and Saturday, November 28 and 29.