Let Us Be Grateful For Lettuce, and More

The huge heads of lettuce glistened with drops of water nestled among their red-tipped, frilly leaves. They took up nearly half the Stoner Vegetable Stand.

"Those are beautiful heads of lettuce," I said, almost to myself, almost to the woman shopping beside me.

We were both a little surprised, I think, when the farmer replied.

"Thank you," he said.

I've been shopping at the Central Market for a couple of years now. I used to go on Saturdays, but now that I work just across the street, in the center of the small city of Lancaster, Pa., I go every day it's open - three times a week.

I love shopping there. The vegetables taste undeniably better than the overgrown, perfect plants sold in big grocery stores, and in season they cost a little less, too.

The people behind the stands are friendly to a fault. The husband and wife who run the Stoner stand have shared recipes - how to cook an acorn squash - and wisdom about their produce. The smallest strawberries are the sweetest; the best broccoli, tightly budded.

I always trust what they say. I know they know whereof they speak. They are the third generation of Stoners to run a vegetable stand at the Central Market.

The market is full of people like them.

Around the corner is the Hodecker Celery Farm's stand, where farmers who specialize in celery sell it in tiny bunches. The Hodecker stalks are famous, so pale they're almost white, and lacking the stringy bitterness that I always thought defined celery.

Down the aisle from them is the big Kaufman Apple Orchard stand. The man who runs it wears a beard but no mustache, indicating he is a married Mennonite. He is full of apple knowledge: which are the best to bake, which are the best for snacking.

Sometimes, if I'm interested in a new kind, he'll slip an extra one in my bag for free.

There are butchers and bakers and ethnic food stands. Specialty cheeses. Stands that sell the best coleslaw and potato salad anywhere. They all have one thing in common: The people who run them have an intimate knowledge of what they sell. They have usually baked it, made it, or grown it. That's why I like to shop there.

But the connection between the people and their produce never truly came home to me until Mr. Stoner thanked me when I complimented his lettuce.

It caught me off-guard. I've come to know and appreciate the market. I've come to delight in the asparagus that ushers in spring, the corn that brings summer, and the spectacular red tomatoes of late July and August.

BUT I was raised with big supermarkets, where complimenting a vegetable wouldn't make much sense. Who should get the credit? The stock person who rolled the crates in the front door?

Now I know a little more. When I put my money into Mr. Stoner's roughened hands, I notice that they're stained with dirt - the same dirt that nourished the heads of the lettuce he sells.

Now I think I'll pay him those compliments more often.

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