It was actually hot here today in Minneapolis. Normally in early October, I’m thinking about the arctic air that will dip south to spend its winter vacation draped around me, along with its brood: snow, slush, the amnesia that seemingly only attacks the winter driving abilities of unprepared Minnesotans, myself included — lulled into complacency by fickle summer; unwelcome but familiar visitors.
The Twins had lost once again, tossed from the playoffs with a bare whimper the night before, all too compliant victims in yet another three-game post-season sweep. It was a sad, sudden but not unexpected turn of events. The bums were getting used to being flicked off to irrelevance -- like a dried out booger from the finger of a giant, or a Yankee. I was beginning to grow used to it as well.
Serious questions would need to be addressed this off-season., and I knew I would follow them in the papers. I used to have a few friends that liked to talk hot-stove league on snowy days in December, but not so much now.
I had run down to Cub to pick up some few things. On my way home, I drove past a small throng of people in a parking lot nestled between a storefront and a post office, both normally closed on Sundays. It looked every bit like a small street fair that had suddenly, inexplicably popped into existence out of the thin, warm fall air.
Vaguely aware of it being Sunday, I at first thought of a church rummage sale, although I’m not sure why. Needing to be nowhere special, on a whim I turned two blocks past and drove around the street behind. All parking spaces on both sides of the block were filled. I felt a twinge of resentment at having to perhaps walk so far, before I realized how ridiculous that was. It wasn’t winter yet, after all. I wheeled around and tried the block the side opposite of the street the throng had gathered on.
Now only a mile or so away from my house, I drove past nevertheless unfamiliar storefronts. A small restaurant promised hot tacos and Dos Equis beer inside. A smiling pepper wearing a sombrero and a Pancho Villa moustache waved a white gloved hand cheerfully from the window. In the other hand he held a soaped picket sign guaranteeing me freshness.
Across the street from the taco place a black man in a black tie and a pressed white shirt held open a large oak door for a woman, bent and frail with age, who had somehow managed to climb the flight of concrete steps leading to it. I knew without seeing a sign it was a church and realized, despite its proximity to my home, I had never seen the church before, had never even been down this street before.
There was suddenly, happily, a parking spot up the far side of the street opposite the crowd that had first caught my attention, and I took it. A few smiling young families; yuppies and hippies alike, walked happily up and down the sidewalk, in and out of the deserted parking lot turned bustling marketplace, baskets in some hands, hempen bags in others.
I’m not sure how I’d missed it before, having lived in the neighborhood for the past year and some odd months. But I had.
I crossed the busy street and walked in, stopping at the first stand I saw. There a cheerful, rawboned woman was holding court over a booth decorated with posters that proudly extolled the virtues of Wisconsin. She was busily explaining the many health benefits of cheese to two young women, who seemed wrapped in awe and who nodded in agreement whenever prompted.
Cheese, raw milk cheese, a sign promised me it was cave aged. I remembered writing a paper on the subject back in an introductory class at the culinary school I have been attending for the past year. I spotted a wedge that looked likely. 10 bucks for a half pound or so chunk, about what you’d pay for really good imported Gruyere around here. She offered me a sample quickly cut from a block with a cheese-smeared knife, almost without looking at me, still involved with her earlier customers.
It was rich and nutty, cream colored on the inside. The flavor growing sharper, the texture firmer the further I got as my teeth slowly marched up to the dark brown rind. It was delicious. I bought the wedge, happy now that I had stopped to investigate, and moved on.
At the next stand over a girl of about 12 stood behind a fold-out banquet table covered with mason jars and bright with colors. Pickles. Peaches, something called krak; a home canned light green and white flecked vegetable puree of some sort.
And there were jams.
Pint jars upon pint jars of brightly colored jam, some dark enough to be almost foreboding Some bright like jewels, some of these even yransparent enough to read a newspaper through. All looking like round glass treasure boxes, vibrant with the preserved summer that lay waiting, trapped inside.
