The icy landscape outside makes it hard to believe that there is still Wisconsin-grown food available at this time of year. In spite of the many reasons to eat locally — lower consumption of nonrenewable fossil fuels used in shipping, more nutritious produce and the ability to support the local economy — there is a perception that one cannot eat food from Wisconsin during the winter. However, an experience I had last weekend proved that local eating is well within our reach.
Last Saturday, I got up at the crack of 11 a.m. to brave the chilly but short walk from my apartment to the Madison Senior Center, located at 330 W. Mifflin St. The reason for my late morning walk to the Senior Center was the Dane County Winter Farmer's Market, which is held in the lobby of the Senior Center every Saturday morning from 8:30 a.m. until noon. Until April 14, when the Dane County Farmer's Market on Capitol Square opens, the winter market is the only farmer's market in Madison.
As a general rule, farmer's markets are at their busiest just as they open, but even though I showed up two-and-a-half hours after the market's opening, there were still plenty of vendors selling their wares. The lobby was packed with talkative farmers, bakers and other vendors standing behind tables overflowing with all sorts of tempting foods.
The wide variety of foods available at the market is proof that there is a bounty of local food available even when there is nothing growing outside. In addition to the many non-seasonal items like baked goods, meats and cheeses available for sale, the winter market has a reasonable amount of fresh produce available as well. Some of it, like the fresh flowers and salad greens, is grown in greenhouses, but much of the food is preserved.
The most basic form of food preservation is cellaring — simply keeping the food cool and out of direct light. This is the method that a vendor selling potatoes used to maintain the freshness of his spuds, which included starchy, new and purple-fleshed Peruvian varieties.
Sometimes, however, it takes more than mere cellaring to preserve foods; the farmers selling fresh apples and herbs had to resort to drastic measures. The apples were carefully selected varieties that keep well under refrigeration, and the herbs were preserved as pestos. Besides the classic pesto genovese — a combination of basil, pine nuts, olive oil, Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper — there were sun-dried tomato and cilantro pestos, among others. These pestos, made from Wisconsin-grown ingredients picked at the peak of freshness, are proof that a little creativity goes a long way in preserving the fresh taste of summer.
If purple potatoes and cilantro pestos leave you with some questions, fear not! The farmers are all very eager to answer any questions you may have about their products. If you've ever wondered about the nutritional content of potatoes or what varieties of apples keep well under refrigeration, the winter market is the perfect place to go.
Besides being informative, all of the farmers I talked to were also very friendly. One farmer who sold me some apples let me eat one before deciding whether I wanted to buy them. When I tossed the core in the wastebasket by his table, he said he fed the leftover apple cores to his goats. This led to a discussion about his cheese-making hobby and life on his farm. There is something truly rewarding about getting to know the people that make the food you eat, and the friendly farmers at the market make that possible.
The Winter Farmer's Market is a reminder of the days when people ate seasonally not because it was fashionable or ecologically responsible to do so, but because they had to. Through techniques like cellaring fruits and vegetables and creating sausages and cheeses, many generations of farmers in the Midwest have preserved the bounty of the harvest through the cold winter. The market gives people in Madison the opportunity to take advantage of these age-old techniques and enjoy some locally grown food at a time when our supermarkets are flooded with produce from thousands of miles away from our beloved, albeit frigid, Wisconsin.
Jason Engelhart is a junior majoring in economics and history. Do purple potatoes freak you out? Let Jason know. E-mail him at email@example.com.