Peas, Not Peace, in Santa Monica

For years, the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market has been among the most acclaimed in the country; after all, there are few farmers’ markets with their own cookbook and weekly radio market reports on what’s fresh. But in the Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons writes that the market’s now in the middle of a cultural crisis: Major produce companies are buying large amounts of product, and local chefs are complaining that they’re being overlooked.

The Santa Monica market has always been a critical one for small farmers growing esoteric crops, which chefs then happen upon. As Parsons writes, “Many items that we now regard as fine dining staples got their start this way. What could you do with the green garlic some farmers brought in? Or all of those fava beans? Or stinging nettles, for goodness’ sake?”

A few Los Angeles chefs now “accuse corporate buyers of hogging the best produce, keeping it out of the hands of hardworking, hands-on cooks like themselves.” But as Campanile chef Mark Peel says, that’s an ironic complaint: “Farmers markets started as a way for farmers to sell directly to home cooks, then chefs started going there and home cooks would moan about the chefs coming in early and scooping up everything good,” he said. “I’m a chef, and I’d kind of roll my eyes and say, ‘Get out of bed earlier.’ Now the same thing is happening to us.”

There’s a self-righteousness to some of the complaints that doesn’t sit well. Quinn Hatfield of Hatfield’s says he avoids ordering in advance because he wants to be inspired by what’s at the market. Which is all well and good, of course, but that inspiration doesn’t do much for the farmer. As Phil McGrath, whose sweet peas are prized by chefs, “plaintively” says to Parsons, “Look, I don’t want to make anybody mad, but is it so hard to pick up the phone? Can’t they call us up the day before and say, ‘Hey are you coming down tomorrow? Could you bring some peas?’”

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