Visiting the Dallas Farmers Market is one of those things that I do often during the summer. As autumn sets in, I am more likely to buy produce at the grocery store, however. I love buying fresh, local foods, but doesn’t the growing season end at some point?
Well, apparently in Texas the growing season ends a lot later than I thought! Late one afternoon, just after Halloween, we hopped in the car and headed downtown to see what was available and to people watch. If you’ve never spent time at a farmer’s market you are in for a treat – there are some really cool people with unique stories to tell.
The History of the Dallas Farmers Market
In the late 1800’s, it was common for North Texas farmers to bring their crops to town and set up in various locations to sell to grocers and the people who lived in Dallas. Back then there were no refrigerated trucks, no permanent sheds, and no advertising. It was a casual, unstructured event that filled a need.
Around 1900, the farmers began to organize a little more, and the intersection of Pearl and Cadiz was the place that they congregated. There they offered fresh from the farm produce, chickens, eggs, milk, pigs, and goats. The farmers’ wives contributed baked breads, jams, and other homemade foods.
Dallas grew and so did the farmers market. A more organized system was needed, and in 1939, the site at Pearl and Cadiz was made the official spot for the market. The first shed was built, and by 1941 it was officially sanctioned by the city.
The Dallas Farmers Market is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Even though I have been visiting the spot for decades, I was under the impression that it was only open on the weekends. How crazy is that?
Fresh and Local
At Dallas Farmers Market, there’s one shed that’s for local farmers only. This makes it easy if you are interested in tasty, fresh produce. There is also a verified local farmer designation that assures you the producer is from within 150 miles of Dallas.
When I visited, there weren’t many local farmers there. I attributed this to being late in the afternoon but it could also be that it’s so late in the season. There was still plenty of yellow squash, green beans, corn, and okra stacked in baskets, however. One stand had beautiful prickly pear fruit, which I have been fascinated with since I had an amazing margarita that was made with it.
Cold weather vegetables were not too plentiful, but there were a few, like turnip greens and kale.
I stopped to look at the baskets of huge, vine ripened, beautiful tomatoes – my culinary Achilles heel. There’s nothing that I like better than thick slices of ripe tomato with salt and pepper – nothing, not even chocolate and not even pie!
As I admired the baskets of bright, crimson tomatoes, the dealer started a conversation with me. I told him I was writing an article on the market and asked if I could take a picture, but he laughed and declined. He said there were already pictures of him at the post office. I liked him immediately.
We started talking about the tomatoes and the conversation evolved from there. It turns out that D.L. Stubblefield Produce has been at the Dallas Farmers Market for something like 57 years! The dealer pulled out a picture of the area and pointed to a picture of a man standing in front of some produce with a little girl.
“That’s my father-in-law,” he said. “And that’s my wife!”
We talked tomatoes for a while. They were grown a bit south of here, down by Killeen, where it is still a little warmer. I had a tough time choosing the basket I wanted, but eventually I had those gorgeous scarlet orbs of lusciousness in a bag in my hand. Well, actually they were in a bag in my husband’s hands because I am the buyer and he is the carrier.
A little farther down from where we were, I spied some Red Velvet Sweet Potatoes. I have never had that variety but I love to try new things. I love sweet potatoes, and these sounded like they might be an heirloom variety. “Are these sweet potatoes or yams?”
The dealer shrugged and told me sweet potatoes and yams were basically the same thing. That was a mistake. You never, ever, tell a food writer that two similar foods are the same. A friendly argument ensued, which he let me win. After all, I was buying.
I looked up the variety when I got home and, sure enough, they are an heirloom that is properly called Red Wine Velvet Sweet Potatoes. I haven’t fixed them as of this writing, but my mouth is watering just thinking of it. I can’t wait!
One of the coolest things about going to the market is talking to everyone and learning about what they grow and sell. You can pretty much tell who are the farmers and who are just people selling produce. There is a passion in the farmers that you can see – their faces light up when they are talking about the foods they are selling.
The next spot I stopped at was Round Rock Honey. Honey is another one of those things that I have a hard time walking past. I can remember one of my relatives, although I can’t remember who, kept bees and harvested honey from the hives. I was quite little and all I really remember is that we always brought some home with us, with the honeycomb right inside the Mason jar.
Round Rock Honey is unique. They have 90 hives located all over Central Texas. When the honey is blended, it has a unique flavor. I can only describe it as a flavor that is sort of like buckwheat honey, but more delicate and with floral notes. The man I talked to explained that the color of the honey changed depending on which plants were growing at the time. This batch was dark because it was so late in the season.
The honey is raw and unfiltered. There’s no worry that it’s cut with corn syrup the way some of the commercial honeys are. Three different labs check the Round Rock honey each year to test for pollutants. If you aren’t in the Dallas area or another area where they sell it, you can buy it on the Round Rock Honey website. I am telling you this stuff is delicious!
