The international language of farmer’s markets

I learned about the mercado al aire libre in high school Spanish, and the phrase-which means "open air market," or literally, "market of the free air"-turned up again in college. Mercado al aire libre is a great teaching tool, in that it clues you into four dynamic words. In South America, where I spent a year tooling around, I finally had to stop asking where it was. Nobody on the street seemed familiar with the concept. Indeed it was self-evident. Yes, obviously the market is open air. Which market were you looking for? Fruits and veggies? Go that way …

Had I just saved my breath and asked for the mercado, we would have gotten there a little sooner. But in fairness, my academic preparations were right in that the mercado al aire libre is ubiquitous, even if the South Americans streamlined the name from the Olde European Spanish. Indeed, virtually every community in the world has a market, and many towns and cities have multiple market options. Unlike other ubiquitous institutions like hospitals or government, a person can operate in a market without knowledge of the local language, provided they speak marketese, the international language of farmers markets.

If somebody is familiar with a market in their home town, they speak it, and can operate in a market, as a buyer or even as a seller, without speaking a lick of the local tongue. As long as the customer has money and the vendor has product, and there are enough fingers to communicate numbers, or ideally a calculator to pass back and forth like an ancient writing tablet, the market poses no language barrier.

So it’s no wonder that farmers markets, as we call them here, are often a welcoming type of place to new arrivals. What better way to become acquainted with one’s new home ground, and the plants that grow there?

This is especially true for immigrants that come from farmy places, who quickly adapt to local growing conditions and become vendors. My town is home to a large population of Russian-speaking eastern European immigrants, and Hmong, a Southeast Asian tribe from the hills and mountains of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Southeast Asia, in other words. They aided the United States’ CIA and Armed Forces during the Vietnam war. One specialty was rescuing downed pilots, as they were so good in the hills and bush. Since then, the U.S. government has returned the favor with something of a decades-long reverse travel ban for Hmong.

The Russians have figured out how to grow their cucumbers, dill and horseradish, while the babushkas bring amazing quantities of potatoes. The Hmong, meanwhile, are keen observers of what grows and sells well here, bringing an assortment more in line with what you would expect from a small diversified vegetable farm. They have also taken to the local hills and mountains, especially the elders, who bring impressive quantities of huge, beautiful huckleberries and morels for their English speaking kids and grandchildren to sell at market.

As they’ve adapted, they’ve employed some tricks from home, like the eating of young squash leaves, which I learned about from a friend in the Hmong community.

So the other day I made the following squash leaf stir-fry, with my Hmong friends on my mind.

Hmong Squash Leaves

(If you don’t have squash leaves, proceed without them)

1 or 2 pieces of bacon cut crosswise into inch-chunks (alternatively, cooking oil of your choice).

2 or 3 squash (or zucchini or pumpkin) leaves, on the young side, so they are tender and small and can be left whole. Trim out the stems.

Garden veggies: I used homegrown peas, basil, tomatoes, garlic and Hmong grown baby carrots (and a gringo-grown onion). I considered using market zucchini, but my dish felt busy enough.

Soy sauce

Fish sauce or oyster sauce

Lime or rice vinegar

Cook the bacon in a pan on low-ish. When it starts to give up the grease, add the squash leaves and help them lay flat in the pan in the grease. Monitor both leaves and bacon, turning when necessary and steering them into a light crisp. Remove each leaf and bacon slice when ready.

Add the carrots, sliced, to the grease, and the sliced onion, turning up the pan as necessary for a steady, mellow cooking. Add tomatoes, in chunks, and ginger if you have it, and garlic, along with a squirt of fish or oyster sauce.

Finally, add the peas and basil and soy sauce, and stir-fry for just a second. Add back the bacon and squash leaves, add pinches of black pepper and garlic powder, and a dash of lime juice or rice vinegar, and stir around one more time. Serve with hot sauce and rice.

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