I overspent a bit, I fear. The girl informed me, despite the same information being on a dozen signs behind her as she pushed up her glasses, that the small jars were four dollars, the large jars five. I grabbed 2, 3, 4 pints of jellies. Blackberry, Raspberry, the Strawberry twins; Rhubarb and Pepper. ****. Apple. Golden apple, yellow tinged and opaque - as clear as a thrifty man’s lemonade.
7, 8, 9, a red one, a black one, another red. And here… Orange Marmalade, with thin curls of sweet/bitter rind suspended tantalizingly within; and a large jar of peaches - to be turned into pie on a cold winter day sometime soon - to boot.
My arms now quite full, I had my salesgirl’s full attention and she began hunting for plastic bags, bonuses the grower had procured by shopping at Cub and Target. We looked at my loot, and decided the bags would not do - even doubled, she wanted to make sure there were no sad scenes involving me, the jellies and the hard macadam of the parking lot market.
She thought hard about our problem a moment or two before deciding I should have a box. Almost nervous, at the weight of her decision, she glanced at her father, or uncle or whoever the man was who stood on the other side of the stand. He was busy with another customer, so she solemnly made up her own mind, ready to defend her decision to allow me one of the cardboard boxes the grower had used to pack his wares in.
Time to settle up. She pulled out her cell phone and hurriedly typed on the keypad, she was excited and telling me how good they all were, especially the raspberry, which she assured me was her personal favorite. 28 dollars she announced. Plus the pickled beans. 33 dollars. I suddenly realized that all I had left was a One Hundred Dollar bill, I asked her if she could break it, half expecting her to be unable, but she looked at me quizzically. A Hundred isn’t what it was 30 years ago, I guess.
Weighed down by my booty, I decided to leave, the other stands looked good, but I had two pounds of store bought carrots sitting in the crisper in my fridge at home, I would come back next week for the fresh ones. Sweet, fresh carrots, tasting slightly of loam, ones that hadn‘t sat in plastic bags in warehouses for the last month or two would be nice, I thought.
Aware that two stands in, I was already bogged down, I turned to leave, suddenly noticing as I did so, there, in the back of the lot, a sign over a large picture of a small fishing boat. The word Alaska clearly visible.
I thought suspiciously of boxes labeled ‘Fresh Gulf Shrimp’ sitting on flatbeds of trucks. The trucks, with Louisiana plates, were occasional visitors on Midwestern highways. They promised earnestly that the contents of their crates were only three days old despite being slightly ripe with the smell of ammonia.
It was salmon? . But not the weak-orange, farm raised filets I was used to seeing in butcher’s cases around town. I had fished salmon with my grandfather on one of the two cross country trips to mountainous Oregon I had taken with my mother and brother as a child.
My grandpa was estranged from all in my family save the three of us, after the hunting death of his son, his youngest child, and the subsequent divorce from my grandmother. All this before I was born.
The fish looked like those fish, hard fought and won by my grandfather, my brother and me.
Salmon alright, its flesh firm and as red as a fire truck. The filets on display, sockeye, I learned, had been caught by the stand’s proprietor and flash frozen on the boat by his son. They looked like they might have just been cut from the fish that morning.
I smelled one, he urged me to. Holding a freshly knifed, vacuum-sealed bag under my nose and grinning proudly. “It smells like the ocean” he whispered as if we were part of a conspiracy.
I smelled only the smells of the alley beyond the chain link fence that stood at his back, and ran the length of the small lot.
I smiled and nodded yes, lying. It didn’t matter. His word was as good as the fish — it smelled of nothing to me. Like a fresh fish should.
I bought three fresh packages and a smoked one as well, all frozen solid as planks.
I came home giddy, and unpacked my haul. Owen, one of my roommates — this one a small, quite trusting Yorkshire terrier with a fondness for hamburger dills — and I shared a pickled green bean. The smoked salmon thawed in the refrigerator as we munched thoughtfully.
Winter was coming, but the Twins would battle next year.
It was a good day in Minnesota.
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