I mentioned that I had always wanted to keep bees but didn’t have the time. We talked about having a bee keeper put a hive or two on my property which would give me plenty of bees to pollinate my garden in the spring and some honey as well. I am definitely going to look in to that!
You Have to Be Careful, Too
On the other side of the street is the shed where they have produce from all over the place. A lot of this is bought from wholesalers and put in baskets to make it look local. You may or may not be getting a better deal than the grocery store, so don’t assume that just because it’s at Farmers’ Market, it’s a great deal. Always ask questions and be skeptical of any answers that don’t seem right.
For example, I saw these tomatoes stacked in baskets with a handwritten sign, Heirloom Tomatoes, $6. You know, I already said how much I prefer heirloom products, but these just didn’t look like heirlooms to me. They looked like Beefeater tomatoes. There’s not a thing wrong with Beefeaters unless you are trying to sell them as heirlooms.
I pointed at the tomatoes, “What kind are those?”
The young man smiled. “Those are heirloom tomatoes, ma’am.”
“Yes, but which heirlooms? They don’t look like Brandywines, Cherokee Purples, or anything I am familiar with.” I was truly interested in finding out what kind they were, but I was not convinced that the guy was being honest. I pointed to the Beefeater tomatoes in the basket next to them. “They look an awful lot like Beefeater.”
His eyes kind of narrowed. “They’re just heirlooms,” he said abruptly and walked away.
Needless to say, I didn’t buy anything from that booth.
This isn’t to say you can’t find some interesting things in this shed. I picked up a bunch of tiny, little bananas from Costa Rica, a yellow watermelon, and some really delicious grapes.
Grass-fed Beef and Farm Fresh Eggs
Although I didn’t get any meat this trip, I have gotten grass-fed beef and pork from North Star Ranch in the past. Cooking with grass-fed beef is a little different because it has less fat and a stronger flavor. This beef is so delicious! I feel better about eating meat that was taken from an animal that lived a normal life rather than being all cooped up and never seeing sunlight. It’s a little more expensive, but you won’t have as much waste – there is more meat in the pan when you are done cooking.
Eggs are very reasonably priced as well, but are a little more difficult to find.
Inside at the Market
The Dallas Farmers Market isn’t just outside anymore. Shed #2 has been turned into an air conditioned area that holds a variety of interesting products and little cafes. Every time we go, we walk past the barbecue place. It smells amazing, but we’ve never been there when it is open and not sold out. Apparently getting to eat there is kind of like winning Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. The place sells out fast.
Fudge, pastries, deli meat, seafood, candles, and gift items are available. There are tables where you can sit and eat lunch with the family in a cool air conditioned spot. In the winter it is a haven of heat.
There is a spice shop with hundreds of herbs and spices, a pasta shop with shelves full of all kinds of pasta, and even a place where you can buy gluten free bread.
My personal favorite is the cheese shop. If you like cheese, you definitely have to go and try some of the craft cheeses that are offered. The shops are pretty good about giving samples if there is something you aren’t sure about.
Once in a while there are cooking classes, book signings, demonstrations, entertainment, and other special events. Be sure to check the website to see when these are scheduled.
There are vendors that sell plants of all kinds. The day we went, there were flats of colorful pansies and other bedding plants, flowering kale, cold weather vegetables, and strings of dried peppers moving with the breeze.
You just never know what you are going to experience. I adore old cars, and as we were leaving, I happened to see this old Chevy El Camino with a ton of flowers in the back. I loved the look. That’s just it, you never know what you’re going to find when you get to the Dallas Farmers Market. There are people from all cultures and lifestyles, and all kinds of sights, aromas, and sounds.
When you go to a grocery store it’s always the same whether it’s summer or winter. There is background music, the same fruits and vegetables you always see, and you probably get the same products each time you shop. When you go to a farmer’s market, you never know what you are going to find, who you are going to talk to, or what you are going to see.
Shopping at a farmers market enables us to buy healthier, fresher, less expensive food, and it allows us to connect with the past on a basic level. It’s a great family day trip and a good way to help your kids make the connection between the food they eat and the farmers that grow it.
Keep in mind that you won’t be given a grocery cart at the Dallas Farmers Market. Bring your own bags and someone to carry them when they are full. I use large canvas totes and my husband. It works perfectly. You will also want to bring plenty of dollar bills. Some of the vendors take credit or debit cards, but most of them want cash. They don’t always have change for large bills so using small bills saves everyone from getting frustrated.
The majority of farmers are there on Saturdays, but some are there on Friday and Sunday as well. If you are after the best selection, come early. If you are after the best deals, come late. If you think you’ll be buying a lot of stuff, it’s a good idea to bring a wagon.
Oh, and by the way – those tomatoes that looked so good in the basket? They were even better with salt and pepper on a plate.
The Dallas Farmers Market is located at 1010 S. Pearl Expressway, Dallas, Texas 75201. The phone number is 214/664-9110. The hours of operation are 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. daily, with the exception of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays.
Images courtesy of Marye Audet.