Flash in the Pan 

Manners and taste flavor the markets

The marketplaces of the world have always been charged with the energy of trade, an activity with its own universal language that, like the language of love, is hard-wired into humanity. From the perfumed bazaars of Timbuktu and the mega-digital NASDAQ stock exchange to Missoula’s twin farmers’ markets at both ends of North Higgins—each burn with an archetypal flame that ignites wherever goods are traded.

Each market also comes with its own rules and etiquette, and when the occasional signal gets crossed, sparks can fly.

Missoula farmer Josh Slotnick once wrote a poem about a shaggy guy with a South American man-purse bargaining for broccoli in the middle of the worst heat wave ever.

“I weighed the broccoli and told him, ‘That’s three dollars in broccoli,’” Slotnick recalls.

“How about $2.50?” came the surprise counter-offer.

Shaggy was working it like a tourista who wants to pay the local price in the mercados of South America, where the ability to buy cool, cheap stuff is considered an entitlement, and haggling for this right is expected.

But after months of carrying searing hot irrigation pipe on his shoulders, hoeing deliriously in the crushing sun, and no sleep, Slotnick was in no mood to help Shaggy save a little more beer money.

“No, not for $2.50,” Slotnick said, restocking his broccoli. “Who’s next?”

Driving a hard bargain in order to defend your fair interests is noble, while pushing hard for a bigger share, no matter what’s fair, is lame. But before you scold Shaggy, ask yourself how fair a trader you are.

Mathematically speaking, for every good deal out there, someone else gets a bad deal—like perhaps the maker of Shaggy’s man-purse. Every time you buy low and sell high, someone else had to buy high and sell low.

Some justify this competition between buyer and seller in Darwinian terms, arguing that natural selection under stiff competition produces strong survivors. This brand of law-of-the-jungle-style economics finds its epitome in the world’s equity markets. Perhaps the greatest money laundering outfits of all time, they wash the sins of capitalism into a sea of anonymous digital liquid.

A good farmers’ market, on the other hand, thrives on a cooperative relationship between farmer and customer.

Take, for example, Nicole Jarvis of Ploughshare Farm in Moeise, who grows some of the finest tomato plants in western Montana, and sells them at the North Market, by the XXXX’s. Her display includes Italian San Marzano paste tomatoes and heirloom Rose de berne varieties—types that might not be familiar to Joe Q. Tomato-eater. People notice her impressive starts, but wind up asking for the more pedestrian varieties (which she stocks, too). “Do you have Early Girls?” they’ll ask.

But while Jarvis sells them what they want, she’ll also get the opportunity to suggest something better. Either way, the customers will be back, because her plants rock.

Most growers want their baby plants to grow up healthy, wherever they are. They look forward to midsummer progress reports, and are happy to give cultivation tips.

Jarvis is no exception. Last week, she advised customers to keep their tomatoes in pots until Memorial Day, when the danger of frost has passed. But they should start “hardening them off” right away, by leaving them outside by day and bringing them in at night, she added. (Note: Before transplanting them outside, let potted tomatoes spend a few nights outside, too–weather permitting.)

The market can start off slow in spring, until planting time hits for real, and the produce comes on strong. Last week’s North Market opening, says Steve Elliot of Lifeline Farms in Victor, “was like watching paint dry.”

At the other end of North Higgins, under the bridge, the Meat Market had more going on. In addition to plant starts and early veggies, there was pork stew at the crêpe stand, pie by the slice, organic feta (very tasty) and brie (reportedly stinky), duck eggs, a salsa bar and, of course, lots of meat: buffalo, cow, pig, lamb and sausage.

In the Meat Market’s veggie ghetto, away from the latte-clad tables and gossip circles, things were slower. Steve Paferi from Fields of Wrath wondered aloud about how busy the North Market was, whether switching to the Meat Market was a good move, and how best to market his truly excellent mix of crushed red chili flakes (full disclosure: He gave me a bag).

On slow days, growers offer specials, but not always for business reasons. Maybe after a long winter, some could use a little friendly face time with a customer.

Predatory shoppers questing for a deal might exploit situations like this. But before you congratulate yourself for getting a “steal” on a bag of fresh spinach, take a look at the farmer’s leathery hands and see how, even when scrubbed clean, those hands are tattooed with dirt so you can eat.

You could tell the farmer with the tattooed hands to “keep the change,” instead. It would be a small but well-received gesture, a token example of how team spirit can trump competition, and something good will surely come of it.

Ask Ari: Seeking closure over dearly departed 515

I’ve never seen so much community-wide soul searching after a restaurant closure as I have, via your questions, about the loss of 515. How could such a culinary treasure, with deep community roots and a vision that celebrated the use of local, seasonal foods, not succeed in Missoula?

Short answer: huge overhead; not busy enough. The epic 515 hamburger happy hour specials were often busy, and the food amazing but the margins on these specials were low.

(With 515’s closing, my pick for best burger in town now goes to Milos, a new pasta bar in the back of the Union Club. With an all Montana-raised meat patty of buffalo, pork and lamb, on a Worden’s baked bun, it’s an awesome burger.)

Success in the restaurant business, at least around here, and unless you have extra-low overhead, is more about being busy than about being unique. Look no further than right down the block from 515, at Ciao Mambo, with its big portions of dependable, familiar, non-local food. The place is jammed every day.

Paul Myers, 515’s owner/chef, created what he’d set out to: a gastronomic experience of artistry for sophisticated diners. His menu reflected the land and seasons of Montana, and this dynamism kept things fresh and cutting edge. It was daring and, like many daring leaps, it was risky.

Each new menu presented the potential for a new set of kinks to work out, translating into more opportunities for inconsistency. Couple that with the fact that many diners don’t want experimentation and prefer a typical menu, with familiar choices; others don’t care much about the food anyway—they’re more concerned with the image or the setting, à la Shadow’s Keep.

Perhaps Missoula is a little too “small town” for a giant like Myers, or at least for a big city place like 515. Jimi Hendrix might not have made it in this town either, without touring.

Myers and family are weighing their options. They might go on tour themselves.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net.

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