"Who wants a deal? We got three pounds of bananas for a dollar. Three pounds of red peppers for a dollar. Who wants a deal?" The booming voice comes from a middle-aged man, one of more than 100 vendors at the Rochester Public Market.
I went to the Public Market on a cold, wet day. A steady drizzle fell and temperatures officially in the 30s felt like the 20s. And the market is mostly outdoors. Still the place was so crowded that at points I was elbow to elbow with men, women and children.
No wonder the Rochester Public Market recently received an award as the best public market in the country.
It's a cornucopia of sounds, aromas and humanity.
"Deal now if you want," says a young vendor, maybe in his mid-20s, holding fresh asparagus in one hand and broccoli in the other. "You buy it now before the boss comes back. Deal now or no deal."
The damp weather depresses the smells, but still I can detect coffee, sausage, fried onions, what I think is vanilla, and, as I walk, at least a dozen other aromas. One stall is selling a selection of at least a hundred spices that blend together into a rich mix that reminds me of the kitchen of a friend's mother when I was growing up.
Three young men, all in their early 20s, are hawking newspapers. One puts one in front of my face. "Are you satisfied with the results of the election?" he asks, his tone sounding much like a used-car salesman. The paper is the Socialist Worker. The headline says, "How Can We Stop These Creeps?" and there are photos of Sarah Palin, John Boehner, Newt Gingrich and other Republicans. How much? I ask. One dollar, he says. No thanks, I reply. "Here, take it for free," he says. "We have to change the system."
The public market is a combination of a giant farmers' market, a smaller flea market, an interesting array of restaurants -- some in shacklike buildings, and a gathering of viewpoints.
A young woman hands me what looks like a postcard. In the other hand is a bag with the name of an expensive brand of chocolate. She says she's from the University of Rochester and that she's doing a study. The details are on the card. It's for couples, and to complete the questionnaire you have to go online. "Want some candy?" she says to conclude her pitch. To my disappointment, it's not expensive chocolate at all but a fruit-flavored chewy candy.
The market has as large a selection of fresh vegetables as you're likely to find anywhere in Western New York. It has been a fixture in Rochester since 1827, making it the oldest farmers' market in the country to operate without a break. It has been at its current location just northeast of downtown since 1905.
It is open year-round Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. and on Saturdays from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. The biggest crowds, and the day with the most vendors, is Saturday.
A glance around shows that the crowds clearly come from the inner city and the highest-income suburbs, all of greater Rochester, and that it includes some people looking for low prices and others looking for fresh and maybe unusual foods.
Some vendors sell fresh fish, some have eggs and milk and other dairy products, some offer flowers and other plants. You can find bread, fruit, clams, honey. If it comes fresh and it's edible, you can find it. VM Giordano Imports European Cheese Shop, one of the few indoor stores, sells more than a hundred kinds of cheese. It's right next to two indoor bakeries.
There's Zimmermann's, a German sausage restaurant (where I enjoyed a fried bologna sandwich smothered in fried onions and a thick slice of cheese), and Lemongrass, a Vietnamese-French restaurant (outside the market gates, where I drank a Vietnamese coffee -- an espresso with sweetened milk), a Mexican eatery, and a dozen or more other places to eat.
The number of places to eat and of vendors varies from day to day, and a brochure describing the market says there are "over 300 vendor stalls." Many of the stalls are white trucks backed up against "sheds" (actually elongated pavilions), and some of them sell ready-to-eat foods.
The number of vendors will peak on December weekends, during "Holidays at the Market." Sunday hours, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. are added today and next Sunday.
Special events during the extended holiday hours include a cookie baking contest, carolers, free horse-drawn sleigh rides and, of course, an appearance by Santa Claus. To enter the cookie contest, bring a dozen of your home-baked cookies to the market office on Saturday no later than 3 p.m., or next Sunday by noon. A panel of judges, including Santa Claus, will announce the winner at 3 p.m. next Sunday. The winner need not be present. First-, second- and third-place prizes will be given in each of two categories, amateur and professional baker.
Many regular shoppers arrive with their own shopping carts. Others bring shopping bags. For many, clearly, a weekly trip to the public market is equivalent to a visit to a large grocery store.
Those who return frequently have no trouble understanding why this year the Rochester Public Market won the 2010 America's Favorite Farmers Market contest, an annual award given by the American Farmland Trust.
The feel of the market continues outside. Just south of the market there are shops that cater to the crowds, including an indoor flea market and the Rohrbach Brewery, where you can get free samples of beer.
If you go:
Take the Thruway to I-490 to downtown Rochester; take Exit 13 (a left side exit) toward Downtown/Plymouth Avenue for about a mile and a half; take the East Main Street/University Avenue exit (also on the left), turn left onto East Main, go 6/1 0 of a mile to Railroad Street, turn left on Railroad. The Public Market is about a third of a mile north.
There's plenty of free parking near the Public Market, but sometimes the place is so crowded, you have to drive around a while before you find an open spot. There are also some pay lots.