“Giving Good Weight”

A portrait of the Greenmarket back in 1977 shows that some things never change.

greenmarket

This year the city’s legendary Greenmarket celebrates its 35th birthday and the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist John McPhee turns 80.  But back in 1977, when the program was a one-year-old experiment, McPhee spent months working with farmers and captured the experience in his essay “Giving Good Weight.” Here we present a few short excerpts—descriptions of market exchanges; farmers’ reactions to selling in the city; the story of one farm’s transition to direct marketing; and several wonderful snatches of farmer-customer interactions—but I urge you to get your hands on the timeless, 70-page masterpiece, which I believe better captures the spirit of New York’s farmers markets than anything written since. -GL

You people come into the market—the Greenmarket, in the open air under the downpouring sun—and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your stringbeans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are—people of the city—and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with you as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales.

“Does every sink grow on your farm?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“It’s marvelous. Absolutely every sink?”

“Some things we get from neighbors up the road.”

“You don’t have no avocados, do you?”

“Avocados don’t grow in New York State.”

“Butter beans?”

“They’re a Southern crop.”

“Who baked this bread?”

“My mother. A dollar twenty-five for the cinnamon. Ninetyfive cents for the rye.”

“I can’t eat rye bread anymore. I like it very much, but it gives me a headache.”

Short, born abroad, and with dark hair and quick eyes, the woman who likes rye bread comes regularly to the Brooklyn Greenmarket, at Flatbush and Atlantic. I have seen her as well at the Fifty-ninth Street Greenmarket, in Manhattan. There is abundant evidence that she likes to eat. She must have endured some spectacular hangovers from all that rye.

Farm goods are sold off trucks, vans and pickups that come into town in the dark of the morning. The site shifts with the day of the week: Tuesdays, black Harlem; Wednesdays, Brooklyn; Fridays, Amsterdam at 102nd. There are two on Saturdays—the one at Fifty-ninth Street and Second Avenue, the other in Union Square. Certain farms are represented everywhere, others at just one or two of the markets, which have been primed by foundation funds and developed under the eye of the city. If they are something good for the urban milieu—tumbling horns of fresh plenty at the people’s feet—they are an even better deal for the farmers, whose disappearance from the metropolitan borders may be slowed a bit by the many thousands of city people who flow through streets and vacant lots and crowd up six deep at the trucks to admire the peppers, fight over the corn and gratefully fill our money aprons with fresh green city lettuce.

“How much are the tomatoes?”

“Three pounds for a dollar.”

“Peaches?”

“Three pounds for a dollar twenty-five.”

“Are they freestones?”

“No charge for the pits.”

“How much are the tomatoes?”

“Three pounds for a dollar. It says so there on the sign.”

“Venver the eggs laid?”

“Yesterday.”

“Kon you eat dum raw?”

We look up from the cartons, the cashbox, the scales, to see who will eat the eggs raw. She is a good-looking big-framed young blonde.

“You bet. You can eat them raw.”

“How much are the apples?”

“Three pounds for a dollar.”

Three pounds, as we weigh them out, are anywhere from forty-eight to fiftytwo ounces. Rich Hodgson says not to charge for an extra quarter pound. He is from Hodgson Farms, of Newburgh, New York, and I (who come from western New Jersey) have been working for him off and on for three months, summer and fall. I thought at first that I would last only a week, but there is a mesmerism in the selling, in the coins and the bills, the all-day touching of hands. I am often in charge of the peppers, and, like everyone else behind the tables by our truck, I can look at a plastic sack of them now and tell its weight.

“How much these weigh? Have I got three pounds?”

“That’s maybe two and a quarter pounds you’ve got there.”

“Weigh them, please.”

“There it is. Two and a quarter pounds.”

“Very good.”

“Fantastic! Fantastic! You see that? You see that? He knew exactly how much it weighed.”

