Most folks I know feel pretty smug about their San Franciscan, food-related values, myself included. We shop farmers markets, we buy from local vendors, and we’ve even dabbled in the world of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships on occasion. Our actions say, Yeah, we’re urban, but we pay homage to the Great Farm, and we’re not afraid to spend $26 on mushrooms. These routines make our lives rich, fulfilling, and very, very annoying to the outside world.
Individually though, we’re not so hard to trump, especially by a guy named Iso Rabins, the man behind Forage SF, the city’s first-ever foraging CSA, and the SF Underground Farmers Market. While I support community agriculture in my own little ways, Iso plays matchmaker between foodie yuppies and the rural folks who subsist on foods that grow wildly; while I feel pretty good about my Saturday morning Ferry Plaza acquisitions, he’s providing a platform for emerging businesses to vend their homegrown goods, sans bureaucracy.
I loathe being shown up so completely; naturally, I had to meet this kid. I call up Iso and offer to volunteer at the upcoming SF Underground Farmers Market. He needs help with the Forage SF booth, and I happen to be a great helper, so we’re a go.
I set off toward Langton Street on a Saturday afternoon around 3 p.m., intent on making a good first impression on this Iso ( eee-so ) character, who’s instructed me to show up to help at 4 p.m. with at least some base knowledge of how to steam buns (heh), describe the taste of miners lettuce to a novice, and work a side of wild boar like a certified pork herder. At this point I’m 0 for 3, but I'm hoping I can squeak by on my charm and an intense lust for bacon.
With a subtle notion that Langton is in SOMA, Harrison-ish, I arrive early. Turns out, I love Langton Street, which is more alley than avenue, and home to a killer community garden and the Brainwash Café. Another feature: Langton Labs, a loft community housing roughly a dozen UCSF science aficion-nerdos who moonlight as rough-around-the-edges event hosters. They’re milling about the garage entrance with a mild air of authority, directing vendors arriving by Subaru, kidnapping van, and Volvo, telling them where to go, who to talk to, but mostly, where not to park.
I pass a barefoot man with French-braided hair skimming the elastic waistband of his rolled khaki pants, and duck under the halfway closed garage door. The split-level space is urban loft garage chic, with graffiti-covered walls, concrete flooring, rope lights, and ladders leading to nowhere. I do a quick scan of the place as my eyes settle on a cute shaggy-hair manning a honey stand that, in stark contrast to the other booths, is tidy and set up. Immediately, I think “Iso.”
I saunter up to the honey table, look the longhair in the eye and confidently list aloud the identifying concepts: “Hanah. The Bold Italic. Forage SF. Pork belly…” He blank faces me until he realizes I think he’s Iso (he’s not) and I move on, awkwardly. So I booth hop, I.S.O. Iso.
A large gentleman with a booming voice is chatting up two women partially hidden by a huge arrangement of Romanesque broccoli and a sign that reads “Alice Wilson’s Kitchen.” “You two gorgeous ladies must be sisters,” the man roars, with more than a hint of giggity in his voice. The women smile and shake their heads politely until he leaves, and I use that opportunity to slide in. “So, sisters, eh?” I immediately regret my opener.
Alice Wilson’s Kitchen is a mother/daughter outfit based out of a Richmond backyard. They’re here at the underground market because a) they don’t want to cough up the $50 an hour it costs to rent a commercial kitchen space (and therefore qualify for vendorship at a conventional farmers market), and b) even if they did, the waitlist to muscle into an SF farmers market is years long.
An SF Underground Farmers Market virgin, Mama Alice grows veggies in her backyard (potatoes, tomatoes, sugar snap peas, figs, leeks…), and enlists her daughter Kim to help make deliciousness out of it. Their best seller that day turns out to be the mason jar-ed Homemade Peach BBQ Sauce, crafted from backyard peaches and good home lovin’ for $4. I want to be friends, but the desire is clearly one-sided.
I move on.
A shiny-eyed pair of beards catch my eye. Meet BrazeltonPrice. Brazelton of the straw hat and overalls, Price of the newsboy cap and vest – both identically bespectacled and of equal stature. No, they’re not brothers. No, they’re not lovers. They make demi-glace.
