Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of excuses as to why people don’t make the effort to shop at farmers’ markets, with the most oft-heard one being that there just isn’t anything accessible and easy to get to. This has changed considerably in the past couple of years, and downtown Toronto now has over 20 separate markets, with at least one market taking place every day of the week during the summer and early autumn.
Which begs the question – have we hit a saturation point? Are markets the new Starbucks with two on every corner?
On Thursdays in the downtown core, there are now three separate markets within walking distance of each other. The market at Metro Hall is the most established of these, with a selection of vendors who are predominantly farmers. There are many vendors selling the same in-season produce, but this tends to create a healthy competition that keeps prices reasonable. During the lunch hour, there are live performances, and half a dozen food vendors along the south end of the square selling everything from Caribbean food to crepes to peameal bacon on a kaiser.
There’s probably nowhere else that you can buy food from Susur Lee and Vesta Lunch in the same place. All for $5 a pop.
Tasty Thursdays returned to Nathan Phillips Square last week and runs every Thursday (11am – 2pm, although some vendors are not ready right at 11am) until August 26th. The premise is a simple one – bring in an array of Toronto restaurants selling food items for $5 or less. Bring in bands to entertain the crowds who have come looking for a cheap and interesting lunch. Presto, instant cool event.
The musical guests change weekly but the restaurants are booked for a month, with some sticking around for the full promotion. Each restaurant serves up samples of their most popular dishes, and at $5 or less, it’s easy to try a bunch.
Above – the guys from Vesta Lunch serving up Greek food.
I’ve got to admit that the Wednesday morning market at Nathan Phillips Square is still my favourite of all the farmers markets in the city. There is no face-painting, no snack stalls, no fun activities for the kids. Heck, usually there are no kids. And while there are “Fresh Wednesdays” concerts from noon to 1pm, it’s mostly just farmers and customers who are serious about their produce.
Most of the customers are, in fact, workers from within City Hall or the nearby office towers on Bay Street. To accommodate these customers, many of the produce vendors selling stone fruit ingeniously offer mixed baskets of seasonal items to accommodate snacking. Usually retailing for around $8, baskets can include cherries, peaches, plums and apricots, and as the season moves on, will see the addition of small sweet pears, apples and grapes.
The trend of eating locally, while nothing new for many people, seems to have brought some additional concerns with its renewed popularity. Maybe it’s the necessary role food plays in our lives, but we as consumers seem to want a lot more from our food shopping experience than any other shopping we do. Where we are encouraged to get to know the people selling and creating the food we eat, this philosophy doesn’t seem to extend toward other items we purchase. No one is insisting we develop an ongoing relationship with our real estate agent, or form a “community” with the salegirls from the Gap. Heck, for that matter, the “buy local” trend seems to go no further than food, as the same people who search out wheat grown within a 100-mile radius have no qualms whatsoever about wearing yoga pants made in China, or shoes that have come from Italy.
No, we have a twisted and sometimes perverse relationship with food and with the act of procuring said food. We’re no longer content to just go, shop and bring the stuff home. Now we need events, family-friendly activities, entertainment, a sense of community and added value. That’s a lot for your average farmer and a table of tomatoes to live up to.
To say that the City’s Street Treats Fair was a resounding success would be a huge understatement. That line-up provoked a refrain of “Holy Shit!” from any number of people who entered Nathan Phillips Square from the north-east corner and were confronted with the throngs of people as they rounded the Peace Garden.
Crowds were lining up by noon and booths were selling out shortly thereafter. And sure, some of it was definitely the attraction of getting a meal from Jamie Kennedy or Rain for $5, but I think it’s safe to say that the people of Toronto really do want more than hot dogs and sausages. Another common refrain of the day was “Where did you get THAT??” as people walked past with melon soup or empanadas.