Rubin: In Corktown, farmers market a surprising success

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Koko Koseki had a straw hat and a straw basket and a taste for an obscure Asian vegetable.

She found it at a place that would have sounded preposterous in Detroit only a few years ago: a farmer’s stall at the corner of Michigan Avenue and a freeway.

The Corktown Farmers Market rises every Thursday afternoon in the side yard of the Detroit Institute of Bagels, which might also have contended for least likely to succeed.

As for the 12 to 15 vendors, who paid $10 apiece to set up shop, at least half grow their crops or prepare their cuisine within walking distance of the market.

Maybe that’s not novel — the beloved Mayor Hazen Pingree became known as “Potato Patch” after he opened empty lots to farming during a depression in 1893 — but it’s an endorsement for the small-scale practicality of urban agriculture.

Also, it’s good fun. The vendors were passionate last week about what they offered, and they had time to explain what they were selling — or OK, sometimes over-explain.

Meantime, a banjo player and a fiddler sat near the door of the bagel shop, which was temporarily churning out pizzas, and the proprietor of the Labrosse Farm booth bobbed her head in time with the tune.

“We used to go to Eastern Market,” said Koseki, 30, the seeker of odd produce, “but during the summer, it’s too crowded.”

You can’t fault Eastern Market for being beloved, and the Corktown market has nowhere near its larger cousin’s selection. But as Greg Willerer of Brother Nature Produce pointed out, Corktown also doesn’t have tourists strolling past sipping $4 lattes.

“People come here to buy,” he said. Or sometimes to exercise their dogs, but that’s fine, especially if the dogs like vegetables.

The owner of a big brown Weimaraner named Gabby said Gabby’s favorite snacks are carrots and celery.

As she spoke, Gabby was being barked at by a small black dog named Charlie Dickens. Gabby seemed perplexed — almost as though he was a person who found himself at a farmers market overlooking rush hour traffic on the Lodge.

Main thing is fun

The owners of the bagel shop, Ben Newman and Alex Howbert, said part of their original vision was to create a space for community gatherings.

When they opened on Thanksgiving Day 2013, the plot was a choppy patch of turf. With a $10,000 grant from Hatch Detroit and some help from the till, they turned it into a nicely landscaped oasis with pavers and tables.

They basically break even keeping late hours on market nights, Newman said, but the important thing is that they have fun.

The market started in May, runs from 4-7 p.m., and will end in October at 1236 Michigan, just east of the Brooklyn Street Local.

Giving away the farm

Deveri Gifford, owner of Brooklyn Street, was at the Burda’s Berries stall picking up raspberries and black raspberries. She was planning to make scones for her customers with any fruit that survived the 30-yard walk:

“One for the restaurant, one for me.”

A few booths away, Willerer explained to a customer that a tasty weed called purslane grows either in his Corktown hoop house, or “between the cracks in the sidewalk.”

Willerer’s three mixes of greens — mild, medium or spicy — also included things like sorrel, Japanese mustard and nasturtium, an edible orange flower that tasted like a particularly explosive radish.

Hopelessly evangelical, he was literally giving away the farm: “I’ll throw a bunch of lemon basil in so you can try it on your salad.”

The customers mostly strolled in from the neighborhood. A few rode bicycles, as did one of the vendors.

Mary Beth Carolan, a former architect who sells ice cream sandwiches and ready-to-bake cookies under the name What Up Dough, pedaled in from her duplex two blocks away towing her slat-sided wooden booth behind her six-speed Schwinn.

“The ice cream sandwiches,” she explained, “are like a gateway drug for the cookie dough.”

Suitably seduced, Jenn Maine Scogin bought one for herself and one for her husband. But he wasn’t due home for awhile, and she conceded that good intentions are often no match for a good dessert.

“That’s kind of how I roll with ice cream,” she said.

Fortunately, there’s another market this week.