Underground Farmers' Market

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San Francisco Underground Market - cupcakes

Six o'clock on Friday night, and the line outside the door at 17th and Capp was snaking down past the motorcycle repair shop and around the corner. Clutching brown paper bags of Sam Adams and Tecate, the crowd was a typical Mission mix: young guys in goatees with bike locks slung through their messenger bags, cool dads with baby strapped to their chests in slings, women staying warm in hand-knitted scarves and stripey fingerless gloves, even a few used-bookstore-looking folks with wild gray hair and heavy glasses.

What was the scene? An iPad giveaway? Lifetime free coffee at Four Barrel? A Radiohead jam session?

No, no, and no...instead, it was the second Underground Farmers' Market, organized by ForageSF's Iso Rabins. Essentially, an extra-groovy bake sale, held for no reason except to showcase the fun stuff being made by your friends and neighbors. What was on the table? All kinds of delights: kombucha by the jug, bags of peanut brittle and beef jerky, bergamot marmalade, white-grapefruit vanilla jelly, onion-bacon relish, lemonade, butternut-squash lasagna, little bowls of rice and mung-bean stew scooped out of Mason jars, acorn fudge, made-while-you-wait Indian chaat, corned-beef sandwiches, pumpkin pie by the slice, raw chocolate truffles, cupcakes, cucumber marmalade, kale, fresh chanterelles, granola, chipotle popcorn.

Photos by Wendy Goodfriend


Well, awesome, you may say. But this is San Francisco, hardly a place starving for access to raw-chocolate truffles and artisanal chicharrones. Between our dozens of farmers' markets, our thousands of restaurants, and our many, many gourmet stores, why would anyone need to stand in line on Capp Street to score good food?

Because walking into a store and handing over money is easy. Anyone can do it. To get to the Underground Farmers Market, you had to know about it—through Rabins' own 1000+ person email list, through a re-tweet from a street-food cart, or from one of the many blog or media mentions that had been buzzing around the concept since the first market, held last December. Just like at a show by a new band, though, a lot of the attendees seemed to have gotten there the old-fashioned way: they had a friend selling stuff, or knew somebody who knew somebody who told them to check out this cool scene.

So there was the buzz factor, and the undeniable urban urge to be in at the beginning of the next new thing. And, like a warehouse show, there was a little of the Permits? We don't need no stinkin' permits feeling, too. After all, this was outlaw food, made by artisans canning on the far side of the law—in other words, brewing the 'buch or popping the corn in their home kitchens, uninspected by the health department.

Few of the vendors make their product professionally in commercial kitchens; for most, it's a fun side gig, something they were doing anyway for friends and family, a way to make a little extra money from a particular passion for chocolate or kimchee. (Of course, the continued stream of layoffs have made more and more people seek profit in their passion; at a recent SPUR panel discussion on the economics of street food, Imelda Reyes from the Department of Public Health said she gets 12 to 16 calls a day now from would-be street-food entrepreneurs curious about the permitting process, up from 2 or 3 a week a year ago.)

Is this how twentysomethings are rebelling now? As outlaw onion-bacon relish-makers, flaunting the law with their organic flax-seed crackers or park-foraged miners' lettuce? Whatever the reasoning, the scene was amazingly cheerful. This was a church social of a different stripe, bringing together like-minded urbanites eager not just to shop and nibble (although shop they did) but to to put a face on their food, talking pickling, swapping project ideas, sharing chicken coop innovations and enthusing about the excellence of Fatted Calf's butchery classes. That bunch of mustard greens? Grown and bunched by Patricia on an eighth-of-an-acre vacant lot in Berkeley, thanks to a friendly landlord happy to see vegetables sprouting instead of weeds and trash. That lemonade? Made by Robin from lemons picked in her friend's backyard, and served up with peanut brittle "made from stuff I just had in my kitchen."

Selling my own hot-from-the-oven homemade bread, apricot jam and vanilla pear butter from a card table in the corner, it was easy to feel like instant friends with everyone to whom I handed a warm loaf. After all, I'd kneaded and shaped each bread just a few hours before, peeled every single pear after it was picked at an orchard I knew.

The recession may be fueling a renewed interest in home cooking and small-scale entrepreneurship, but money was definitely being spent. By 10pm, Becky of Urban Preserves estimated that she'd sold over half of the 150 jars she'd brought; Kitty of Kitty's Creations, who makes her products in her church's kitchen in the Sunset, had maybe 5 dozen left of the 14 dozen jars of jam, chutney, and relish she'd walked in with. Slow Jams, on the verge of going pro, charged $10 and up for their sleek jars of sweet and savory jams and relishes; by 9pm, they were sold out and packed up.

By 10:30pm, organizer Iso Rabins looked equally exhausted and thrilled, if a little stunned by the turnout. A lot of advance press and a savvy use of social media, combined with a particular young-urbanite quest for authenticity, had made the night's market popular beyond anything he'd imagined. For the next one, a bigger venue will clearly be necessary. How big can it go and still feel underground? How many of the novelty seekers will come back? How much jam and jerky does the city need? For the moment, it seems, that if you make it, they will come.


Watch This Week in Northern California tonight, Friday January 29 at 8pm to see Leslie Sbrocco, host of Check, Please! Bay Area in a new segment on local food and wine trends. This week, a conversation about restaurants and the recession and underground food markets with Bay Area Bites bloggers, Michael Procopio and Stephanie Rosenbaum.