deborah madison, local flavors

Deborah Madison used her local farmers’ market in Sante Fe as a starting point for researching farmers’ markets all over the country for her book Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets. (Photo: Lois Ellen Frank)

When I was a college student in Bloomington, Illinois, I rose at 3:00 a.m. one morning in 1972 to ride three hours in our food co-op’s truck to Chicago’s South Water Market. In the predawn chill I rubbed elbows with the windy city’s chefs and corner-grocery owners to choose the ripest zucchini, tomatoes, and string beans from the tailgates of farmers’ trucks.

In those years, Chicago’s wholesale food market was the closest we could get to seasonal, locally grown food, other than our own gardens. A lot has changed in the American foodscape since then. Today, more than 4,000 farmers’ markets across the country directly connect consumer to local grower.

Deborah Madison, founding chef at San Francisco’s historic Greens Restaurant, author of nine cookbooks, and winner of the Julia Child Cookbook of the Year and three James Beard awards, has been instrumental in bringing about that change. In her colorfully illustrated Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets, newly released in paperback this May, she visits 100 farmers’ markets and provides a cornucopia of recipes based on the regional produce she discovered.

When Madison spoke at the Eco-Fair sponsored by the department of sustainable living at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield last month, I jumped at the chance to interview her. I found her to be as vibrant and nourishing as the food she writes about.

Linda Egenes: When you cook, do you first see what’s available and then plan your menus?

Deborah Madison: Absolutely. I always cook that way, whether I’m going to the supermarket or farmers’ market or my own garden. At certain times of the year, when the farmers’ market is predictable, you know ahead of time what is available. Say in summer you want to make the perfect ratatouille, you know that this is a time for peppers, eggplant, and zucchini. So you go with a recipe in mind. Otherwise, it’s good to go to the farmers’ market with an open mind, because you never know what you’re going to see there.

In Local Flavors I talk about the seasonal vegetables I saw and how they inspired what I cooked, to perhaps encourage other people to cook in the same way. I always work from the market out.

Do eating locally and eating seasonally go hand-in-hand?

What I have learned from writing this book is a kind of a truism that “in season” is where you live. In season and local aren’t separate. They’re only separate when you go to the supermarket.

When we try to treat our foodscape as a national one, we really have painted ourselves into some strange corners and ideas about what’s in season. June magazine covers will have pictures of strawberries, for instance, but I bought strawberries in Vermont in late October last year, because there are certain kinds of ever-bearing strawberries that last until the frost. Researching Local Flavors confirmed for me that even though we often cook by clichés, when you start to look around, you see that the available local produce is very different from what your national magazine is telling you.

It seems that Local Flavors is trying to break through those clichés.

Eating local and seasonal food is something I really care about. It’s not just about the romance of farmers’ markets. We want to become intelligent about who we are and how we relate to the world around us, rather than living in this kind of predefined encapsulated vision of what’s local and what’s in season. It’s really different when you go into a farmers’ market and look around. It’s an eye opener.

Is it possible to eat strictly what is local and in season?

Yes, it’s possible but I don’t think we need to do that. Certainly people used to eat from their local region year ’round.
A book I’m reading now, Kitchen Literacy, by Ann Vileisis, is a portrait of what it takes to eat locally. It’s a different way of living and thinking. It would be hard for us because we’re used to so much variety. It would mean returning to a life where you spend a lot of time preserving food. We would have to think about how to store food over the winter, how to grow food in winter greenhouses in a way that’s not incredibly fuel intensive.

How do you see the value of organic produce versus local?

When Local Flavors came out, I did some interviews with my friend Alice Waters, and she was very purist about organics. It had to be organic or else. I was saying, “I don’t know, after what I’ve seen, I really support local.”

Since then I’ve written a few articles saying, let’s not pit them against each other. Let’s try to see how we can look at each for what they are. Obviously, oranges aren’t going to be local in Iowa, but you’re not going to stop eating oranges. In that case, let’s try to find organic oranges. And at my local farmers’ market, if I have a choice between a vendor who is selling organic versus one who is not, I’m going to choose the one who is selling organic.

