Market Day in Madison

Photo by Sharon Vanorny
Photo by Sharon Vanorny

American farmers’ markets are almost as old as America itself. Transplanting the customs of the Old Country as well as the seeds they’d carried with them, farmers would hitch up the horse and buggy and trot into town to sell their home-grown produce. Then the practice was banished in favor of supermarkets, where shopping became about as exciting as touring a morgue. Today the movement’s come full circle, with farmers’ markets returning to claim new urban niches. 

They’re crammed with customers who’ve had their fill of plastic-wrapped tomatoes with a shelf life longer than your modern marriage. Instead, they’re seeking flavor. They’re also searching for connections with the past and with the land. They’re getting back in tune with the changing seasons, where nothing beats the thrill of spying the first asparagus in spring or corn in August. If they cannot grow their own dinner, they want to discuss it with the folks who did. Kids who thought tomatoes came in cans can sink their teeth into one picked just that morning. Growers can connect with real, live consumers, not railroad cars. 

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

The Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, Wisconsin, is the largest open-air market in the Midwest, and one of the oldest, straight out of a movie set of small-town America. Every Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., April to November, it fills a giant, eight-block square anchored by the State Capitol where over 200 vendors congregate to display what they’ve picked or produce on their small holdings. No absentee owners are eligible, nor may anything be brought in that is not produced in Wisconsin. That’s the beauty of it.

The market originated close to 30 years ago when Jonathan Barry, selling produce out of the back of his pickup truck near the Capitol steps, figured he was losing more money in parking tickets than he took in on corn and peas. He bent the ear of the mayor and enlisted the support of the County Agricultural Agent. Backed by a “go for it!” from both, Barry became the market’s first manager. 

These days it’s become the social event of the week. Town meets gown on equal footing as politicians trade briefcases for shopping bags and college students converge with backpacks to load up. Senior citizens greet neighbors as they select a week’s worth of cherries and lamb chops for Sunday dinner. Faculty wives, parading with stalks of gladioli like patriotic flags, select the perfect fruit vinegar, fresh herbs and goat cheese to dress the salad. Families pull toddlers in red wagons, sharing space with a peck of spuds. Chefs such as Odessa Paper of l’Etoile, a café which overlooks the square, can be spotted meticulously choosing the makings of the evening’s menu.

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

The regulars come early, grasping mugs of coffee, circling counter-clockwise in slow motions as they chat with favorite vendors. By now they’re all on first-name terms. “You guys like beans? These are really good beans,” calls one. “Walk around. Compare them with every bean you see.” 

Jim, “the melon man,” had his first garden at age four. “I loved it ever since,” he grins, preparing a vegetable stir-fry of “what’s good today” for customers to sample. Around closing time he offers Jim’s Famous Bag Special—two dollars buys you everything your sack can hold. “They go home and make a bargain supper, and I go home with an empty truck,” he explains.

If Jim’s the melon man, call John Mr. Potato. And his advice is thrown in free. “How are you going to fix those?” he asks a customer, who volleys, “I’m open to suggestions.” 

Annie is a self-professed “recovering academic” who bought her first goats in 1984. Today she markets her famous goat cheese at a stand festooned with photos of the herd (Angie and Gilda Radner among them). 

Ken grows apples with pedigrees that could put the DAR to shame. There’s the Spitzeneberg, brought to America from Germany. His own favorite is the King David. “I say ‘thank you’ for each one I eat. Give me a King David apple, a little cheese, a glass of wine and some Mozart. That’s a perfect evening.” Many folks of Dane County are prone to agree. 

Photo by Sharon Vanorny

As people take their purchases to the Capitol lawn for an impromptu picnic, they’re entertained by strolling magicians, musicians, dancers and mimes. Each week a special festival is highlighted, from the Taste of Madison, in which the city’s restaurants offer samples culled from the provender in their midst, to Cows on the Concourse, the most popular event of the season, complete with dairy cows on hand for petting, a C&W band and vendors of dairy products offering everything from ice cream sundaes to strawberry shortcake piled with whipped cream.

Madison is a straight shot east on I-94. If you’re tempted to stay overnight, here are some B&Bs close by where you can rest your head in style and comfort: Collins House, 704 E. Gorham St., 608-255-4230, [email protected], a Prairie-style home overlooking Lake Mendota; Arbor House, 3402 Monroe St., 608-238-22981 [3editor: no website given] , an environmentally-dedicated inn  across from the University’s arboretum; Canterbury Inn, 315 W. Gorham St., 800-838-3850, [email protected], perched atop a bookstore-cum-café, with a book theme derived from the Canterbury Tales; and Mansion Hill Inn, 424 N. Pinckney St., 800-798-9070,, an elegant, ornate and luxurious home of the 1850s. 

As befits a college/capitol town, Madison’s restaurants range from ethnic to elegant. Several take pride in trolling the farmers’ market to stock their kitchens, such as  l’Etoile, facing the Capitol, for over 25 years run by proprietor/chef Odessa Piper, called the Alice Waters of the Midwest (25 N. Pinckney St., 608-251-0500); its neighbor, Harvest, offering a regional American menu at 21 N. Pinckney St., 608-255-6075; and Marigold Kitchen, 118 S. Pinckney St., 608-661-5559, an informal setting for fresh, seasonal food. For more information contact the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-373-6376.

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