Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sentinel column - 10/29/10

As I write this, I am in the library of the Dalton, Massachusetts, public library. Clearly a building from before 1900, it has wireless internet and has many of the beautiful features of our own library – tall ceilings, big windows encased in lovely woodwork. But they are not lucky enough to have the space the Webb City library has. No meeting rooms here and only about 1/3 of our book space. In fact, it’s not nearly as big as even our original library, much less the expanded version.

The Webb City Library is a lesson in dreaming. When Dorothy Glover organized the campaign to expand the library, I truly thought her dream was just that – a dream. Yet two years later it was a reality. Had it been up to me, I would have dismissed the possibility out of hand. Good thing it wasn’t up to me.

I’m not good at the Big Idea. The market in many ways grew by accident and by good timing. After our first year in 2000, Paul Jackson, who had been a regular customer, told me that he thought the market needed an on-site manager. (The first year I just ran out and opened the market and then ran back by to close it down.) And Paul said the most remarkable thing. “I’d be happy to be the on-site manager.” I love people who come up with good ideas and then make them happen. It was having a manager on-site that allowed us to expand significantly and begin our journey towards a truly organized market. Paul started diagramming the spaces so he could pull vendors in and give each the space needed. It was some eight years later that research came out saying that on-site managers and diagrams were essential for a market to expand to more than just a few vendors. Paul saw the need before any research was available.

I think the same kind of growth may follow another project developing in Webb City – the Polar Bear Express. Last year, the Polar Bear Express was a rather spontaneous project that developed with only two weeks’ notice. (The “Bear” was added to the Polar Express after discussions with the franchise holder for train events connected to the book “The Polar Express”. We could never afford to do an official Polar Express train – they’re very elaborate and expensive. The franchise holder actually suggested we add “Bear” to the title, but still use many of the aspects of the books. He was incredibly generous with his suggestions.)

If all goes well, the Express, aka the streetcar, will run the afternoon and evenings of the first two Saturdays in December. The parks department plans to put up a big tent for children to visit with Santa, do some crafts and have a cup of hot chocolate. The Polar Bear will be waving off the train and high-fiving the passengers. Volunteer readers will read the book during the ride while the passengers follow along in the book placed on each bench.

The little depot on the south side of the park will be decked up (and we’d love to have some live elves to wave as the train goes by). The parks department plans to decorate the Georgia Bridge with Christmas lights. Once the sun goes down, it should really feel like the North Pole is just off in the distance.

I love Christmas and I just wonder if this might be the beginning of making Webb City a Christmas town. I’d love to hear your Christmas ideas – especially if you can make them happen!

The Farmers Market is open today with all-you-can-eat chili, plus cracker & Fritos, chocolate or vanilla pudding & drink for $6. SwingGrass plays from 11 to 1.
We’ll have painting tables set up for pumpkin painters today. We supply the paints, brushes and shirts; you supply the painters and pumpkins.

Next Friday we start our Winter Market, which looks a whole lot like regular market except we don’t have music – it can get a little cold for fragile musical instruments. Winter Market is under the pavilion from 11 to 2 on the first and third Friday of the month.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sentinel column - 10/22/10

I was skeptical. A vaguely familiar vegetable appeared at the market this fall. When I asked for a name, the grower shrugged and said she thought it was chayote. That seemed so unlikely. Chayote is a Latin American vegetable. What on earth was it doing at the market stand of an Asian farmer? But that’s exactly what it was – and is. From Mesoamerica to the early European explorers to Asia and now back to America.

Chayote is an edible plant – all of it, but you will find the fruit at the market. It’s related to cucumbers, but the similarity pretty much ends there. When harvested young it can be sliced and eaten raw in salads or salsas without peeling. More mature chayotes are best peeled and cooked. Like zucchini, it’s very mild and best paired with stronger flavors and spices. Raw, it can be livened up by marinating in lemon or lime juice which results in a lovely fresh taste.

I recently combined a small chayote, diced, with bac choy, ham, fresh pineapple and Asian mustard for a tasty dish. Since I didn’t have a wok, I just used a hot skillet with a little peanut oil, stirring and then covering to wilt the greens down. Asian mustard is not as strong as the American variety, but if you don’t enjoy a tang of bitterness, buy it young and tender. My Hmong growers also recommend boiling chayote with pork and mustard greens and perhaps a few hot peppers. And, of course, you can never go wrong with some onion, garlic, or bacon!

You’ll recognize chayote at the market by its light green color and pear shape. It has large puckers or wrinkles and is firm to the touch. Our growers don’t usually bring them to market, but the chayote tubers, shoots and leaves are also edible. All parts of the plant are a good source of amino acids and vitamin C.

