Metro June 20, 2017

The World in a Basket Every Saturday

Boise’s Capitol City Market

“I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.”—Susan Sontag

We all have a dream destination—a Tahitian beach cabana, the wildebeest migration on the Maasai Mara. Unlike Susan Sontag, most of us won’t attempt to span the entire globe in our lifetime. But what if you could experience the world in a day—in one place?

Imagine inhaling the smoky saffron of Darjeeling, the deep, dark sweetness of Madagascar vanilla melting on your tongue, the thrill of holding 200 years of French history in your hands—it’s seems more likely in an alien bar scene from “Rogue One” than reality.  Yet it happens, every Saturday, April through December, at Boise’s Capitol City Public Market.

The Saturday Market, as it was formerly named, originally sprouted in BoDo in 1994.  Independently inspired by 12 vendors, the market modeled itself on the thriving Pike Street Market in Seattle. Twenty-three years and three moves later, the Capitol City Market, or CCM, has settled on Eighth Street. Today, this lively weekend event rivals any metropolitan street market, merging commerce, entertainment, art and community in a vibrant hub, spanning from the Idaho Capitol to the Grove Plaza. At the height of summer, 150 vendors and 15,000 attendees crowd 10 downtown blocks in a rollicking street party.

A ripping, banjo solo enlivens a corner of Main Street while Calypso blares on the next block. The air is warm, and white stalls burst with wares and color: purple lavender, gold sunflowers, dew-covered apples and emerald zucchini. The lemonade is pink and always sweet and cold. Tacos, chow mein, and crepes compete for attention with hundreds of adorable babies and dogs on leashes. All dogs are required to be on leashes, kids are free-range. Best of all, there is only heavy foot traffic to negotiate when your arms are loaded with organic kale, carrots, elk steaks and addictive caramel corn. Walking through the market is like taking a trip around the world if it were made in Idaho.

To really understand the cultural contribution of the open-air market to our Amazon-infused lives, one needs a crash course in the world history of trade. Catapult back in time to Ancient Greece where agora (pronounced ‘Ah-go-RAH’) meant an “open place of assembly” for citizens to gather, discuss politics and buy wares from merchants and craftsman. At the agora in Athens, Socrates asked shoppers about the meaning of life and inspired Plato to speak his vast mind. Fast-forward to the late 1500s and London’s bustling streets. “Ribs of Beef and many a pie!” calls an enterprising lad carrying a tray of gray soups; meanwhile a group of players clank swords. Amidst these shouting crowds and stray pigs, Shakespeare stood, reciting words that echo on today’s stages.

What does Ancient Greece have in common with Boise? One only needs to stop texting long enough to meet a few CCM vendors to discover the answer. A central market is the beating heart of a city, a source and inspiration for humanity to flourish. In other words, Boise’s market is a modern-day agora, a cultural incubator of global diversity, art, and commerce—on a full stomach. As confirmation, consider the momo.

Literally translated from Chinese as, “to touch your heart,” these ear-shaped dumplings appeared during the Ming Dynasty in China, eventually crossing the Himalayas into Tibet and Nepal with Chinese invaders. In 2012, Ratna Subba, a trained chef and refugee from Nepal, brought his secret recipe for these delectables to Boise. This year will be the second year you can grab a bite of Katmandu at his Darjeeling Momo stall.

“We talk less in my culture,” Subba says, offering me a steaming plate. “But I try to make my momos customer-friendly.”

How can you not befriend a stranger who has traveled 6,743 miles to touch your heart?

Sofiya Abdi also traveled across continents to arrive in Idaho. Born Somali and raised in DaDaab, Kenya, the second largest refugee camp in the world, the 31-year-old mother of five never dreamed she would one day be known as “Boise’s Tomato Lady.” Mentored by a federally funded refugee self-sustainability program, Abdi’s Safari Farms brings to market tomatoes from 6,000 plants tended on donated land all over the city called “Global Gardens.” In total, the market has six African, “agri-preneurs,” supporting themselves from the ground up.

Buying goods directly from the source is an age-old open-market practice and a new-age expectation with the focus on local sustainability and organic foods. CCM policy requires vendors to personally man/woman their stalls if they want to maintain membership in this coveted, commercial community. The grower, artist, food vendor or family member must be present, from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., rain, shine or snow, for 35 consecutive Saturdays.

“Half of what people are buying is you,” says Michael Sowers of Classic Lines Pottery. “I’ve only missed two days in the last 16 years. A lot of customers romanticize about giving up their day jobs for ‘the street artist’s life,’ but they have no idea how much work it is. You have to be an artist, an actor, an accountant and a salesman to survive!”

Sowers has been throwing pots in Idaho for 30 years. His signature creation, a unique version of the French Butter Dish, is adapted from a 200-year-old design invented before refrigeration. An airtight water seal keeps butter spreadable and fresh and decorative.  It’s beautifully simple and ingenious, molded by Sowers’ talented hands into a glistening piece of art, history and commerce. The best way to understand the concept is to taste the butter, perfectly preserved, at Sowers’ stall, even on the hottest summer Saturday.

Speaking of butter, let’s talk bread: artisan and Italian from Zeppole Bakery, run by Alison and Charles Alpers and their two sons, Ian and Ryan, since 1993. Ciabatta, village bread, and loaves of sourdough leavened from a guarded 20-year-old starter, pass through their ovens 24 hours a day.  A native of Scotland, Alison incorporates authentic, old country taste with the new world. “Banana bread is definitely our best seller,” she says with a Scottish lilt. “Former Governor Kempthorne has it shipped wherever he is!”

Zeppolle is considered a “high-end stall.” Some vendors pay more because their products are also distributed through retail establishments. Good Vibes Kombucha is a newcomer in this category, serving organic, fermented, strawberry-basil or lemon-ginger tea on tap at the market. Ask five people where the ancient probiotic brew, kombucha, came from and you’ll get five different answers, including, “What’s kombucha?” Purported to be a magic elixir by health gurus through millennia, kombucha was reportedly a part of Genghis Khan’s daily regimen. Seek answers and samples at Good Vibes’ stall.

According to Mona Warchol, executive director of CCM, the organization is focused on creating a mutually beneficial community service within a place of business. With 40 percent artists, 40 percent agriculture and 20 percent specialty foods, the market strives to provide economically viable opportunities for growers, food entrepreneurs and artisans from the Treasure Valley while educating and providing healthy local food and products to consumers.

“You’ll never see a “Made in China” label at CCM,” says Warchol. “But you can experience a whole new world.”

Like Sontag, you may not have been everywhere, but now it’s on your shopping list.

This article appears in the Issue of Territory Magazine.