In general, though, I support local producers when that’s appropriate. There’s such a difference in taste in a vegetable that’s grown locally, picked ripe, and bought fresh at your market than a vegetable that’s been grown on an industrial organic farm and shipped from California.

(I originally wrote this article for The Iowa Source, July 2008. Reprinted with permission.)

One of the best things about spending last winter in Oakland, California, was the availability of fresh, locally grown produce. Coming from the frozen Iowa farmscape, this felt miraculous. There’s a farmer’s market for every day of the week and more—four in Oakland and four in Berkeley. Being a fresh-foodie, I decided to sample a different East Bay farmers market every week.

5 Tips for Cruising Farmer's Markets

Sugar cane, lemongrass and winter squashes at the downtown Berkeley Farmer’s Market

My husband, Tom, and I hit the downtown Berkeley market (Martin Luther King and Center) on a Saturday morning in January. It’s a great place for Asian produce. I saw something that looked like bamboo, but on questioning the Lao farmer, I found out it was sugar cane. I had seen sugar cane being juiced with a hand-cranked press on the streets of Mysore in the 1980s (and one hot afternoon completely forgot the first rule of travel in India: “don’t eat from the street.” The juice was cool and thirst-quenching, but a few hours later I was terribly sick—probably from bacteria). Anyway, not having a handy sugar cane press in California, I passed it up.

But by now I was friends with the Lao farmer, and she told me how to use the lemongrass. This brings me to

Tip #1: Talk to the farmers. Ask them where their farm is, how the foodis grown (sometimes they are not certified organic but are in essence organic), and how to cook the food you’re buying. 

 Farmers Markets

Broccoli Romanesco

I bought winter squash and fresh lemongrass, which my Lao farmer friend instructed me to cut up and add to veggies while they steam. I found more detailed directions on how to prepare fresh lemongrass  at I also learned to make Thai Tofu Noodle Soup using the lemongrass, bok choy and Asian greens that I bought at the market.

And I met a new veggie friend—Broccoli Romanesco, which is the flower of a type of veggie that’s green like broccoli, has an amazing sculpted shape like an artichoke, and tastes like cauliflower when cooked. Which brings me to

Tip #2: Try to bring home one new ingredient from every farmer’s market, one you haven’t seen before. It can open up a new world. 

Rainbow carrots—-sweet as candy at the Farmers Markets

Rainbow carrots—-sweet as candy

On subsequent weekends we explored the Tuesday afternoon Berkeley market (Derby Street and MLK Drive), which had the sweetest walnuts I’ve ever tasted. At this market you not only bring your big bags to haul off the produce, but you’ll need your own smaller bags for loose items like lettuce or snow peas. Otherwise, you can use the free paper bags (which makes it necessary to rebag your produce for the fridge when you get home) or pay .25 for a bag made from recycled ingredients. Which brings me to

Tip #3:  Bring your own bags (big ones and lots of small ones too). This is a great way to use those smaller plastic bags you’re always trying to recycle. 

We did the Grandlake Farmer’s Market in Oakland the following Saturday (Grand Ave. and Lake Park Ave.), festive and fun with great music, kids and babies sprawled on the lawn. This is one of the great things about Farmer’s Markets—they make shopping for food a relaxing social event instead of a chore.

My sister Cathy and poppies at the Temescal Farmer’s Market in Oakland

By the next Saturday my sister, Cathy, and her daughter Liana, who live in the Bay area, joined us. Liana found some tangelos that she adored, Cathy and I bought the 3-bunches  of poppies for $5. Which brings me to:

Tip # 4: Share your finds with your friends and family and they’ll soon be hooked on Farmer’s Markets too. And the more we support local farmers, the more they’ll flourish and grow more healthy and tasty things for us to eat.



That’s me with a bag of fresh veggies and fruits

At this point Tom and I hit the Sunday morning Oakland Montclair Farmer’s Market (which, funnily enough, was only a half-mile from our apartment), and fell in love. It was the right size, the right day, the right mix of growers, and Cathy and her family loved it too.  We got into the habit of meeting them there. Cathy and I would cruise the market first, and then go back for the best buys. So that’s my last piece of advice:

Tip #5: Cruise the entire market first, then go back for the best prices and the best-looking produce.


