I’m Plum Crazy! Out of the Meat Market, Now a Farmer’s Gal

When Arnold Schwarz-enegger announced that he was running for governor of California, this household responded with icy calm. Far more disturbing was the news that the brief season for Santa Rosa plums had passed. For our lives as everyday Angelenos are ruled not by the fruits and nuts currently entering politics, but by the actual fruits and nuts at the farmers’ market. “For me, it’s pretty much the antidote to all things fake and poseur-y that make up normal experience in L.A.,” said Andrew Kaplan, 35, a management consultant for Sony Pictures.

When you utter the phrase “farmers’ market,” newcomers often think you mean the one at Third and Fairfax-a.k.a. “The Farmers’ Market”-a collection of covered stalls selling pricey waxen produce and large flasks of ornamental flavored oils. It’s flanked on one side by DuPar’s, an aging diner renowned for its pies, and on the other by the Grove, a sparkling mall with a fountain that ejaculates in dramatic upward spurts every five seconds or so, to the innocent delight of passersby. The overall vibe of this hothouse ecosystem, which is served by its own trolley, is comparable to South Street Seaport in New York or Faneuil Hall in Boston, where the historical and genuine forms the flimsiest undergirding for the instant and the ersatz.

The real farmers’ markets spring up joyously and with apparent spontaneity overnight, like the fungus they sell (the chanterelles are just arriving); they are actually rigorously scheduled and certified. The more centrally located crawl with celebrities-who, after all, need their share of vitamin-infused fresh fruits and vegetables to fuel their superhuman lifestyles. They shop there unmolested by Bonnie Fuller’s fleet of tabloid photographers, in contrast to the apparent multiple confrontations they endure in the parking lots of Whole Foods. “There’s kind of a gentleperson’s agreement to leave people alone,” said one regular of the Hollywood and Ivar market on Sunday (“more about candles and jewelry” sniffed a detractor), where recent sightings included a full-on Jake Gyllenhaal–Kirsten Dunst makeout session, interrupted by Mama Gyllenhaal proffering strawberries (” Mommm! “); Alicia Silverstone with a “pretty full” plastic cart and a sneer; and Charlie’s Angels villain Crispin Glover (“all black-black windbreaker, black hat”) darting furtively around the oranges.

There are dozens of markets, but the two Big Daddies are this Hollywood one- “Strolling through it is an early-relationship postcoital tradition,” remarked one longtime resident, “sort of the L.A. equivalent of reading the Sunday Times “-and the febrile Wednesday market on Arizona Avenue in Santa Monica, where the high-powered chefs shop, and where Russell Weller, 86, mowed over at least 10 people last month in his Buick LeSabre.

It’s unreal how fast Santa Monica has snapped back from this carnage. The other morning, the only sign that anything had gone awry was a lone man wearing the blown-up news report on a sandwich board, loitering near the yellow globe onions with the wheatgrass freaks. The available wares made the ongoing Fairway–Fresh Direct slugfest look 100 percent Little League. There were plums, literally laid out like jewels: the Fire Pearl, the Black Amber and one dubbed simply Fortune. There were melons labeled as if they were candy: the Honeyloupe, the Ambrosia, the Butterscotch. There were literary, musical and dramatic takes on peaches (the O’Henry, Carmen Miranda, Irish Harp, Swan Song, Miss Molly and Sugar Lips, a low-acid variety), accompanied by regal nectarines (the Elegant Lady; the Snow King and his companion, the Arctic Queen); there were lipstick peppers and big beef tomatoes and three kinds of fingerling potatoes, including one called the Russian Banana. It may have been a hallucination, but I swear I saw something called a “lobster cheese pumpkin.” There were grapes as small and darkly glossy as caviar eggs and artichokes as big as children’s heads-some of which had been left to flower purple, bees bumbling cheerfully around them. In short, it was paradise!

But one’s love affair with the farmers’ market follows the typical rude trajectory of any love affair. In the beginning, everything is as rosy as the Pink Blush grapefruit, which you cut into eighths and mash chimp-style into your mouth while sitting on the deck. You marvel at the plenitude of it all, the absence of customer divadom, the hippie who sells lavender existing side-by-side with the yeast-touting Bread Nazi, the John Steinbeck–ish guy who only sells persimmons and kiwi. (So craggy … so wise!) You are straight up on the asparagus tip.

Then it comes, the creeping blight on the leaves, encroaching ….

There is no going back to Gourmet Garage once you’ve bought jumbo, juicy flame seedless raisins under the thrumming sun at $2 per pound from a dusky-skinned teenage boy. One day you realize you can no longer tolerate small, dry Sunmaid pellets sprinkled on your oatmeal. Meanwhile, you pop the precious, sweet, tiny Seascape strawberries into your mouth, one by one, and are soon turning up your nose at the water-engorged tasteless versions that come in the crimped, transparent plastic cartons. You have become a food snob, like those people in the 1980′s who ate only arugula and goat cheese and haute-couture greens. You hate yourself.

And you hate your guests. Because, suddenly, they are all gourmet cooks. Someone shows up at a dinner party (and, oppressively, there has to be a dinner party every week, lest you wind up with a refrigerator full of rotting produce) bearing squash blossoms in lieu of flowers. Stuffed with goat cheese. There is nothing to do but fry them. And there is always someone upping the ante; Mr. Kaplan has begun to frequent Bang Luk in Thai Town: “Six different kinds of basil.”

All this amazing bounty is at least partly culpable for the dreaded “L.A. 10,” the weight some gain after moving west from New York, where everyone is frenetically neurotic, to begin a calmer, more even-keeled life of sitting in traffic, mainlining organic edamame. Liz Craft, 32, a writer for the WB’s Angel , can thank pomegranate juice from the Santa Monica market for helping her on the road from a size 2 to a size 8. “It’s supposed to fight cancer,” said Ms. Craft mournfully, a Persephone for the new millennium, of the juice. “Of course, it’s like incredibly high in calories.”

Catrina Gregory, a jewelry designer who lives in Venice, suggested that ambling through the farmers’ market can also add unwanted fat to one’s social life. “When you interact with the same strangers on a regular basis, if you’re not careful, it can develop into a haphazard ‘community,’” she said. “Some may think this is a beautiful, democratic thing, but it makes me want to shrink back into my comfortable, car-centric, anonymous L.A. life. Just because you buy your bee pollen from the same little old man that I do, this does not make us friends.”