A stroll through the busiest—and most diverse—bazaar in Queens.
July 23, 2012
On a recent afternoon, I strolled through the Jackson Heights Greenmarket, the year-round and recently expanded farmers market on 34th Avenue and 77th Street. A lingering urge to stillspot, inspired by the Guggenheim Museum’s five-borough walking tour, partly served as impetus.
The morning: a stunning composition of birdsong, breeze, and sunlight. White and blue tents—different vendors that reflect the culinary diversity of Jackson Heights—dotted the perimeter of Travers Park. A section of 78th Street was closed off to traffic—each Sunday during the summer, the block is transformed into a play zone, complete with lawn chairs for grownups to lounge in while the kids romp. The neighborhood was drenched in a palpably serene ambiance. I’d stumbled into a perfect pastoral landscape.
The Greenmarket is the largest and busiest market of its kind in Queens. It offers a broad selection of vegetables, eggs, fish, honey, chicken, and more. As I nibbled on samples of smoked duck and duck prosciutto at the Hudson Valley Duck Farm stand, Stacie, the vendor, talked about how rigorous the farm is about ensuring the humane treatment of the ducks. I learned all about Dr. Temple Grandin, a famous autistic woman, who designed livestock handling facilities and developed an objective scoring system for assessing the handling of animals at meat plants. Grandin’s team audits the Hudson Valley Duck farm regularly to ensure optimal conditions for the ducks.
I stopped to admire the selection of international breads at the Hot Bread Kitchen stand: Moroccan S’men, tortillas, perfectly puffed naan bread, and toasted walnut rolls. Lutfunessa Islam, the vendor, bakes twice a week at Hot Bread Kitchen, a bakery in East Harlem. The bakery, she said, is a nonprofit organization that helps its employees—many of whom are new immigrants—to learn English and become self-sufficient. Working the stand at the Greenmarket also helps her hone her language skills, she said.
This trio sold sweet peas, tomatoes, Kirby cucumbers, and zucchini greens at the Visconti Farm stand. The girls—Gia, Francesca, and Alex—live in New Jersey and tell me pointedly that their home is about forty-five minutes away from Atlantic City. “Jackson Heights is a lot different from where we live. Here, you learn a lot of new words because people call things different names. And there are so many accents!” Gia said.
By the tree stumps on 78th Street, I came upon a quietly festive scene. Roberto Buscasi was strumming songs from the jazz age on his ukulele. “It’s a calling,” he said. “I’ve been playing Greenmarkets for the last two years. These days I’m looking for a good Korean song to learn. I found one recently but it was too disco-y.” His friends, Nasha and Julia, relaxed on the tree stumps while he played, comparing Google searches on their smartphones for a country in Africa to visit. “Have you been to Namibia?” they asked me. Nasha and Julia are diehard Greenmarket regulars. They buy fruits and vegetables, cilantro and mint, and divide it up. They compost every week. Last Sunday, Julia brought in old socks and curtains for the textile guys. Buscasi continued playing, this time the Japanese song, “Ue O Muiti” followed by a popular Chinese number, “Tien Mi Mi.” “Everyone loves that song. Children remember their parents singing it at karaoke.”
Next, I saw the Mexican food stands. These vendors are independent of the Greenmarket but shadow the market’s schedule. The family-run stalls showcase mouthwatering homemade dishes that include tamales, tostadas, cortidas, flautas, pesole, semita pork sandwiches, and taquitos. Thirst quenchers range from sodas to homemade jamiaca and orchata drinks. Though they’re lined up next to each other, serving much of the same fare, a sense of goodwill, rather than brute competition, seems to prevail amongst the Mexican vendors. Ellie, one of the vendors, wakes up at 3 a.m. to make her tamales.
After the orderly stands of the Greenmarket, that evoked a tidy English garden, the abundance of fruits on display outdoors on 74th Street suddenly seemed extravagant. By contrast, the stalls here were voluptuous, untamed, and messy—10 limes for $1, cartons of imported mangoes, and gigantic jackfruit. I stop in at Patel Brothers to buy guavas. They are pricey—two for $7.37—but they are the best of their kind and virtually impossible to find elsewhere. I wait to pay and feel nostalgic for the intimate air of Travers Park, for the family affair that is the Jackson Heights Greenmarket. I already know I’ll be back the following week, ready to snag one of the lounge chairs in the play zone, catch up on summer reading, while Buscasci strums his ukulele and sings, “Tien Mi Mi.”