Hollywood early on a Sunday morning resembles a blanket-stealing lover, the kind you gaze at in the half light and suspect of feigning sleep. I had detected a general resistance to the arrival of Sunday in the local populace, evidenced by the inference that no one voluntarily wears spandex and high heels for a morning stroll. Then again, we were in Hollywood.
We started with a robust coffee from Groundwork on Cahuenga. Felicia, an accomplished food writer and morning person, led the charge to the fabled Hollywood Farmers Market. Ana and I sported hastily styled hair, reusable shopping bags, sensible shoes and a shared hysteria from insufficient sleep. Despite this, Ana the black belt organic food champion was excited by the prospect of local, sustainable, organic produce. I was just plain excited.
One block away, the scent of incense was faint. Half a block away, the scent was stronger, and mixed in with cooking smells that reminded me I hadn’t eaten since the good natured busyness of cooking for Felicia’s party in Pasadena the night before. We rounded the corner on Sunset Boulevard and were greeted by a riotously colourful crowd of tents. A combination of caffeine and instinct told me that this was going to be a good day.
I love the process of losing myself meandering through markets. I will spend hours eating from street stalls, touching and smelling everything while surreptitiously peeking into other people’s shopping baskets. I love the tangle of humanity and the theatricality of these spaces. If it was legal I’d follow people home and demand to know what they were cooking for dinner.
From my research in advance of our outing I’d read that the Hollywood Farmers Market has operated for over 10 years from the junction of Ivar and Selmar Avenue, between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard. Every Sunday, produce from around 90 local and mostly organic farms, 30 baked and prepared food vendors and scores of local artisans attracts thousands of locals, tourists and celebrities. Felicia blogs about farmers markets and seasonal produce for the LA Weekly, and Ana and I were being treated to a private version of her market tour.
Our first stop reignited a long running debate. Patrick swore Carlsbad oysters had a sweeter flavour while Felicia feigned strong conviction that he was surely mad. Patrick was all Southern Californian smiles, flashing white teeth and tanned musculature as he expertly shucked half a dozen Luna oysters. The attendant ladies swooned as he told them he’d been up since 4am working on the boat “pulling these babies up fresh this morning”.
Equally enchanting, Lily Baltazar’s herbs were like some kind of voodoo magic. It was too little after 8am and she was an Art Nouveau painting, surrounded by masses of delicately fragrant herbs, her long dark tresses fluttering in an invisible breeze. In awe I wondered to myself what time she must have woken up to put those false eyelashes on. I bought lemongrass, basil and lemon verbena, half expecting to find a love potion scrolled up inside. All around me people unselfconsciously inhaled deeply from bunches of mint and rosemary held close, making moaning sounds that startled passersby.
We went on to learn that amongst many other things, Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms in Tehachapi grows a Spanish varietal pepper known as Padron chillis. We were told that one in ten of them are really hot, but the trouble is that there is no way of knowing which one. Alex mused that they’d been surprisingly popular with the thrill seeking Hollywood crowd. He put an end to a celebrity growing rumour going around that he was growing garbanzo beans this year, but whispered conspiratorially that he would soon have red brussell sprouts. I marvelled at this slice of insider information and felt like I’d been given a glimpse into the lives of the farmers market congnoscenti.
Ana called a time out and we convened in an awed huddle while she opened a little box of persian mulberries. She’d spied the last box on Shaheen Zekavat’s table, and had to flip a coin with another guy to get to them. They were a miracle, like eating clouds of perfume. Unlike other vendors Shaheen is not a full time farmer, only harvesting and selling the sweet, tart mulberries grown on her property on Lake Hughes for a few weeks each year in memory of her mother who had loved tending the orchard.
We stopped at the tent opposite with the two cute Asian boys selling bunches of sweet muscatels. They told Felicia that they wouldn’t be at the market after September. They didn’t say where they’d be, they just winked and confirmed my belief that market people are gypsy folk, with a rhythym and rituals distinct from others. I bought a pound of ivory skinned Gaya melon and mythical Kyoho grapes from a woman who was surely the palest Sakura in all Hollywood. There is a history of Japanese farming around the Hollywood area and I fantasised that she worked at a farm where the harvesting was done at night with flickering gas lamps, where pale hands plucked slender Japanese eggplants glowing in the moonlight.
Pressing on, we formed the immediate consensus about the strangeness of the fig man. I caught my look of confusion mirrored in his sunglasses as his jokes splattered on the floor like the upturned box of Mission blues. Felicia explained that the fruit now would taste nuttier and be drier than ones we’d tasted in Pasadena at the start of the season.
I bought a basket. She was right. Travelling along the spectrum of the taste of fruit was somehow life affirming.
Having lapped most of the produce aisle we made a minor detour to the Soleil cheese tent. Nice ladies with curled white hair offered spoonfuls of mind bending goat’s cheese laced with the likes of lavender and honey, seemingly unaware of the lives they were ruining. Tourists and out-of-towners staggered zombie-like from their clutches and collapsed nearby, knowing they would never taste anything like it as long as they lived. Even under heavy interrogation demanding the truth about their product they simply smiled and pointed at a laminated picture of seven goats.
We were laden with heavy bags of food that served as a handy reminder that one must not sink into a heady existential despair and throw oneself off a bridge anytime soon. Regrouping in the piss soaked concrete stairwell of a glamorous Hollywood multi level car parking facility, I felt like we had tumbled in and out of a portal into a separate dimension, and couldn’t comprehend how that many stories, experiences and tastes been squeezed in to one morning.
Weeks later I rode an early Amtrak train from Anaheim to Union Station, transferred to a Metro Red Line to Hollywood and Vine, and returned to the market sans Felicia and Ana. Patrick was still there wooing the ladies with the 4am oyster farming sales pitch and I overheard Alex telling the Padron chilli tale. The Soleil ladies were still cheerfully wreaking havoc with their innocuous little white spoons on innocent people. As foretold, the muscatel boys were not there.
There were new stories. I met the bee keeper who moved hives with a forklift onto a flat bed truck and went driving in search of orange blossom, flowering eucalyptus and buckwheat to infuse the flavour of honey. I stood and sketched treasure chests of exotic mushrooms with names like Blue Foot and Bunashinesi, foraged from secret locations in the surrounding hills. There was the empanada splashed with a salsa that was an elegy to tomatoes, promptly followed by a frenzy of gyros, felafel, dolmades, spiced rice and the idea that I could go on like this for ever. My date for the day, Mike, revived me with strawberry lemonade and gently directed me to stand in the shade and exhale slowly into a paper bag.