Whatever draws people--and their dogs--to farmers' markets, they're an increasingly popular urban phenomenon, and a visit to the Sunday morning market at St. Philip's Plaza--at River Road and Campbell Avenue--shows why. Not only can you buy most of what you need for several days of terrific meals under the white-trunked sycamores; you can taste nearly everything on display, talk to the people who grew it or cooked it, get a cup of just-roasted coffee and a sandwich, and if you need a more comprehensive treat, go to brunch at Acacia.
And on Sunday morning, there's not even any traffic on Campbell.
"This is the nicest market," said Adela Durazo, who makes Poco Loco Specialty Salsas with her husband, Gilbert. They make the rounds of the better farmers' markets--including Oro Valley, Tubac and the new one at the UA.
"You have to be invited to this one, and everything here is the best of the best," said Durazo.
She broke off to explain her salsa selection and offer samples to a young couple. The young man, predictably, went for the Stupid Hot Salsa, made with 10 different chiles.
"The recipe's not passed down or anything--we just figured it out," she explained. "It keeps getting hotter the longer it sits in the refrigerator. If you aren't going to finish it in a week, freeze half, is what I tell people. Freezing is the only thing that stops it."
The young man's face had begun to go pale.
"They go for the Stupid Hot. I have no pity for them," said Durazo.
Across the way, Paul Smith, lately of San Francisco, was offering tastes of nitrite- and nitrate-free natural pork salami from Sonoma County. At another booth, a woman munched on one of the Durazos' hand-stretched mesquite flour tortillas (from Tortilleria Arevalo in Three Points) as she offered samples of Doctor Hummus vegan Mediterranean specialties--various flavors of hummus, homemade pita chips and baklava.
Along the same row, there was a ranching couple from West Texas selling range-fed beef, and a guy with coolers full of Alaskan wild salmon.
"Friends don't let friends eat farmed salmon," read a sign on the table in front of him.
Fervent emotions about food production and quality were everywhere. A hand-lettered rectangle of cardboard hanging on the La Oesta Gardens canopy, for example, enjoined us to know where our produce comes from, in no uncertain terms, and identified the gorgeous array of greens, lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and squash beneath it as being homegrown, handpicked and from an organic farm near Glendale. On the other side of the market, a sign on the RichCrest Farms table read, "Life is too short for tasteless tomatoes."
No argument here.
Life is also too short not to eat barbecue, so we headed on over to the Rod's K.C. Barbecue kiosk, where the man himself, Rodney George, was dishing up the same succulent beef tips, pork and other shamelessly animal-based specialties he serves at his restaurant on Fourth Avenue.
George and his assistant, Chef Bruce Bliss, love the market at St Philip's.
"We do great here, better than we do at the restaurant, because here, people can get to us," George said, chopping pork. "The situation with the parking on Fourth Avenue is killing me. People come in and say they've been driving around and around, and then if they park wrong, they get a ticket. I got a $100 ticket one day when I was unloading wood for the restaurant, and when I went downtown, the judge just laughed. It's terrible. Pickles with that?"
The sandwich was for now; for later, we picked up a couple of frozen empanadas from Kris Masalsky, co-owner of Mama Llama's Empanadas--Tucson's most euphonious business. Mama Llama's has a space on North Craycroft Road, but, Masalsky said, it's mostly for production purposes.
"The markets have been a great marketing tool for us," she said. Like most of the vendors at St. Philip's, she circulates through several markets every week, giving out samples, selling her wares and building a following for her product.
Mama Llama's, which was named after a children's book, has been in existence and slowly expanding since 1999. Their main business is catering and selling frozen pies to bed and breakfasts, but Aqua Vita Natural Foods store on North Country Club Road is beginning to carry their pies.
Having been to the St. Philip's market several times before, we were familiar with these--accurately described on the Web as The Best Empanadas in the World!-- and bought two frozen Viva Argentina! empanadas to take home for dinner.
Loaded down and wrestling a dog who urgently wanted to return to the barbecue kiosk, we stopped by Terra Verde Farms' booth, where we'd also shopped before. We needed to restock the Hatch green chile salsa.
At the booth, we chatted with Herm and Joan Wille, who represent Terra Verde in Southern Arizona. Herm is a retired senior marketing executive with Kraft foods who now spends his days with Joan, making the rounds of the better farmers' markets, meeting up with the other vendors at the UA mall one day, in Oro Valley another.
"This is our Sunday family," Joan said, looking around.
"We first encountered the green salsa when we were visiting Tubac and then couldn't find it again," said Herm. "So when we did find it, I thought, this is something we could represent. Since Christmas, people who got one of our products as a stocking stuffer have been showing up, looking for more."
A native of Tucson and graduate of the UA, Wille moved back to Tucson in 2003 after 21 years in New York City. There, the Willes lived across the street from the World Trade Center. Herm was at home with their small dog on Sept. 11.
"I saw a lot. Too much," he said; then he insisted we try the raspberry cocoa preserves.
We ended up with a jar of those, too.
Manish Shah, who runs the St. Philip's market and several others from the premises of his booming tea company, Maya Tea, says that he thinks the social aspect of farmers' markets is as important as the quality of the goods.
"People tend to underrate the validity of relationship," he says. "Our markets are places where, yes, you can get a fresh egg from a carefully fed chicken and lettuce picked that morning--but they're also entertainment, even theater."
Masalsky, of Mama Llama's, agrees.
"You see the same people every week, spending the whole morning here. It's a community, and we all need that."