The Surreal Beauty of the Portland Farmers Market

Food critic Karen Brooks explores the wondrous world of local flowers, vegetables, and fruits with her point-and-shoot lens.

By Karen Brooks August 24, 2015 Published in the September 2015 issue of Portland Monthly

“The Diva cukes are already gone,” wailed a friend, sprinting by to secure the last handful of a rare, horseradish-flavored arugula from a farm stand across the square. “You better get on it!”

This is what it’s come down to at the PSU farmers market—a ruthless shopper’s version of The Hunger Games. There was a time when I could outwit and outrun anyone in the aisles. But on a recent Saturday morning, my head was somewhere else, literally: buried in a bin of onions with my point-and-shoot camera. It was the skins that stopped me, papery spectacles of crimson and gold bubbling up in a sea of purple bulbs, lifting and reforming, more rocket ships than vegetable matter. Oregon’s cinematic light, that moody mix of cream and rose that makes a gritty Gus Van Sant movie look dreamy, added shimmer. By the time I looked up, I’d missed the produce jackpot, but found a new perspective: how truly strange and beautiful an onion could be.

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LEFT: Celeriac, November 2014   RIGHT: Peony, May 2015

Image: Karen Brooks

Once a week, the PSU farmers market hums as the engine room of Portland’s food laboratory, one of the most committed farm-to-city shopping centers in the land, extraordinary in every dimension of bird, bread, and greens. It’s a chaotic joy machine fueled by the sound of music and some of the most color-saturated produce on the planet—what you imagine roadside stands would look like in Oz. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a committed regular, wandering this makeshift foodscape as a rabid shopper, a cookbook researcher, and a restaurant critic examining the fulcrum for local menus, the state’s treasure chest of A-list ingredients.

But increasingly, I just like being here. For hours, I end up photographing the market’s mysteries: the oddball mushrooms straight from Oregon’s spooky woods, the hallucinogenic flowers bursting from bouquets like Roald Dahl creatures, the red and orange chard stems that look like electric licorice. I’m less interested in documenting my latest score than in finding connections between this raw, uncorrupted world and all the other things I love—found art, film noir, Japanese fabric, old botanical prints, and, well, basketball (which may account for so many round shapes).

I still don’t know what the word “aperture” means, but I have figured out that amazing things can happen when flowers are photographed through their plastic wrapping, as colors, sky, and light stretch and morph into something altogether different. Vendors help set the mood for this impressionist exploration, treating their vegetables and flowers like art stars. Each booth feels like a personalized exhibit, and the deeper I look, the more interesting it gets.

So, I’ll see you there. I’m the redhead lying on the ground, looking at the underbelly of a lettuce head, lost in thought, wonder, and fervor. Staring and meditating are part of the routine. But note: if you ever see me talking to the plants, please intervene.

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ABOVE: Onion skin and beets, November 2014 & Dahlias, August 2011

Image: Karen Brooks

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ABOVE: Purple carrots, October 2011  &  Dahlias, August 2011

Image: Karen Brooks


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