Tag Archives: Madison

The Largest Farmers Market in the USA

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It is the farmers market that ruined me for all other farmers markets. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for several years, I would regularly attend the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the country. Every Saturday morning during the warm season, the entire capital square would be filled with vendors, selling fresh produce, flowers, baked goods, and, of course, because this is Wisconsin, cheese and meat.

Each Saturday, between 9 A.M. and noon, crowds of people pack the sidewalks that surround the capitol square, creating a lively scene. It was enough volume, enough activity, that every other farmer’s market I visited after this one has left me asking “Is this it”?

That is partially because the Dane County Farmers Market is a unique experience in a unique place. It was included as a “must see” in the book 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before You Die.

The book, however, was published in 2007, and a lot has changed since then. One distinct characteristic of the 21st century is the presence of simultaneous contradictory trends. For example, we have a new generation of people emerging who both spend over nine hours per day in front of screens and prefer face-to-face interactions. Likewise, while obesity rates continue to climb, people are also becoming more health conscious and more aware of the food they consume.

Specifically, with detox diets, and awareness of the amount of waste caused by our food distribution system, more and more people are desiring locally sourced food. This can be seen at grocery stores and even some restaurants, where more and more displays indicate that food was produced on a “local” farm. Farmers markets are expanding everywhere to meet this increasing demand to buy locally produced preservative free produce. Some lists of top farmers markets in the USA published more recently do not even include the Dane County Farmers Market.

The Dane County Farmers Market still certainly represents a unique experience, as it has always been about more than just the vendors.

As far as I can remember, Madison has always been a very political town. On all four corners of the square, booths promoting political causes and local candidates are an expected presence. Along the roads that radiate outward from the Capitol Square, more interesting activity can be found, including live performances, some additional vendors and demonstrations of activities like wood carving, and even an impromptu children’s play area placed in front of the children’s museum.

I would say that Madison, Wisconsin is certainly more interesting than most towns around this size. The college campus guarantees plenty of interesting cultural activities. The pedestrian mall, State Street, that connects the capitol with campus is always active, even if it does have a speed limit that just begs people to break it… on their bicycles.

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And there are the lakes, four of them to be exact, of pretty good size, one of which is directly adjacent to the University.

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The city has two other characteristics that, having visited a lot of different places, feel quite surprising.

One is how strong drinks are mixed here, particularly on State Street. I ordered a make-your-own-bloody mary at one of the many establishments on State Street. Restaurants that offer this beverage typically provide a glass with vodka to mix with the other ingredients at the bloody mary bar. This is the only place where the glass provided to me was filled halfway up! Mixed drinks at other bars are also quite strong compared to the ones in most other cities.

From a now outsider perspective, it is also surprising to see how politically one-sided Madison is. Signs promoting events and groups, conversations around town and even signs in front of local businesses are quite frequently politically charged, way more so than in most other cities and towns. They are all from one side. It is as if those on the other side had been silenced or run out of town. In a State that is quite close to evenly divided politically, it feels strange to be in a place where one side has near 100% dominance of the discussion.

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Sometimes I find it depressingly easy for people who live in cities to forget what region they are in, on a larger scale. Traveling around the country, it often feels like all cities are tying to build the exact same amenities as each other; luxury apartments, shared workspaces, microbreweries, and art galleries. In my current hometown of Denver there is a constant reminder of where we are, the mountains to the West which tower over the skyscrapers of the city. The Midwest does not have that, however, seeing booth after booth selling cheese curds, other agricultural products, and products like venison jerky is as clear of a reminder to any that Madison is part of Wisconsin, which is part of the Midwest.

On Wisconsin

After spending a weekend in the Caribbean, I returned to a completely different world than the one I had left.  Prior to my trip, it had been autumn, with the mix of some relatively warm, but also some chillier days that typically marks the middle part of the fall season.  In fact, much of the Western U.S. experienced a warmer than usual October; a pattern which had extended into early November.  As I returned to the mainland United States, a gigantic push of unseasonably frigid air was rapidly descending upon most of the country from Canada.  Between the warmer than normal fall weather I had been experiencing prior to my trip, and the warmth of the Caribbean, I was certainly unprepared for this sudden weather transition, and far from thrilled to be experiencing weather more typical of mid-winter than mid-November.

This frigid weather pattern had firmly established itself by the day of the big game which I had planned to attend; Wisconsin’s home game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.  And, while I had known that frigid weather was a distinct possibility for a November 15th football game in Wisconsin, I also knew that this would be a critical game, and probably the most ideal weekend for a trip back to Wisconsin to see the Badgers play.

