09 February 2012

Jury Duty

Last week, a handful of Marketeers sequestered themselves in an undisclosed, top-secret location (Okay, the market office, after hours) for the Market’s annual food jury. The food jury is one of the final steps applicants participate in before being accepted into our markets. Prospective vendors drop off food for the jury panel, they leave and we sit around for hours, eat and talk about food.

Food jury duty is so much cooler than regular jury duty.

Actually, the whole set up is my idea of a dream evening: talking about food made by intelligent, creative people who care deeply about what they are doing. The jury’s conversation isn’t limited to how something tastes: Instead the food serves as a catalyst for a free-ranging discussion. Cheese on a cracker can set off a tangent about, “What is local”? Questions are hurled out:  Is the business family owned, do they raise and milk their own livestock, if not where does it come from? A prepared food will have us asking  if the ingredients in the food are grown locally, or if they can be grown in this region and if potential vendors are committed to purchasing directly from the market’s growers, ranchers, and farmers whenever possible.

Considering nearly 50 area business began at PFM, our conversation will eventually steer away from the esoteric aspects of a food’s umami to salt ratio, (Okay, we’ve never had that discussion – this isn’t kitchen stadium) to more practical matters like how long has a vendor been in business, do they have the resources to scale a Saturday afternoon at PSU in July and/or the fluidity to endure a miserable, rainy afternoon at a neighborhood market early in the season. We want agricultural enterprises and small foodcentric businesses to thrive with us and we need to assess how ready they are for the ups and downs of the market season.

Like any jury, there is the danger of  being distracted by our own needs and biases. Since part of my job is to tell the story of the market and its vendors, I can be too easily swayed by a business’s backstory – like if there was a cheese made from the milk of Sardinian heritage sheep, who graze exclusively on the native grasses that grow under the panels of a solar farm, and they are milked solely by left handed orphans, who use their wages to finance their college fund. Oh, and they’re fair trade  – a scenario like that  is enough to make me vote yes – no matter the quality of the food. Fortunately, Senior Market Manager Jaret Foster, gently reminds me to focus on the food and if a vendor is a good fit for our Markets.

Eventually our deliberations consider the Market’s mission. The best tasting food in the world might not be a good fit for us…we need to work with businesses who reflect our ethos, share our passion for local foods, offer customers high quality items and can contribute to making one of the best farmers markets in the country even better.

It is a complicated algorithm.

So who did we vote off the island? It’s really not like that, the jury is one part of the process – final decisions will be announced as we get closer to the PSU Market launch on March 17th. What I can tell you is that salted goat’s milk caramel goes stupidly well with apples. We saw a steak that was so perfectly marbled, I thought it had been photoshopped – and that wasn’t a picture of the steak, that was a steak in a cyrovac bag – it looked too perfect to be true. That and as usual we got to taste great foods from vendors who work hard to create unique, quality products that reflect their passion for the agricultural bounty of Oregon and SW Washington. I’m already excited about our new vendors this year.