I was feeling adventurous during farm visits on Tuesday – a little too adventurous. Zoua Hang Yang showed me a pepper that she grows for her own use. It was a new variety to me and shaped literally like a bell. I took a tiny bite. Hmmm, tasty and not hot at all. Another tentative bite convinced me this was a lovely sweet pepper. Then, I took a big bite filled with the seeds. My mouth exploded with heat. Ten hours later there was still a hint of the burn in my mouth. I’ve been told that hot peppers are good for you and I will admit that after my mouth cooled down I felt great, but I think it was just jubilation that I was going to survive.

Then at Mai Ker Lor and Der Lor’s gardens I decided I would like to try the chayotes I’d seen growing in the Hmong gardens and also the Asian mustard greens. I asked for a small sample. (That's Der)

When I left the Lors the trunk of my car was completely full of produce – huge mustard greens, bac choy, Napa cabbage and other Asian greens, as well as the chayotes.
I should have known better on both counts. Never eat pepper seeds unless you know for sure it’s a sweet pepper and never ask for a gift from a Hmong grower unless you’re ready for an avalanche of gifts. They are big on gifts.

The first year that Mr. Lee sold at our market, we had a vendor lose a relative to death. I took the sympathy card around for all the vendors to sign and I was successful in explaining to Mr. Lee that there had been a death. He gave me $5. I explained that I just needed his signature, not money and gave him the money back. He signed the card, took both my hands and placed the $5 back in them, explaining to me very slowly and clearly why I needed to accept the money. His accent was heavy, I was listening closely, and then I realized that he was speaking very slowly and very carefully to me in – Hmong!

Mr. Lee speaks a goodly amount of English, but my Hmong is nonexistent. I took the $5. The vendor I went to next, who was born in Seneca, said “I saw Mr. Lee gave you $5. Here’s my $5.” And so Mr. Lee’s generosity spread throughout the market.

The market is loaded right now with both familiar produce and the unusual, but all grown right here in the area. Freshness will soon be a thing of the past, so I’d suggest indulging yourself.

We’ll have a new vendor at the market today – Jimmi’s from Lockwood. They specialize in soups which they prepare in their restaurant and can in jars. It sounds like just the thing for the cold nights we’ll soon have.

Lunch today is chicken and noodles, corn, a roll, cookies and a drink for $6. Bailed Green and Wired Tight play.

Lunch and music is from 11 to 1. The market closes at 2.

Next Friday is our annual pumpkin painting day. You supply the pumpkin which you can buy at the market or bring from home; we’ll supply the painting supplies and place to paint.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Webb City Sentinel column - 10-17-10

His name’s not Peter, but Tom picked a peck of peppers for market yesterday – actually he picked two or three pecks of peppers. Tom Lewis of Broken Wire Ranch sent me word that his peppers are thriving and he’ll have lots of pretty peppers – big and colorful. He grows a wide variety of sweet and hot peppers and, if you like them roasted, he can roast them right at the market.

We’re also loaded with green beans, eggplant, spinach, lettuce, potatoes, green onions, cucumbers,... well, you get the picture. The fall season has a bounty of local produce to offer. (No, that's not Tom or a fresh local veg - it's our own Bob Foos - more about him below.)

We’ll have the pleasure of hearing SwingGrass at the market today. This trio – sometimes quartet – always draws an appreciative crowd with its lighthearted, playful music. They’ll play from 11 to 1 during lunch. Lunch is Spaghetti Red, side salad, garlic bread, brownies and drink for $6.

So, to summarize – there’s lots of fantastic local produce at the market today, wonderful music and a satisfying lunch. We have all sorts of special baked goods, jams, jellies, lamb, pork, chicken, beef, elk, buffalo, raw milk, plants, pumpkins, decorative gourds and gorgeous mums. And we have a terrific sense of community, which brings up the topic that I really want you to know about today.

On Monday, the Historical Society celebrates one hundred years of the Clubhouse serving the community.

The building was constructed in 1910 as the clubhouse for the employees of the Southwest Missouri Railroad Company. Employees took breaks, naps, read, played cards and pool during breaks in their long shifts on the streetcars. After the demise of the streetcar system, the building was given to the county for use as a health department. Many Webb Citians remember getting their vaccinations and flu shots there. In 1997, the health department moved to Carthage and the building reverted to the heirs of Harry and Geneva Easley who had made the original gift. The heirs, H. Michael Easley, Ginger Eckerman and Sara McKibben, in turn, gave the building to the Historical Society.

Structurally sound, but in need of a new roof and many cosmetic changes, the building breathed life into the Society which had been dormant for many years. Dedicated volunteers repaired and re-painted, funds were raised for a new roof and other major renovations.

The 100th Anniversary Celebration begins Monday at 5:30 pm, just west of the Clubhouse at 115 North Madison. The building’s newly completed landscaping will be dedicated as the William H. and Marion E. Perry Memorial Garden. The Perry Foundation underwrote the expense of the garden and Bill and Rebecca Perry did most of the design work. The Foundation was established by WH and Marion Perry and we are fortunate that their children continue to take a strong interest in Webb City’s welfare.

