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BY MAEVE GATELY | Last Wednesday, the Union Square Greenmarket was “on a rampage.” So said GrowNYC volunteers, who were showcasing ramps, a wild, young green vegetable that only grows for three weeks a year.
Like a cross between leeks and garlic, ramps resemble spring onions and can be eaten raw or in pasta, or used to season an omelet or soup. As a result of their short growing season, they are seldom seen on restaurant menus and inspire a cultish following among marketgoers, who view them as “the harbingers of spring.”
Under crisp blue skies and in weather that had barely lost its winter bite, the vendors of New York’s most famous farmers’ market showcased their wares and celebrated the new season.
The Union Square market, now in its 37th season, opened in the fall of 1976, which was the year the Greenmarket program was launched. It is open year-round and constitutes the central hub of Greenmarket, a division of GrowNYC, which operates 54 markets in all five boroughs of the city. The nonprofit organization works with 250 producers within a 200-mile radius of the city, ensuring that all of the markets are “producer-only,” meaning that the vendors there bake, grow or catch everything they sell.
The goal of the organization as a whole, publicity manager Liz Carollo said, is “helping small family farms in the region stay in business and giving them the opportunity to sell directly to a New York City market.”
Greenmarket aims to give every New Yorker access to fresh, seasonal food, regardless of neighborhood or income level, and to create destinations with its markets, where families can go to shop for produce, watch a cooking demonstration or meet a vendor. This direct connection the organization creates between New Yorkers and their food is fulfilling and mutually beneficial.
Ramps were the highlight on a recent visit to the Union Square Greenmarket, but Carollo explained, that was just the beginning. Asparagus will come next, followed by strawberries, greens and eventually the corn, tomatoes and watermelons of summer.
In April, the Greenmarkets highlighted foraged vegetables, but now that the growing season is ready to go back into full swing, cultivated crops are the new focus. With the arrival of May and Mother’s Day, the market vendors will be doing floral-arrangement demonstrations and cooking classes, teaching marketgoers to cook gourmet, natural food and even edible flowers.
This time of year is especially exciting as vendors who have been Upstate all winter come back for the spring and summer months. By June and July, the market will be at full capacity with more than 80 vendors. Carollo encouraged new visitors to take advantage of this early spring rush.
“Start going now and continue to throughout the season,” she urged. “It will be a new surprise every week with what’s coming in.”
On a recent visit to the market, groups of students took a tour of the stalls, pausing to watch a composting demonstration near the north side of the park. These tours are led by Youth Director Samantha Hill, as well as by volunteers, and take 5,000 to 6,000 students a year through the markets — mostly Union Square — engaging them in classes, demonstrations and informational talks.
Parents pushed babies in strollers. Chefs visited their favorite vendors to gauge the seasonal produce, gain inspiration and pick up varieties not available in commercial supermarkets. Visitors flocked around buckets of bright red tulips and branches of peach blossoms. The spring air was full of promise, and it smelled like ramps.