Story and photos by Nora Becker
Part II in a series of visits to East Bay Farmers’ Markets. Read Part I here.
The Old Oakland Farmers’ Market has the rhythm of a morning commute. The crowds seem calmly accustomed to the routine—the standing in lines with bags and carts, the steady movement from one stall to the next, the normality of this being what one does on Fridays. The market itself is small and orderly and laid out in four half-blocks centered by an intersection in what must look like a plus sign from above.
On a Friday morning in November, Chef Mike Raskin and I enter the market on 9th Street from opposite sides and meet at a coffee shop where Mike orders a shot of espresso, which he knocks back in one go. The espresso is just the appetizer to his main course coffee, which he picks up at the same counter.
Mike spent last night the same way he spends most nights, producing pie crusts and pie fillings for Edith’s Pie until around midnight. Mike is the bakery’s co-owner and head baker, and the job certainly keeps him busy, especially during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. The flour residue across his Edith’s Pie sweatshirt does not lie; it is exactly counter height.
Shopping for Pie Prep
Back when Mike was cheffing for San Francisco’s Kin Khao and other restaurants, he would let the produce lead the way on his weekly trips to the farmers’ markets. He says that his conversations with farmers always led to tip-offs about especially delicious or exciting items, and he’d have the flexibility to improvise with ingredients and flavors to make his savory menus speak to the moment.
It’s different at Edith’s, which does not have its own storefront: “Everything is presale,” Mike says. The menus are set in advance and customers see them in advance, either on social media, on the Edith’s Pie home page, or on signs placed in windows at upcoming pie pop-up locations. Customers order and Mike delivers, but that means he has to stick with the set menu. When he goes to the market, he has a double task: “Buy for this week and plan for next week.” When he sees the persimmons looking beautiful and bright and sweet, he knows he can’t just work them into the menu for this week, but he’ll figure out a way to run them next week.
The other problem, Mike says, is that when it comes to sweet pies, people “don’t want to be surprised.” This means he has less room to improvise with flavors and ingredients compared to when he’s shopping for more savory purposes. En masse, pie customers prefer to stick to the classics, the tried-and-true flavor combinations, or at the very least, familiar flavors—something they can imagine in pie form—like Mike’s Earl Grey Custard Pie. No one wants to risk not liking something, especially when buying the whole pie.
Mike hesitates when he rolls out a really special and creative pie like his Concord Grape Pie, which features a Thompson-Concord (Thomcord) hybrid variety from Schletewitz farm, based out of Fresno. Even though this pie is one of his absolute favorites, Mike says getting people to both trust the idea of a grape pie and then buy it is “like pulling teeth.”
Someone plays an accordion nearby. Mike says that, beyond his “double task,” his other job when he comes to the market is to avoid the accordions. We turn around and head in the opposite direction.
Shopping for Produce
Just as Mike is telling me that Twin Girls Farms has “out of control good” citrus, we are beckoned over to the stand by Robert Serna, who Mike used to buy produce from back when he was working at restaurants in the Santa Cruz area. Mr. Serna offers us samples of ruby-red pomegranate seeds and the more delicate low-acid and “seedless” white pomegranate arils. He is generous with samples, handing out apple slices and persimmon slices and more pomegranate arils and calling over other passersby to try all the delicious organic produce he has on offer.
Mr. Serna says he has been working this market for 27 years and seen it go through plenty of changes. Covid induced the most recent and most dramatic change, when office workers in the area stopped going to their offices and also stopped coming to the market. He says that’s when this market really became more diverse.
Bordering Oakland’s Chinatown, the Old Oakland Market is, in fact, one of the more diverse markets in the area. Asian American folks, especially those skewing a little older, flock to this market and bring their food expertise with them. This is a get-it-done market, which Mike says feels more like an open-air market in another country and less like any California farmers’ market cliché. Local and organic buzzwords are harder to come by. English is not the dominant language being spoken. Signs are sparse, and the few one finds tend to emphasize “pesticide-free.” The lack of “organic” on the signs points toward the challenge of acquiring those certifications rather than a likely indicator of quality.
Shoppers have brought their saved plastic bags and collapsible shopping carts, and they wear baseball caps and bucket hats to keep the sun out of their eyes as they shop. Most are here to get seasonal and specialty produce like the long stalks of sugar cane cut to order by vendors at the Vang Family Farm stand. At the Kay Lee Farms stand, bamboo shoots, and fresh peanuts are piled high as are lemongrass bunches, plump jujubes, sunchokes, jicama, and a variety of chiles.
Mike tells me this market is tailored to individuals who are shopping to supply their home kitchens. Market vendors bring less quantity here than you see them bring to the Tuesday market in Berkeley. There, trucks roll in with huge backstock and it’s not uncommon to see chefs pushing hand trucks to load up on farm-fresh ingredients they need for the week’s service. But this doesn’t stop chefs from coming to Old Oakland to shop for themselves. As a matter of fact, we run into Chef Carlo Espinas of the Lede while browsing the produce on Washington Street.
Walking around the Old Oakland market, it is difficult to ignore that prices seem lower than those I see at other markets in the East Bay’s urban centers. Vendors make extra effort to stand out, and we hear them calling out their specials and welcoming customers into their stands for samples. There is a clear demand for affordability without a sacrifice in quality.
Mike points out the consistently long line funneling shoppers along orange traffic cones near the center of the market. The line ends at the Urban Village Farmers’ Market Association stall, where shoppers can match EBT dollars to market coins to spend like cash with any vendor. The EBT, Market Match, and WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) programs exist at many farmers’ markets in the East Bay, but it is rare to see such a dominant proportion of shoppers using them. For the two hours I spent at the Old Oakland market, this line to pick up coins was like a line at Disneyland; it never dwindled.
The Market Match program makes fresh and local produce more accessible for everybody receiving CalFresh assistance, which became even more critical during the pandemic. A Market Match impact report estimates that in 2021, the program helped provide 26 million servings of fresh fruit and vegetables to people all over California.
And because the program specifically incentivizes shopping at farmers’ markets, the impact report also estimates that $13 million in CalFresh and Market Match dollars were spent last year with local farms and food vendors in California. And that’s income like any other income for farms that need it; all they have to do is exchange the coins they receive for cash. The program, funded by federal, state, and private dollars, has a big impact: People are better able to afford healthy and delicious food, local farms and food vendors receive additional support from a wider customer base, and the broader local economy gets a boost.
Mike has a mission, too: He wants to make a better world by way of pie. He says he operates Edith’s Pie with transparency, respect for his employees and their time, and a genuine desire to bring people joy and comfort. He hopes to have his brick-and-mortar pie shop open by Pi Day (March 14, or 3.14). In the meantime, he is busy making pies, approximately 700 pies, in fact, for pick up this week in the lead up to Thanksgiving. With four of his commissary kitchen freezers nearly full, he tells me before he leaves, he only has around 200 pies to go.