It's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, and food maven Amelia Saltsman has just finished taping her guest appearance on KCRW's Saturday morning show "Good Food" with Evan Kleiman when a young man approaches and asks Saltsman for her autograph.
For 20 years, Saltsman has shopped here, supporting local farmers' sustainable growing practices, which she wrote about in her recently published book, "The Santa Monica Farmers' Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes, and Stories from the Market and Farm" (Blenheim Press 2007, $22.95). The book is a personal homage to the market she calls her "village square."
More than chef or author -- both of which she is -- Saltsman is an advocate for the market, a doyenne of good taste whom everyone here seems to know. The farmers invite her judgment on their best produce; the chefs ask for advice on recipes. By 10:30 on this morning, all the best strawberries are sold out, but one seller has been holding a $13 box just for her.
"This is the first time I'm buying strawberries this year because -- oh my God -- I could," she says biting into a juicy, red fruit. "But this is a pale shadow. Probably if I would have tasted it first, I wouldn't have bought them."
Still, she points out the berries' undeniable quality: "See how they're red all the way through -- with no white shoulders? They're grown for flavor."
Flavor is this silvery-haired market maven's raison d'etre -- she specializes in seasonal foods, conscientious consumption and believes in supporting the farmers' market as a community-driven nexus for growers and consumers. Whether she's exchanging tips with farmers over taste and texture or dreaming up new dishes to prepare for her family's dinners, for her shopping the market adds up to a "religious experience," one that deeply reflects her Jewish values of community and environmental preservation -- and harkens back to food memories formed in Israel.
"The pivotal experience really started with going to Israel to visit my family," Saltsman said.
"I have an absolute picture in my mind's eye of ripe eggplants and tomatoes from the Tsfat shuk," she said, referring to a market in the northern Israeli city. "That's where I discovered that butter could be sweet."
Saltsman's parents immigrated to Palestine as young children, her mother from Romania and her father from Iraq, and met in the Israeli army. The couple moved to the United States to pursue education, but their frequent visits to Israel were life-changing for their daughter, Amelia.
"What 10-year-old child thinks about eggplant and sweet butter or has the memory of her grandmother lifting the dough to make strudel? Only somebody who's really destined for a life with food," Saltsman said.
Her love affair with food culture has included directing the former Faire La Cuisine Cooking School in Malibu, hosting "Fresh From the Farmers' Market" on Santa Monica City TV, frequent appearances on KCRW's "Good Food" radio show, teaching cooking classes, writing stories and developing recipes (such as an upcoming series for Bon Appetit).
But Saltsman discovered a new way of life -- and her ultimate calling -- at the market.
"Farmers' markets are the true antidotes to a mass, bland, shrink-wrapped, flavorless existence," she said. "They're really the backlash movement to industrial agriculture to show the world all the great diversity of all the varieties," she explains, paraphrasing an article she read in The New Yorker.
With nearly 4,000 markets currently operating in the United States now, Saltsman believes that market standards for quality may not be as high elsewhere as they are in Santa Monica.
"Not all of them are as 'kosher' as you might assume. These terms [organic, local, sustainable] don't free us from responsibilities. We still need to be mindful and do our research and make our own decisions," she said. "If you could connect it to the act of being Jewish -- it's not simple to be Jewish, there's a lot of burden on the observant person."
The key to a successful enterprise like the Santa Monica market is the relationships between growers and consumers. This is part of what makes shopping at the market so dynamic, and also what inspires farmers to experiment with varieties and chefs with new ingredients. Saltsman calls it an ode to "preserving the intimacy of the communal spirit in our hurly-burly lives."
These days, though, all that seems to be changing.
On her last stop to buy flowers, Bill Coleman of Coleman Family Farm confronts Saltsman about a pending vote concerning the Southland Farmer's Market Association.
"Politics," she whispered, sweeping a 3-foot-tall bouquet into her arms. "Everyone's all a-titter today."
The Sunday following our visit, an article in the Los Angeles Times described how local chefs were upset at being outbought by wholesale distributors who buy in bulk and ship the limited local supply, brought by farmers to the Santa Monica market, across the country. They impoverish limited quantities, leaving loyal locals (chefs in particular) who helped establish the market out of the food chain. What many argue is a change in character at the market might be threatening to uproot the fragile community. One suggested solution would be to create a separate market for larger consumers.
Although she does not condone the latter alternative, Saltsman acknowledges that, "nothing remains static, ever -- including the nature of the farmers' markets as people discover them and use them for their own needs. It's incumbent upon the market and all shoppers, from individual to corporate, to find new solutions to the changing environment."
She hopes one day supermarkets will adapt some of the principles of the market: Buy local, sell seasonal, practice truth in advertising. But the experience that supercedes everything else is bringing the joy of the market to the saute pans in her family kitchen.
"Everything I do springs from my sense of family. It feeds my soul to support families working together to produce ingredients that I'm going to cook with my family," she said. "I really believe the most important experiences you can give a child and to raise a mensch is to gather together to prepare the meal -- not in a didactic way, but in an organic way, with a small 'o.'"
"I really do think this is how we're going to save ourselves," she added. "It can start at the simplest place, which is how things taste."