I scuff a boot, take a break for a shiver in the bones. There are unsuspected heights in this game, moments that go right off the scale.

“What always surprises me is how many people are really nice here in the city.”

“I was born in New York. My roots are here, you know. I’d throw away a bad cantaloupe, anything, so the people would come back.”

“We have to leave them touch the tomatoes, but when they do my guts go up and down. They paw them until if you stuck a pin in them they’d explode.”

“They handle the fruit as if they were getting out all their aggressions. They press on the melons until their thumbs push through. I don’t know why they have to handle the fruit like that.  They’re brutal on the fruit.”

“They inspect each egg, wiggle it, make sure it’s not stuck in the carton. You’d think they were buying diamonds.” “They’re bag crazy. They need a bag for everything, sometimes two.”

“They’re nervous. So nervous.”

“Today I had my third request from someone who wanted to come stay on the farm, who was looking for peace and quiet for a couple of days. He said he had found Jesus. It was unreal.”

“I had two Jews in yarmulkes fighting over a head of lettuce.

One called the other a kike.”

“I’ve had people buy peppers from me and take them to another truck to check on the weight.”

“Yeah, and meanwhile they put thirteen ears of corn in a bag, hand it to you, and say it’s a dozen. I let them go. I only go after them when they have sixteen.”

“They think we’re hicks. ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘We’re hicks and you’re hookers. You’re muggers and you breathe dirty air.’”

“I hardly smoke in the city. Down home I can smoke a whole pack of cigarettes and still have energy all night. You couldn’t pay me to live here. I can’t breathe.”

Dick Hodgson—prematurely white-haired, drivingly busy—is an agrarian paterfamilias whose eighty-two-year-old mother-in-law grades tomatoes for him. His wife, Frances, is his secretary and bookkeeper. He branched into truck farming some years ago specifically to keep his daughter, Judy, close to home. Judy runs the Hodgsons’ roadside stand, in Plattekill, and her husband, Jan Krol, is the family’s vegetable grower, the field boss—more than a hundred acres now under cultivation. Rich, meanwhile, went off to college and studied horticulture, with special emphasis on the fate of tropical houseplants. To attract him home, his father constructed a greenhouse, where Rich now grows wandering Jews, spider plants, impatiens, coleus, asparagus ferns—and he takes them with him to Harlem and wherever else he is allowed to sell them. Rich, who likes the crowds and the stir of the city, is the farm’s marketer.

The Greenmarket, even more than the arriving Hodgson generation, has expanded Hodgson Farms. Before 1976, the family had scarcely twenty acres under cultivation and, even so, had difficulty finding adequate outlets for the vegetables Jan grew. The roadside stand moved only a minor volume. Much of the rest was sold in New Jersey, at the Paterson Market, with discouraging results. “Paterson is semi-wholesale,” Rich says. “You have to sell in units of a peck or more. You’re lucky if you get three dollars for a half bushel of tomatoes. You ask for more and all you hear all day is “That’s a too much a money. That’s a too much a money.’” (A half bushel of tomatoes weighs twenty-six pounds, and brings at least eight dollars at the Greenmarket, giving good weight.) The Hodgsons tried the fruit-and-vegetable auction in Milton, New York, but the auctioneer’s cut was thirteen percent and the farmers were working for him. They also tried a farmers’ market in Albany, but sold three bushels of peppers and a couple of bags of corn in one depressing day. They were more or less failing as small-scale truck farmers. Dick Hodgson’s theory of family cohesion through agricultural diversification was in need of an unknown spray. NBC News presented a short item one evening covering the début of the Greenmarket. The Hodgsons happened to be watching.

“The first place we went to was Fifty-ninth Street, and the people were fifteen feet deep waiting to get to the eggs. I couldn’t believe it. There were just masses of faces. I looked at them and felt panic and broke into a cold sweat. They went after the corn so fast I just dumped it on the ground. The people fell on it, stripped it, threw the husks around. They were fighting, grabbing, snatching at anything they could get their hands on. I had never seen people that way, never seen anything like it. We sold a full truck in five hours. It was as if there was a famine going on.” The people are quieter now.

