Market under the overpass

Posted July 30, 2009, at 10:22 p.m.

Of all of the things I expected to find in Baltimore, an enormous Sunday morning farmers market underneath the I-83 overpass wasn’t one of them.

Every week, the unexpected area tucked under an interstate ramp bursts to life, full, flowering and festive. The city transforms as I walk toward the market. First, it is just a small patch of color surrounded by the usual cement, pavement and vehicles. As I get closer and walk into the market, the bustle of stalls and produce dominates even the dull rumble of trucks overhead. Fellow city-goers mill about me between the stalls, their arms laden with bags of fresh food. I am transported from the ugly, graffiti-lined merging of highway and cinderblock into a pocket of county-fairlike freshness — the local farmers market of downtown Baltimore.

It’s magic.

One of the first things that always strikes me is the color. Table upon table of fruit greet me at the entrance: peaches, blueberries, strawberries and apples, their bright colors spilling out of the green cartons stacked in neat rows. I search for the week’s best deals before buying a pint of raspberries. These I will turn into pie, or cover in yogurt and granola — if they even make it home. I snack on my berries as I continue to walk through the stalls, leaving telltale stains on my fingers.

Deeper into the market, vegetable stalls compete for the best deals and the nicest produce. Piles of lettuce sit in leafy bundles next to squash, potatoes and radishes. I smell the herbs before I see them: Bunches of mint and basil send their mixed aromas out into the market. Customers barter and chat with the food-sellers, picking up everything from recipe advice to planting secrets.

“The rain this month has been incredible!”

“I tried to grow some of this on the roof of my apartment,” one customer told the woman selling basil, “but it didn’t work out.”

“Really,” she asks. “What happened?” They discuss the ins and outs of urban farming while she repositions the piles of produce laid out for purchase.

The farmers market under the overpass has almost everything: fruit, vegetables, bread, fresh farm eggs, milk, homemade yogurt, meat — even homemade pickles. Stalls selling prepared food are interspersed among the groceries, advertising breakfast burritos, gazpacho, fresh lemonade and coffee for the shoppers. If one wanted to, one could do all of their weekly shopping right here.

I cannot afford to buy a lot of food here, but I come every week and I always purchase something. My friend gets her milk here, bringing back the glass bottles from the week before and refilling them. The best part of the farmers marker is meeting and connecting with the people who grow the food. Markets are so much more personal than mainstream supermarkets. The festival air, human interaction and, of course, delicious food seem to be staples of farmers markets everywhere — even, it turns out, in the most unexpected of locations.

A few weeks ago, I was winding my way through the stalls when I spotted a woman who looked very much like a girl I had done an Outward Bound course with when I was 16. Outward Bound, an outdoors, experiential educational program, tends to foster close bonds, but I hadn’t seen this girl in eight years. On a whim, encouraged by the din of the crowd, I decided to call out her name. To my enormous surprise, she looked up at once.

“Hi,” I said. “I, uh, didn’t expect that to actually work. I did Outward Bound with you when we were both in high school …”

“Hey, Meg,” she said. “I remember you.” She grinned.

“I guess neither of us look that different.” We both began laughing.

We bought two glasses of fresh lemonade and sat down on a concrete partition just outside of the market to chat, eagerly swapping stories of where our lives have gone since that summer trip that so influenced us both. Eight years is a lot of time to catch up on.

Part of me feels as if this small-town chance encounter was prompted by the magic of the urban farmers market, though I know it to be coincidence. Even so, each Sunday morning excursion to this market feels like stepping into an enclave of rural commerce in the midst of a city.

“What are you getting this week?” my roommate asks me on Sunday morning as I get ready to go out the door. “Mushrooms? Strawberries? Broccoli … or maybe fresh peaches?”

“I’m sure I’ll find something,” I say. “It’s the farmers market under the 83 overpass — you never know what you’re going to find, but it’s bound to be good.”

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. E-mail her at madams@bangordailynews.net.

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