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While a part of the Midwest, the State of Wisconsin has a culture that is quite unique from all of the states that surround it.

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While much of the Midwest likes to drink, seemingly more than the rest of the country, Wisconsin takes it to a whole different level, often being reported as the #1 state for “binge drinking”.  During my time living in the Midwest, I observed drinking in the state of Wisconsin at a larger subset of all occasions, and in larger quantities than anywhere else.  In fact, recently Wisconsin Public Radio did an entire series addressing the alcohol culture in Wisconsin.

Another tradition in which Wisconsin takes quite seriously is the Friday Fish Fry.  The extent in which this tradition is observed here highlights Wisconsin’s Catholic and Lutheran heritage, as well as the obsession with fishing here.  Like the consumptions of beer, cheese, and encased meats, the Friday Fish Fry is fairly common in other Midwestern states, but taken to a new obsessive level in Wisconsin.

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One other thing Wisconsin knows how to do is tailgate.  In downtown Madison, in the vicinity of Camp Randall Stadium, nearly every parking lot with available space is filled with people drinking, grilling, and playing games in preparation for the game.  The tailgating experience here is somewhat different than in most places.  Tailgating at most stadiums generally involves parking in the stadium’s parking lot a few hours prior to the game; with people bringing their coolers, grills, food, and games out of their vehicles.

This past weekend, although we arrived downtown nearly four hours prior to game time, we were forced to park roughly a mile away from the stadium (as well as the tailgate).  At the tailgates here, there is a much higher ratio of people to cars than is typical.  It seemed like only the organizers of the tailgate, who likely arrived quite early in the morning, had vehicles in the lot, with the rest of the lot’s space available for people, tents, games, and a significant number of port-a-pottys to accommodate the excessive drinking that takes place at these events.

I attended a tailgate that I can only be described as “professional tailgating”.  It included a several table long buffet of food, tables for games, a television showing other games in the Big 10 conference, a sound system with multiple speakers, and even a heated lamp!  The organizers even brought in their own port-a-potty and handed out pieces of orange tape to attendees to ensure that those coming from outside their tent did not use it.  I was quite amazed!

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Despite the chill, it felt good to be back at Camp Randall Stadium, a place where I had watched dozens of Wisconsin football games while attending the University.  Despite many of the changes that have occurred over the years, the stadium itself, and the experience of attending the games, was practically the same as it was back then.  Although, we did not do the crazy set of “waves” (standard, slow, fast, reverse, and then split) that I had recalled.  Well, maybe I just don’t remember it.

The game actually turned out to be a bit of a blowout, with Wisconsin winning 59-24.  Our running back Melvin Gordon set the all-time single game rushing record at 408 yards, and it began to snow halfway through the 3rd Quarter.

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Despite this, we did not leave the game early.  And not too many people did.  Maybe some Nebraska fans did.  But, it is something that Wisconsin fans do not really do.  Surprisingly, my buzz (from the tailgating) did not ware off despite not drinking at all during the game.

Like so many evenings I remember in Madison, the evening involved multiple bars and lasted until bar time … or some time around that.  Just as I remembered, the drinks here are made quite strong!  In fact, even at the places that I had previously thought of as making “weak” drinks, the drinks felt quite strong compared to what I had now become used to.

It was my third consecutive weekend of partying hard.  First, over Halloween, I threw a party at my place.  I was in a setting that consisted of a fairly large number of people, nearly all of whom I was already quite familiar with.  The following weekend, at Saint John Island, I was around almost all people I had not previously met.  This past weekend, I attended the game with a group of six people (including myself), only one of whom I had not met before.  However, out at the bars on State Street, I interacted with a significant number of complete strangers.

The past three weekends I had been in three different settings, both geographically and socially.  I managed to have a great time and be what I consider the best version of me.  It is the version of me that I become when I do not let the anxiety that comes from various life events and situations to get the best of me.  It is the me that is energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and welcoming to all around me.  It is the version of me that seems to make others around me happy, and the way I am when I am having the best times of my life.  It is this version of me that I wish I could be at all times.

Unfortunately, there are times when I do not live up to this standard.  As, sometimes I let some kind of anxiety, frustration, or insecurity prevent me from truly enjoying myself.  Having avoided these pitfalls in three different settings gives me hope that I have overcome some of these anxieties, insecurities, and frustrations.  However, I have no way of being certain of what the future holds.  At this time, all I can do is be happy that I have had the opportunity to have been the places I have been over the past few weeks, and hope for the best for those around me.