On Saturday mornings, you’ll find me at the farmers market. Actually, I go to a few of them throughout town. Most open at 9 a.m., and I’m usually standing right at the entrance by 8:45. At opening time, I move through the tents as if it were a timed competition. In some ways, it is. I’m not the only chef in Austin who likes to get an early jump on the best picks of the weekend. Plus, if you don’t get there early enough, you have to compete with the general public, who are also hoping to find great ingredients.
I carry a roll of cash and four or five checks. When I first started doing this, I took more time, making a point to get to know each of the farmers who brought in the ripe heirloom tomatoes, the ears of sweet summer corn, and the heads of lush leafy greens. But now, it’s about getting the best of what I can, so that I can move to the next market. Nowadays I know the farmers and they know me. I know their spouses, their kids, even some of their pets. I’ve been to most of their farms and seen the great effort they put into their market tents each week.
When I’m making my rounds through the market, the farmers often know the bulk of what I want and have set it aside for me. That takes some of the thrill out of shopping, but realistically, they know I have more than 800 people to feed at my restaurants on any given day, and they know that Saturday mornings are short when you have a bounty of ingredients to sift through.
Each season brings a lot of the same ingredients from tent to tent. In summer you see squash, tomatoes, watermelon, peppers, and corn. In fall and winter, it’s leafy greens, carrots, Brussels sprouts, and radishes. In spring, you find asparagus and green garlic, and I love to get my hands on the very first strawberries.
By the time I have visited a few markets, my truck is full, my head spins with ideas for seasonal specials, the Texas sun is higher and blazing heat onto the market tents, and beads of sweat have formed along my brow.
I nod a few goodbyes to my farming friends and make my exit, knowing that our kitchen will probably see many of them later on. I tell every one that if they get stuck with produce at the end of market, knock on our back door. They know we’ll put it to good use and we’ll take care of them.
And in return, they always take care of us. That’s how it was more than 100 years ago in upstart agricultural communities, and that’s what we hope to preserve at Jack Allen’s Kitchen. —Jack Gilmore
Recipes from Jack Allen’s Kitchen: Celebrating the Taste of Texas (Copyright © 2014 by Jack Gilmore) used by permission of the author. Images by Kenny Braun. Distributed by the University of Texas Press. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com