After the market, my favorite thing is to cook a meal right away using the produce I just bought. At some markets (like the Tuesday Berkeley market), you can get much more than fresh produce—we bought dried cannellini beans, dried cranberry beans, fresh pasta, freshly ground flour and olive oil—just about everything you need for a fabulous meal.



And that’s my husband’s favorite part of shopping at farmer’s markets.




Goin’ to the Country
July 9, 2010

Me celebrating the 4th with new friends Pakshi Raj and Vaj

Last weekend my husband and I were invited to a 4th of July celebration at the home of Claudia Petrick, my editor at the Iowa Source. Tom and I drove a mile or two north of Fairfield, turned onto a country road, and entered another world. Claudia lives on a five-acre spread with organic gardens, a pear and cherry orchard, and horses.

These guys are living in horse heaven

Soon after arriving, I follow my friend Cynthia Arenander to the cob house barn where her impressive dressage steed, Pakshi Raj, boards with Claudia’s handsome Arabian, Vajrashrava (“Vaj” for short, meaning “thunderbolt” in English and “diamond” in Sanskrit, a perfect name since he has a white diamond on his forehead). At first I’m intimidated by Pakshi Raj’s immense size and mythical horse energy, but when Cynthia places a flower on his head I can connect to his playful side. I feel even less intimidated when Cynthia tells me that her husband Alarik plans to film Pakshi in a Mr.-Ed type video for their line of organic anti-aging products.

Cynthia has a mythical force of her own–she was given this spectacular steed when a horse whisperer told its owner that he would prefer to live with Cynthia. “I’ve been around horses all my life,” she says as she slips on the horses’ bridles and leads them to the front yard where they graze in idyllic beauty next to Claudia’s lily and bee balm garden.

Cynthia, Claudia and I relax on Claudia's deck while the horses graze behind us

It’s soothing to spend an evening in the country, and my mind and body relax in a way they can’t even in the low-stress environment of our home on the Maharishi University of Management campus. I wonder again whether we shouldn’t move to the country, despite the fact that my husband doesn’t like to garden or mow or work in the yard. I grew up on a tall oak forest about 5 miles from Naperville, IL, and found solace in nature—but also some loneliness from living so far from friends. Not to mention the work that goes into keeping up a country home. I know my own limitations, and I’m completely in awe of what Claudia has created. The question on everyone’s lips all evening is “how does she do it?”

Back inside there’s a vegetarian feast for the eyes and palate waiting, mostly prepared by Claudia: wild rice salad, mung bean cakes with a tangy tahini-lime juice-tamari-turmeric sauce, a golden quinoa salad, steamed beets, tomatoes with pesto. For recipes, Claudia says, “The wild rice salad comes from Miriam Hospodar’s Heaven’s Banquet, slightly altered. The rest is sort of made up. For the sauce, I started with tahini, and then added the other ingredients and a little water ’till it tasted right.”

Others have contributed: Dolly Donhauser with a creamy potato salad from Martha Stewart, the Arenanders with a green salad from their garden, Maggie Squires with crispy sweet-and-salty middle eastern crackers.

Claudia brings in the boys

After the meal, which ends in a sumptuous homemade fruit shortcake, we trail outside to put the horses to bed. “We treat our horses better than we treat ourselves,” says Claudia with a laugh. They get vitamins, organic food, loving attention, regular brushings.

Shepley, Pakshi Raj, and Maggie make friends

Fireflies spark the sky as Claudia and Cynthia take turns showing their horses canter around them in a circle. When the horses leap we “oooo and ahhh” in unison as if the horses were fireworks.

In the deepening twighlight we stand at the end of Claudia’s driveway and gaze at the fireworks display over nearby Cypress Villages, an up-and-coming eco-development of Vedic architecture homes that are LEED-certified. Beside it the Jefferson County fairgrounds fireworks also light the sky—and soon we spot the golf course display south of town, and in the far distance Mt. Pleasant’s. What better way to celebrate the 4th—with light in all directions.