From my Junior year in high school until my Senior year in college, I spent most of my summers working on our family’s farm in Livingston, Texas. Soon after the school year ended and I’d had a few weeks to enjoy the summer, my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were used for picking, washing, and loading vegetables onto my uncle’s pick-up truck. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, we’d head around an hour and a half south to the Beaumont farmer’s market in early morning darkness so that we could set up our vegetable stand, usually no later than five or six in the morning. Since that time, I’ve had an affinity for farmer’s markets and frequent them as often as I can.
Decades have passed since I worked on the farm. Looking back, it was the hardest physical labor I’ve ever done. It was also the healthiest I’d ever been. When you can literally walk outside and choose what you want to have for dinner, I call that a blessing today…not so much as a teenager and young adult back in the day.
Though I no longer sell the produce, I still enjoy having a small garden and watching seeds sprout, grow, and eventually produce food you can eat and share with your friends and neighbors. I’ll admit I don’t have the green thumb my uncle had, but occasionally, I get lucky and a nice crop presents itself.
Whenever I see a farmer’s market, a farm stand, or even a truck farmer on the side of the road, it reminds me of that time. I’ll admit I get a bit of a twinge in my back when I see a truck filled with watermelons. That was some heavy lifting. Still today, I struggle with picking out a good watermelon in the store. I know the curl should be brown, part of the melon should have a yellow/orange colored field spot from where it has been sitting in the field, and if webbing is present, that means it has been pollinated by bees. It has been said, and I have tried it myself, that if you put a broom straw on a ripe watermelon, it will turn 45 degrees if it’s ripe. If it’s green, it’s not going to move. The problem is, when you’re shopping at a grocery store, who carries around a broom straw? I certainly don’t and I’m relatively sure the store manager wouldn’t want you to go to the cleaning supply section and pull a straw off a Rubbermaid broom.
When my husband and I were living in McKinney in north Texas, we spent many Saturday mornings driving south and heading to the Dallas Farmer’s Market. Located in downtown Dallas, this market has been around since 1941. It was vast when we went but it is even larger now, featuring The Shed, where you can purchase produce from the vendors. In addition, they’ve added a food hall, artisanal market, restaurants, and more. We used to spend hours there, picking out our favorite fruits and vegetable while sampling along the way. From the looks of it now, you could probably spend an entire day there.
A Few Favorite Farmer’s Markets and Produce Stands in Texas
Located a few miles from the city of Tyler in east Texas, the town of Noonday, population 471, produces some of the best onions you will ever eat. I don’t know if it’s the soil or what, but these onions can almost be eaten like an apple, they are so sweet. You can find them on road side farms starting around April and running through July. I like them so much, my Aunt mailed me a couple of bags a few years ago.
While attending a winter conference in January in McAllen nearly a decade ago, I agreed with a colleague that I would make a stop by Granny Clare’s Citrus at Rio Pride Orchards in Harlingen on the way back to the airport before we flew home. I had no idea exactly what I was in for, but stop I did, and the rest is history. I had never visited a citrus farm before. The place wasn’t fancy, much like most road side stands. Hand-painted signs greeted us as we parked. The difference is you could see the actual citrus trees lined up in a row, filled with beautiful orange fruit. While there, harvesters delivered the citrus onto a turn-belt contraption. Piles of oranges and ruby red grapefruits, the state fruit of Texas, were lined up, ready for purchase or shipping. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Learning that the company could ship the fruit, we were told by the staff that we could carry the fruit on the plane. With only one carry-on each, we each bought a box of citrus and headed to the airport. We got a few looks but nothing too surprising, as I’m guessing this happens pretty often when the citrus arrives in the Rio Grande Valley.
Since I don’t get to visit that often, I love to order online and have the sweet, delicious Vitamin C filled goodness arrive at my front door. Both my husband and I love their oranges, I’m an even bigger fan of their grapefruit. That’s likely because I grew up eating them, but even more likely it’s because I had a Ruby Red Grapefruit Pie once while visiting South Padre Island and I was hooked after that. Farming is not easy work so when businesses like Granny Clare’s provides you with such a wonderful product, you want to support them whether you live there, are visiting, or simply want to place a mail order. Note that the business is seasonal and runs from October through March.
