Cool as a Cucumber

PeachesThe place to be on Saturday.

Written by Scott Jones

Photography by Beau Gustafson

As the Market at Pepper Place celebrates its 15th anniversary, crowds are bigger than ever, from downtown hipsters to suburban soccer moms. Join me for a peek inside to see why the popularity of this Saturday morning hot spot continues to soar.

It’s on. From now until mid-December, come rain or shine, The Market will be the gathering place each Saturday from 7 a.m. to noon. Count on it. And whether it’s the multi-block, summertime affair showcasing vendors throughout the Pepper Place parking lot and along 29th Street or the truncated, parking lot-only market in the fall, you’ll find more producers and artisans than ever.

So what’s behind this increase?  Lisa Beasley, the Market manager, believes people’s desire for more access to locally produced food and a deeper connection to community are primary drivers. She also notes a more keen appreciation for the cost of buying local spurring interest among consumers too.

Meredith McMillan couldn’t agree more. The owner of Merry Cheese Crisps has sold her unique take on cheese straws at the Market for three years. “I feel like with the recession, Birmingham wants to support local products and promote small start-ups like never before,” she explains.

Take a quick stroll along a bank of vendor tents and it’s easy to see McMillan’s sentiments in action as families create that special connection by putting money in the hand of a food producer or farmer. She believes the Market is helping folks understand and respect the value of buying local and what they’re getting verses buying something cheaper at the grocery store.

Listen to the conversations, however, and it quickly becomes apparent that today’s shoppers are, in many ways, very different from those 15 years ago when the Market first opened. Artist and cooking enthusiast Charles Walton, an early adopter of the Market, believes life in the fast lane has, for many, severed ties to the kitchen and the most basic of ingredients. “It used to be that when people went to the farmers’ market they knew what they wanted and how to cook it—that’s no longer the case,” he reflects. “People live very busy lives and are basically out of touch with their food.”

Beasley and her team have developed programming—from cooking demos to cooking classes—all in an effort empower new cooks and encourage the entire family to share in the market excitement. Of course one of the best ways I’ve found to learn is to just ask. Farmers’ markets in general are by their very nature convivial gatherings, right? So, if you have a question or are unsure about how to select something, step up to the plate and ask away. There’s no telling what you’ll learn or what helpful tip you’ll glean. Farmers love sharing their knowledge, recipes, and cooking tips.

But the fun doesn’t stop with the food. There are plenty of social and entertainment aspects to the Market as well. And each year, the offerings only get more robust adding to its attraction and appeal to all Magic City residents—not just the foodies. Between filling bags with ripe Sand Mountain tomatoes and juicy Chilton County peaches or picking up a fresh-baked pound cake, market-goers are as likely to hear live jazz and bluegrass as they are to watch an artist handcraft jewelry.

“There’s a certain magic down here. The Market is just buzzing with life,” says Aaryn Melinkoff, co-owner of The Fresh Squeeze, while juicing up a batch of Spicy Samurai (carrot, apple, and ginger juices). After pausing for a sec, he adds, “This place builds community and the family-friendly atmosphere just breeds good vibes.”

Right on, dude. Right on. Stay hungry, Birmingham.

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