R: We were curious about visiting the Gardena market because of its reputation as the longest running farmers' market in Los Angeles county. When we turned left off Van Ness onto El Segundo Boulevard, we were surprised by the small size of the market.
Z: As we were parking on Van Ness, I kept telling Reuben, " It can't be that small. It probably winds around behind the buildings out of site." But there's nowhere for it to wind. This cozy little farmers' market is nestled in the parking lot of the Hollypark United Methodist Church. The Church parking lot seemed quite full, and there were many cars parked on both sides of the street. Compared to other markets we've visited, this one truly was small, but there was ample fresh produce to buy.
R: We walked over to a table displaying all kinds of aloe vera products and asked where we could find the manager of the market. We now do this routinely because we had been mistaken for solicitors at one of the markets. "I am," said Roy Edwards, who stood behind a table stacked with aloe vera ointments, soaps, body gels and even juice made form aloe vera.
Z: He and his wife, Ida, have managed this market since 1991. Ida proudly pointed to her six-year-old daughter Kayshanae who grew up at this market. Ida and Roy manage another market at Adams and Vermont as well as sell their aloe vera products at the Hollywood Farmers' Market. They grow their aloe vera on 93 acres in Desert Center near Indio.
R: Roy told us that the market averages between 1,000 and 1,500 customers who make their purchases from 20 to 25 vendors each week, depending on the season. We couldn't imagine this pint-sized market accommodating that many people, but by 10 o'clock the place was a bustling melange of busy shoppers. One of the vendors, Friends Ranch, has been coming to the market since it opened 20 years ago in June of 1979 with only four farmers. This past June the market recognized its twentieth anniversary with a gala celebration.
Z: A unique feature of this market is its exceptionally early opening. As managers, Roy and Ida have to be there at 5:00 a.m. to get ready for the 6:30 opening each week. Surprisingly, there are people waiting to make their purchases. The hottest item is fresh black-eyed peas that usually sell out quickly. The day we visited they were gone by 10:00 a.m.
R: Another special feature of the Gardena market is the weekly raffle distributing 15 to 18 bags of produce to the winners. The produce is donated by the participating farmers, and the raffle tickets are absolutely free.
Z: We joined the throng gathered around the managers' table about 11 o'clock and were both surprised when they called our number and handed us a beautiful potted rose bush sporting a bright red rose.
R: That was special. I never expected to come home with a prize. While we're on the subject of flowers, you were quite taken by the cut flowers from Cho's Flower Farm in Somis. Benjie Cho took us on a tour of his collection which included asters, snapdragons, pompons, daisies, stargazers, and more. You took him up on his offer to create a custom bouquet, and we went home with giant yellow sunflowers, purple statice, yellow solidago, and baby tears.
Z: That striking bouquet really brightens up our kitchen table, and Benjie said that if I change the water every day, those flowers should last a whole week. So, guess what I've been doing every morning. This market, although a member of the Southland Farmers' Market Association, has a down to earth feel about it. None of the farmers had giant signs and were not into fancy public relations. They just grew their produce and brought it here to sell. In many instances it was even difficult to find out the name of the farm.
R: Although there weren't a huge number of farmers, we noticed a wide variety of summer fruits. Jess Swope from Selma was busy bagging nectarines, plums, peaches, apples, and seedless grapes, all well priced at $1.00 a pound. He also had melons, Asian pears, and walnuts. Other farmers sold giant watermelons and honeydews. Ha's Apple Farm who we've seen at other markets, had a table with their unwaxed Fuji apples and their apple butter, jams, and syrups.
Z: Bernard Ranches from north San Diego County and Friends Ranch both had citrus by the bag. At the Friends table we noticed tiny "pixie" tangerines. We tasted a sample, and both of us had to laugh when we simultaneously remarked, "These are the sweetest tangerines I've ever had!" Naturally, we bought some. Moving on to vegetables, I was totally impressed with the selection and the reasonable prices. Yellow, white, and bicolor corn were three for a dollar. We bought a variety of corn, too. Imagine beefsteak tomatoes at three pounds for a dollar! All the greens: kale, chard, mustard, and collards were fifty cents a bunch and were going fast.
R: We noticed that the prices were quite reasonable and were an encouragement for people in the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Program to use their food vouchers at the farmers' market. The vouchers are issued by the County Health Department to low-income people as part of a nutrition program. All the vendors here accept the vouchers.
Z: One of the stands especially piqued my interest with their Asian greens and vegetables. Here they had pumpkin leaves, bitter melon leaves and Chinese broccoli. As we examined the unusual vegetables, we talked to Barbara, one of the patrons who grew up in Jamaica. She told us how she throws the bitter leaves into a blender with cactus and ginger to make a delicious soup. We've picked up many amazing recipes from market customers.
R: I noticed you weren't adventurous enough to try the bitter leaves, but you did buy some beautiful yellow crookneck squash that was so fresh they had a noticeable sweetness. But one of the highlights of the morning for me was Jazzy Sprouts. Dexter Scott has been growing sprouts in Reseda for the last ten years. He sells them at 18 markets throughout Southern California. When I asked about the name Jazzy Sprouts, he smiled and proudly told us that he raises his crop with jazzy clarinet music. Scott retired from the army band after 35 years and then took up sprouting.
Z: We smiled and nodded enthusiastically when he asked if we wanted to hear him play. He then removed a soprano sax from a case that looked like it had been through two world wars and began a spirited rendition of In the Mood. He paused to show us his picture in an article "Buying the Farm" that appeared in the May/June issue of Westways Magazine. Then he continued with a few bars of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and La Cucaracha for one of the Hispanic patrons. When Reuben won the rose, he swung into a romantic version of La Vie en Rose.
R: We were so carried away with the music we almost forgot to mention Dexter's sprouts. We were impressed with the biggest selection of sprouted items we've encountered. He sprouted every kind of bean you could think of, but the most unusual were the peanut sprouts. Of, course, Zel had to take home a scoop at the bargain price of $1. He had wheat grass and barley grass and even sold 1 oz. containers of juice from both. Zel was brave enough to taste the barley juice even after he warned us it was bitter. Ugh!
Z: Bitter is putting it mildly! I normally like the bitter vegetables, but I must admit that barley juice is the strongest, bitterest stuff I've ever had. I know it's healthy, but I'm not rushing back for seconds! After we finished our purchases, we gathered up our bundles and headed back home.
Reviewed September 1999