Seattle: Market Fresh

photos by Irv Green

Seattle’s Pike Place Market, the oldest continuously operated farmers market in the nation, is colorful, crowded and caffeinated, as befits the prime attraction in the city that birthed Starbucks.

It’s a place defined as much by the smells and sounds as by the sights. There are men hawking fish that, they promise, can be delivered to your home before spoiling, performers strumming guitars, people talking in a multitude of languages.

And while the odor of fish predominates, it’s mixed with the strong smells of curry, kimchee, coffee and chocolate. As for color, the flowers, which change seasonally, are startling bright; the vegetables are overwhelmingly supersized, and the fruit is incredibly sweet.

The market owes its existence to price-gouging middlemen, onion-hungry citizens and a sympathetic councilman. In response to his constituents, who were furious that the price of onions had risen dramatically, Seattle Councilman Thomas Revelle proposed a simple solution. He suggested that farmers set up shop on an empty street corner and sell directly to their customers. In the early morning hours of August 17, 1907, eight farmers did just that. They were swarmed by customers, and their produce sold out within hours.

Although thousands of people went home empty-handed, everybody knew that the business climate of Seattle, at least in regards to produce, had changed forever. From that day on, Seattle consumers would be able to buy directly from the producer, paying less for more and, incidentally, creating one of Seattle’s top tourist attractions.

Now, 104 years later, more than 100 farmers rent space at the market, which has expanded to cover nine acres. Commercial businesses that offer imported goods have moved in, restaurants have opened, and nearly 200 craftspeople have set up booths that sell everything from handmade purses to handsome jewelry.

My husband and I let ourselves be swept along with the crowd, and as we do, vendors ply us with samples: a handful of dried fruit, a slice of apple, a chunk of cantaloupe, a taste of jam, and the best chocolate-covered cherry I’ve ever tasted.

We’re not really hungry, but in the name of research we order a halibut sandwich from the Market Grill. Delicious! Four hours later we decide we must try some fish and chips from Lowell’s. Incredible.

We think we’ve seen it all, but just to make sure, the following day we take the Savor Seattle Tour. In a space of two hours, our guide serves up bits of market history as well as tastes of more than 20 foods, from fresh-made doughnuts to several kinds of piroshky. We roll home thoroughly sated.