Immediately after the dedication, the celebration moves inside for the opening of the Bob Foos/Webb City Sentinel Photography Exhibit and for a reception in Bob’s honor. Bob will be inducted into the Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Fame on Thursday in Washington, Missouri. This is quite an honor for a photojournalist and confirms what many of us have said for years – Webb City is amazingly fortunate to have a newspaper the caliber of the Sentinel.

(Bob photographs the Egg Hunt at King Jack Park in April, 2010)

Since Bob is notoriously humble and probably won’t give himself more than a line of copy in his own newspaper, here’s the introduction to the exhibit:

Bob Foos has been taking pictures in Webb City for the Sentinel since 1979.

It was in 1972 that Bob first became acquainted with Webb City, when he came to this area for his first job in journalism, which was at Channel 16, then known as KTVJ-TV. Bob’s wife, Ann, started teaching first grade for Webb City in 1973. They had met at Emporia State University and graduated from Wichita State University. Bob was originally from Healy, in western Kansas, and Ann grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

After a couple of years in TV, Bob decided to switch to newspaper and got his start as a full-time photographer at the Carthage Press. He achieved his goal of working for a larger daily in 1977 at the Joliet (Ill.) Heral News. What he learned, though, was that his heart was in community journalism. He went back to school and earned his journalism degree at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

While they were away, Bob and Ann wished that they could come back to Webb City. In 1979, Bill Myers agreed to sell the Webb City Sentinel and Wise Buyer to Bob and his original partners, Marti and Gerard Attoun. They revived the Sentinel, formerly a daily, which had dwindled to a paid circulation of less than 100. Merle Lortz, who had worked for the Sentinel practically since starting as a carrier in his childhood, became Bob’s partner in 1983.

Today the Sentinel’s paid circulation is nearly 2,000, and 9,000 Wise Buyers continue to be distributed.

Merle and Bob are both proud to have been named Distinguished Citizen by Webb City R-y Schools Foundation. Ann, a Cardinal Teacher, retired after more than 30 years of teaching first grade in Webb City.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Webb City Sentinel column - 10/8/10

This is our first week of Friday-only markets. That means we'll have the abundance of three markets packed into one.

It’s a bit of a shock going from three markets a week to one a week and next year we’re planning to ease that transition a bit by staying open two markets a week in October – weather permitting.

Weather is the major challenge in making long-term plans for the market. In the market’s early years, we had a hard freeze in the very first week of October. Back then we had no meats or baked goods, that left the market pretty sparse and we shut down within a week.

Now we would remain open regardless of the temperature, but most of the farmers would still be out of business so I always hope for a mild fall. One year the fields were still in production in December. That would be wonderful for Shoal Creek Gardens and for Fairview Gardens. They both have big beautiful green tomatoes on the vine. If the freeze can just hold off long enough for them to ripen, we should have tomatoes at the market again. And wouldn’t that be a treat after such a long dry spell, tomato-wise?(photo - Nhao Hang prepares her table at last week's market.)

As we had feared, the excessively hot temperatures this summer stopped most tomato production in early August, even though several of our farmers had planted heat tolerant varieties. Loss of their tomato crop is a major financial blow for the growers and it also affects every other vendor because tomatoes are a primary reason for coming to the market. Without tomatoes, we lose about 25% of our customers.

With the increase in markets in the area, I’m often asked if there are enough customers for all the markets to prosper. I’m convinced there are plenty of customers, it’s produce that we can be short on. Last year we had a good supply of the big three – tomatoes, green beans and sweet corn. This year the weather and some changes in growers left us short of all three during parts of the growing season. We’re back in clover on the green beans, but the sweet corn is done for the season and the tomatoes are iffy.

The other newer markets like Joplin and Neosho have had the same problems, only multiplied because they do not have the strong vendor base that Webb City has. Give them time. We started out with only four vendors, two growers, a honey man and a baker (yes, I’m talking about you, Jeanne).

People will come out if you have quality local produce. That’s why our market does so much training. We don’t have space to add many more farmers, so we work to make the farmers we have more productive. You can bet we’ll be looking at ways to beat hot weather next year. Then we’ll probably have a cool wet summer like last year when the tomato plants just sat in the cold damp ground and refused to grow. One thing I learned from my farmers early – and adopted – is that you can always complain about the weather!

So enough whining, because the weather we’re enjoying now if fabulous and there’s plenty of good produce at the market today – eggplant, peppers, lettuce, greens, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, radishes, green beans, Swiss chard, boc choy, green onions, baby spinach, green tomatoes – that’s just what I remember. Add the meats, jams and jellies, milk, freshly ground coffee, baked goods, beautiful mums, pumpkins, lunch and music and there are surely plenty of reasons to come to the market today.

Lunch is barbecued chicken, scalloped potatoes, green beans, cake and drink for $6. A luncheon salad is also available. Webb City’s own Gospel Strings play.

Next Friday Webb City native Bill Gosch returns to the market with SwingGrass and lunch is spaghetti red, side salad, garlic bread, brownies & drink – and maybe those tomatoes will finally be ripe!