Unless you recently fell off a turnip truck (farm pun intended), you’ve likely heard that Fredericksburg is known not only for their wine, but also for their peaches. I’ve been known to drive 2 1/2 hours east from San Angelo on a Saturday so I can bring back a box of peaches and maybe a little something else. There are many options but our favorites are Gold Orchards in Stonewall and, also, Jenschke Orchards and Eckhardt Orchards in Fredericksburg. Gold Orchards has a bit more of an advantage, because they also bake pies, pastries, and breads made with their delicious peaches. In fact, I’ve visited often when the ladies in the back of the store were peeling peaches, rolling out pie dough, and removing freshly baked goods from the oven. It doesn’t get better than that.
A few year’s ago, I left a job in Austin and my husband and I packed up our RV and hit the road. I was fortunate to get work along the way. One of those jobs was staying at an RV Park in the Rio Grande Valley that a friend of mine from Welcome Home RGV had told me about. If you’re not familiar with Winter Texans, they represent thousands of 55 and over individuals who drive down from the northern U.S. and Canada during the winter months. They are active, fun, and contribute greatly to the Texas economy while they’re here.
During our time staying in the Rio Grand Valley, I shot photography and ran the park’s social media campaign for a few months. One of my favorite discoveries was the Weslaco Farmer’s Market. When you have a huge number of Winter Texans coming to your region and staying at RV parks scattered along the way, what do you do? If you’re the geniuses at Weslaco, you take your product on the road. They made regular stops at RV parks on certain days of the week. Shoppers would line up with their bags to pick the freshest produce of the season right from their neighborhood delivery stand. Genius!
Last year, I reached out to my friend, Darla, and we drove our first trip to see the most mispronounced towns and cities in Texas. I say first, because there are a LOT of mispronounced cities and towns in the Lone Star State. One of those stops included the town of Goldthwaite at Pecans, Pecans, Pecans. While it’s technically a store and not a farmer’s market, I’m including it anyway. Since the pecan is the Official Health Nut of Texas, it seemed appropriate to share their store. Grab a bag of pecans, shelled or unshelled, or even a pecan pie. I didn’t see any forks while I was there, or I might have bought a pie for the road. Just sayin’.
Yes, I Can Can.
If you have ever been to the State Fair of Texas, you’ve likely visited the Creative Arts Building, where you’ll see canned goods, preserved by Texans who have entered their products in a judging competition. These folks are the best of the best. Beautiful canned products line rows and rows of shelves along the walls. If you have a challenge finding the place, just ask someone where the butter sculpture is located. That question will get you there. And while you’re visiting, say hello to Big Tex for me.
Nostalgia Knocks at the Door
As a child, I remember visiting my grandparents. My grandmother was one of the best cooks I’ve ever known. I have some of her handwritten recipes and I cherish them. She could do more with meager ingredients and simple salt and pepper seasoning than most chefs of today. Occasionally, when I would visit, I’d see my grandmother open a mason jar filled with something she had canned. I especially remember her canned vegetable soup. What I wouldn’t give to enjoy one of her fruit fried pies or a bowl of her homemade chicken and dumplings right now – the rolled kind, not those drop things. That’s like putting beans in chili. Don’t get me started.
I didn’t really think about canning until my time working on the farm. You see, if you don’t sell the produce that you take to the market, you can’t really throw it away. It’s food. Sure, we would barter with a restaurant on our way back home, exchanging a basket of tomatoes for some lunch, but if you didn’t sell it, you were either going to can the food or blanch it and freeze it. Not to brag, but I learned good selling skills during those summer months, because I didn’t want to spend the rest of the summer putting up vegetables.
It’s funny how your thinking changes when your young to when you become a little more seasoned, shall we say. I’ve been canning fruit and vegetables for more than 30 years as an adult. I took about 10 years off but realized I liked it. I’ve dried and canned my own herbs, I’ve put up more pickled items from cucumbers to beets than I can count. I’ve canned jams and jellies from fruits I’ve purchased or received from family and friends. And I’ve cooked huge amounts of salsa. My husband isn’t a fan of me giving that out, since it’s his go-to snack. I’m still trying to find a chips and salsa diet that would work. I’d make millions!
Since moving to west central Texas in San Angelo five years ago, I’ve even taken the ripe beans off our backyard mesquite trees and made delicious jelly from them. I’ve even gone as far as making what is referred to by some as Apocalypse Coffee, using the mesquite pods. So if it all goes south and coffee runs out, I’m your go-to girl.
So to you canners out there, I salute you for your efforts to keep this tradition alive. And to the farmers who literally bring the farm to the table, I thank you for the hard work you do to feed us across the world.
How Big Is Texas Podcast
Did you know How Big Is Texas now has a new podcast? How cool is that? If you’d like to hear my podcast, visit my podcast page and click on any episode, including Episode 3, which is the audio version of this blog post.
Until next time…from Texas…safe travels!