When it’s light out, Brazelton is a director of photography in Hollywood, and Price sits at a desk at an iPhone app development company. They share a love for simmering down the bones of sustainably and locally raised chicken and beef with tomato paste and a wine and shallot reduction. They have a joint passion for cubing this reduction in ice cube-size servings and selling it in 4-packs. The only thing they heart as much as sauce is the fact that in SF you can moonlight at night with passions completely disconnected from your day job and this makes you a richer, deeper, and more textured person.
I’m distracted. I’m staring.
I’ve got what must be a super weird look on my face, completely captivated by a tiny brunette in fuzzy boots and a lightening bolt cape, her grass fairy skirt poking out under her apron. Her name is Erin, she has a notably high-pitched voice, and she sells “found art.” I move on.
Identifiable by his Fidel beard, command of the scene, and role of demi-god to the vendors, Iso has the energy of a confident ship’s captain navigating through a calamitous storm, and I am but one Smee of many. Volunteers, it seems, are the lifeblood of this outfit: one Smee is sent to move Iso’s car, another to fetch a scale to weight out wild mushrooms, and another (possibly most important Smee) leaves to buy beer.
I am grilled about my penmanship, then instructed to make signs of paper bags and affix them to the side of the Forage SF table:
- Pork Belly Steam Buns – 1 for $5, 2 for $8
- Miners Lettuce – $5
- Wild Nettle – $5
- Chanterelles – $10
- Black Trumpets – $10
Gazing self-approvingly upon my beautiful handiwork, I'm interrupted by the assignment of a second task: track down an orange-haired Harvard hippie named Lev and get him to hook up an iPod to the bicycle-powered stereo adjacent to our booth. I do, and he does, and having executed both tasks with ease and flair, I become First Mate.
Hannah-the-mouthy-door-girl begins letting people into the space. The
line, which has stretched down Langton since 4:30 p.m. and will stay
that way until well past 9 p.m., is relentlessly colorful. It reads:
hipster, burner, Noe Valley mother, tech nerd, burner, burner-dad,
warehouse co-op dweller, bum?, Cole Valley family, hipster, bum?, bike
messenger, MILF, DILF, GILF, hipster. Everyone got the BYOB memo.
Iso and I become an assembly line as the first round of folks flow in like soft serve overfilling a cone. Neck to chin, elbow to rib, they pack in like they’ve never before heard the term “emergency stampede.” But they’re the patient type, complacent as they push toward the back of the space. And for what:
- The red-bearded Delicious Fermented Foods lady
- The cowboy-hatted, satin-shirted Jerky Girl
- The pixie-ish Treat Street granola hawker
- The adorable retiree-cum Piedmont Salumi-making couple
Me, I’m frying pork. Iso, he’s stuffing the pork into buns and folks are shouting out orders at us faster than we can say, “steam my bun.” United in the rhythm of food production, we go: fry pork belly, steam bun, add pickled cucumber, squirt hoisin, box, swill beer, and repeat. We’re both slick with animal grease, with fat under our fingernails and grease splatters on our shirts. The irony of two Jews slinging pig isn’t lost on us; we mention it frequently, and to anyone who will listen. But our customers are unconcerned about the inside joke playing out behind the table, their beer-induced swirly pork eyes fixated solely on our buns.
By the end of the night, all of the hot food vendors have sold out,
and pretty much everyone has made a killing at the hands of the 1,200+
locals who have passed through.
When our pork runs dry, I open a celebratory tall boy and cheers Iso and the Smees for a job well done. Violin music is playing (for real, from the balcony) as I exit the premises, pork steam air squiggles emanating from my person like a female, Jewish Pig Pen. I’m a hit with the dogs on the walk home, and the bums don’t mind me either. Everyone wants a piece. I get it.
To find out when and where the next SF Underground Farmers Market will take place (they’re currently happening monthly), go to Forage SF to sign up for Iso’s email list. If you want to vend, you’ll have to submit a sample of your goods to Iso and friends before final approval, and you’d better make it good. To offer yourself up as a volunteer Smee, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Finally, to become a member of the Forage SF CSF, check out ForageSF.com . I recommend all four options.