Six years ago, a meager card table of a local-food stand opened near the heart of the venerable Reading Terminal Market, hoisting the flag of non-factory-farmed lettuce and humanely raised beef - raising the eyebrows, in the process, of wary purveyors nearby.
Was this whippersnapper implying that they were in bed with Food Inc.? That they were waterboarding pigs for their pork sandwiches?
Well, that wasn't quite what she meant, said Ann Karlen, who'd opened the Fair Food Farmstand, explaining she was pointing fingers beyond the market's walls, not at the working stiffs over in the next aisle.
A truce ensued, and the farmstand expanded and flourished, adding frozen grass-fed sliders to its roster and farm-fresh eggs with yolks that stood up like the rising sun; elongated, white-tipped French radishes (from Pennsylvania Dutch country) and for this short stretch of fall an odd and intriguing, banana-mango of a fruit called the pawpaw, still found along the sheltered riverbanks of the Susquehanna.
Last year its local, small-farm produce sales shot up 30 percent. And tomorrow morning (at 10:30, with Marion Nestle, the nutrition crusader, set to speak) comes what you might call final validation: The stand is dedicating a sunny, new space along the 12th Street side of the market, more than doubling its 340-square-foot footprint, and its refrigerated and meat-freezer footage to boot.
With its heaping baskets and woodwork painted with old-school milk paint (made from salvaged week-old, local milk), with its centerpiece of fall flowers and border of buff-colored pumpkins, it now has the feel of a strapping farm lad, not the spawn of an upstart card table.
There's a touch of metaphor, too, in the fact that it has moved from the market's interior to higher profile frontage (in the space of the departed Rick's Steaks stand).
Things have changed in the last six years. Instead of feeling like a renegade in the bosom of the circa-1892 market, Fair Food is being marketed as one of its most-prized ornaments - the symbol of a return to its roots when most everything here was from nearby farms, fresh-picked, fresh-killed or fresh-churned.
The grand, old Reading market has frankly lost ground to organic-speaking Whole Foods and to the robust weekly farm markets that have popped up in recent years. Its produce was fresh, but often sourced from the same loading docks that supermarkets visit. Its butchers were good, but slow to pick up on the demand for heritage breeds and quirky cuts. (Lamb heart, anyone?)
So last week the market's own PR spoke to that perception, taking it to the competition head-on: "Forget planning your shopping schedule around the weekly farmers markets, or traveling to the suburbs for fresh, local produce and grass-fed meat and poultry," its press office scolded.
It's all right here, it said. And the Fair Food Farmstand (an independent nonprofit that started as an offshoot of The White Dog Cafe's local-sustainable-ethical-food initiative) is the tip of the spear.
It was, for sure, last week. Under farmer-chic signs of pumpkins and Berkshire pigs you could find sprays of uncommonly leafy broccoli rabe from Lancaster County (not Andy Boy in California), and Dr. Martin lima beans the size of favas.
There were ceramic-looking organic Long Island Cheese pumpkins, double the price of more commercial varieties. And maple syrup from Spring Hill Farm in Dalton, Pa. And baskets of garlic with personality, hardneck stalks of the "Music" and "Porcelain" persuasion.
Yes, you can find similar offerings (from some of the same growers) at weekly markets in Bryn Mawr and Clark Park, Bala Cynwyd and Society Hill's Headhouse Square.
But they are, indeed, here every day. (Except Monday, and Monday hours are said to be coming.)
And Fair Food's 90-supplier network is full of surprises - heirloom cranberries from a New Jersey bog, and slinky-looking sweet potatoes.
Last week it carried not just one but two varieties of pawpaws - smaller, custardy fellas foraged wild along Conestoga Creek, and weightier jobs the size of baking potatoes from Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Pa.
They're right behind the sign that's going to be posted in the market window facing 12th Street; the one that says, "From the Farm, not The Factory."
Fair Food Farmstand