In the cooler of E. Borchert & Sons, the opiate aroma of peaches is overwhelming, unquenched by the refrigerant air. When the door opens, it frames, in summer heat, hazy orchards on ground that falls away to rise again in far perspective, orchards everywhere we can see. While loading half-bushel boxes onto the truck, we stop to eat a couple of peaches and half a dozen blue free plums. Not the least of the pleasures of working with Hodgson is the bounty of provender at hand, enough to have made the most sybaritic Roman prop himself up on one elbow. I eat, most days, something like a dozen plums, four apples, seven pears, six peaches, ten nectarines, six tomatoes, and a green pepper.

Eating his peach, Rich says, “The people down there in the city can’t imagine this. They don’t believe that peaches come from Newburgh, New York. They say that peaches come only from Georgia. People in the city have no concept of what our farming is like. They have no idea what a tomato plant looks like, or how a tomato is picked. They can’t envision a place with forty thousand chickens.  They have no concept of how sweet corn grows. And the people around here have a false concept of the city. Before we went down there the first time, people up here said, ‘You’re out of your mind.  You’re going to get robbed. You’re going to get stabbed.’ But I just don’t have any fears there. People in black Harlem are just as nice as people anywhere. City people generally are a lot calmer than I expected.  I thought they would be loud, pushy, aggressive, and mean. But eighty percent of them are nice and calm. Blacks and whites get along much better there than they do in Newburgh. Newburgh Free Academy, where I went to high school, was twenty-five percent black. We had riots every year and lots of tension. Cars were set on fire. Actually, I prefer Harlem to most of the other markets. Harlem people are not so fussy. They don’t manhandle the fruit. And they buy in quantity. They’ll buy two dozen ears of corn, six pounds of tomatoes, and three dozen eggs. At Fifty-ninth Street, someone will buy one ear of corn for ten cents and want it in a bag. The reason we’re down there is the money, of course. But the one-to-one contact with the people is really good—especially when they come back the next week and say, ‘Those peaches were really delicious.’ ” Middle-aged man with a woman in blue. She reaches for the roll of thin plastic bags, tugs one off, and tries to open it. The sides are stuck together and resist coming apart. She looks up helplessly, looks at me. Like everyone else on this side of the tables, I am an expert at opening plastic bags.

“These bags are terrible,” I tell her, rubbing one between my thumb and fingers. When it comes open, I hand it to her.

“Why, thank you,” she says. “You’re nice to do that for me. I guess that is the privilege of a lady.”

Her husband looks me over, and explains to her, “He’s from the old school.” There is a pause, some handling of fruit. Then he adds, “But the old schools are closing these days.”

“They’re demolished,” she says. “The building’s gone.”

They fill their sack with peppers (Lady Bell).

The older the men are here, the more likely it is that they are wearing suits and ties. Gray fedoras. Long cigars. The younger they are, the more likely it is that they are carrying shoulderstrapped Panasonics, turned on, turned up—blaring. Fortunately, the market seems to attract a high proportion of venerable people, dressed as if for church, exchanging news and some opinion.

Woman says, “What is this stuff on these peaches?”

“It’s called fuzz.”

“It was on your peaches last week, too.”

“We don’t take it off. When you buy peaches in the store, the fuzz has been rubbed off.”

“Well, I never.”

“You never saw peach fuzz before? You’re kidding.”

“I don’t like that fuzz. It makes me itchy. How much are the tomatoes?”

“Three pounds for a dollar.”

“Give me three pounds. Tomatoes don’t have fuzz.

Excerpts from “Giving Good Weight” from the collection GIVING GOOD WEIGHT by John McPhee. Copyright © 1979 by John McPhee. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LL

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