Karen Seiger's 'Markets of New York City'

20100701KarenSeiger.jpg

Author Karen Seiger. [Photograph: Katie Quinn]

Markets, those based around food and otherwise, bring culture and community together—but they can be difficult to navigate. The markets of New York City can be a bit of a mystery, as there are so many, at different times and seasons, with different specialties. For a city with more guide books than square feet, there was a shocking lack of information about the city's markets. Until, that is, the publication of Karen Seiger's Markets of New York City.

Like so many people when the economy took a turn for the worse, Seiger lost her job a couple of years ago. With her newfound free time, she and her husband went to visit Paris. As a part of the budget-friendly trip they were obligated to take, they decided to cook a lot of their own meals, and exploring the markets was how they got their food. The Markets of Paris book became their resource, a constant presence in their hands, back pockets, and bags. "It just blew my socks off. It changed the way I viewed the city," said Seiger.

A trip to pick up some tomatoes and herbs resulted in arms full of cheese, asparagus, potatoes, shrimp from fish mongers, and apples and oranges from North Africa. Before long, they were going to markets for most of their needs, beyond food. When she came back home to New York City, she discovered that the market culture was just as thriving as it was in Paris, but she was frustrated by the lack of information.

Seiger had always wanted to be a writer, but she never found an "original idea" and claims to not have been disciplined enough. When she discovered the dearth of information concerning New York's markets, she was astounded no one had thought of making a New York City market guidebook before. So she hit the markets with a camera and compiled what has become the Markets of New York City book, published by The Little Bookroom.

Her book came out in May and has been received extremely well. It nabbed a front display at Barnes and Noble throughout the city, and will soon be in Anthropologie nationwide. Is the market scene the next big thing?

According to Seiger, yes. "This is just the beginning," she said. "Certain markets are creating so much buzz, their energy is contagious. And new markets are popping up all the time that are such high quality." What is all the buzz about? "Usually about bacon," she joked. In reality, there are plenty of reasons for the excitement. "There is so much innovation happening!" Seiger said. She referenced the Brooklyn Flea as a good example. They have clothes and jewelry and knicks-knacks abound, but their food stands take gourmet vending to a new level. Asia Dog offers hot dogs with Asian-inspired toppings (kimchi and seaweed flakes, for example), Milk Truck serves artisanal grilled cheese (like Wisconsin Gruyère on light rye), and Kors d'Oeuvres offers interesting dips and spreads (such as Roasted Pumpkin, Butternut Squash, & Goat Cheese Spread).

Goodies from New Amsterdam Market [Photo: Robyn Lee]

New Yorkers take note: Seiger's personal favorite food market is the New Amsterdam Market, which is "out of this world in terms of food innovation and regional high quality food. It's like the super model of food markets." With baked goods from the likes of Amy's Bread, Balthazar Bakery, Sullivan Street Bakery, and Fairway Bakery, meat products from Dickson's Farmstand Meats, Marlow & Sons, Luke's Lobster, and Porchetta, and ice creams and sorbets from The Bent Spoon, People's Pops, and more, "splendid is the only word for it."

Often, one market brings together several types: a bit of flea market with a food market, too, or a farmers market with an artisan market influence. The markets are relevant to the communities they are in, offering sundry goods and a regular social network. Moore Street Market in Williamsburg, for instance, has everything Hispanic and Caribbean that you could want, from Voodoo (Santeria) stands, to "crazy herbs, every kind you could ever want, both nutritional or medicial," to clothing. The produce to be found in Washington Heights markets is much different that what can be found in Tribeca markets.

Community, Seiger insists, is key to the success of any market, regardless of its specialty. The tents go up in the morning and are gone at night, but the sense of community lingers. She alluded to the Hell's Kitchen flea market, which is not in a particularly scenic or beautiful part of town—but people who love the market look at that space and anticipate the beautiful things that will be there. She says, "The Fort Greene farmer's market has got some kind of magic," describing it as the happiest farmer's market in NYC. It opened two years ago in an under-served market, and the community embraced it. It is next to the park, under black walnut trees, and a passersby can feel the spirit of the community—it's in the air.

As a compliment to the nuts and bolts information offered in The Markets of New York City, Seiger has been keeping a blog in which she chronicles the personal stories of the vendors she has talked with. "I like to talk to people and write about them, and there are so many interesting people and stories to be told in these markets," she says. She interviewed about 200 artisans and farmers, getting to know them and their passion for their craft. "You have to be passionate to be a market vendor, it's not an easy life. I'd do anything to support these people."

For anyone who comes to New York City, either to live or to visit, the standard tourist list is typical. But Seiger proves that when you want to really get to know New York City, you need to see the communities, the craft, and, yes, the food—which are all representative of the incredible culture in this city.