Driving north on Broadway on a June afternoon, through the green heart of our city, I turn on Washington Pike and head east. With thunder rumbling in the distance and intermittent spatters of rain on the windshield, I drive the length of one of the prettiest ridges in Knoxville, following the pike as it jogs left at the end of the ridge toward East Towne Mall.
OK, I know it's Knoxville Center, but on this drive I'm living in the past. I used to come out here when I lived in North Knoxville and East Towne was my mall of choice. On the way home from the mall, I'd stop at the old farmers' market tucked back against the hills. It was great, a big open-air concrete barn with all sorts of produce and lines of stalls outside where independent growers pulled up their trucks. There was a first-rate hot dog stand, and the kids would get ice cream before we left.
All that is obliterated now, so completely that I can only guess where exactly the old market was located. It could be the parking lot of the Target thrown up where Washington Pike runs up against the hills, or the Marshalls or LifeWay stores to the right.
But if you keep going down New Harvest Lane to the right off Washington Pike, on any Thursday night this summer, you can get a little taste of what the old market was like. The Farmers' Market at New Harvest Park (4775 New Harvest Lane) couldn't have been better branded by Madison Avenue, and it's on the way to living up to its charming name.
The public certainly appears ready for a resurrection of the old market. The market had been written up in the News Sentinel the day before, and when I pulled in shortly after the opening at 4 p.m., the cars were lined up to get in, even though the rain was forcing people to get out their umbrellas.
The market, open each Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m., had only been operating since late May and had hardly reached its potential. There were perhaps eight growers displaying their goods, and it was hardly the peak of the season. There were salad greens, new potatoes, eggs, organic and pasture-fed meats.
Strawberries were near peak and delicious, but I heard one of the vendors explain patiently to a shopper that it was "too early for tomatoes in East Tennessee. Check back next week."
As in any alternative market, education of the shoppers is an important part of the sell, but in a farmers' market it's not like reading the signs in a health food store. The producer is standing right there in front of you and you can ask him whatever you want. It's a direct connection to the source of the food.
You may have to wait for produce to arrive in season, but when it does, you can taste the difference. A Cocke County apple in October easily beats a June apple from New Zealand, and I can promise you that interacting with people from Cocke County can be every bit as much of an adventure as talking to New Zealanders.
It's the human touch that makes the difference. New Harvest Park features a picnic pavilion, and kids were running through the spray of a miniature water park even as the rain came down. There's a walking path around the perimeter of the park about halfway up a beautifully wooded hillside. The setting is lovely and conducive to standing around and talking to your neighbor in a way no mall will ever be.
Knoxville is a market town, after all. Market Square was a farmers' market (and on Wednesday and Saturday middays still is).
New Harvest Park may not be really any closer to the center of Knoxville than the mall is. But its farmers' markets—and the feel of the farmers' market experience—are, I think, closer to the heart of what Knoxville is about than most people realize. m