May 29, 2013 03:17PM
Friends and vendors: Q-C couple revels in the magic of the farmers' market
By Leslie Klipsch
Are they particularly versatile vendors? Nope. They represent the other half of the equation that keep the farmers' markets bustling — dedicated customers — and in the case of the Rogals, it's a role they've been happy to fill for decades.
"Back in the early days, we weren't even aware of the local-food movement. We just loved the idea of buying farm-fresh food in a beautiful setting. Soon we saw that there was a cultural and social dimension as well," says Owen, who fondly recalls the vendors they've shared relationships with over the year.
Inevitably, they end up chatting with friends and strangers alike. "Owen is very curious and friendly," explains Margi. "We have relationships with a lot of the vendors. We always run into people we know. It takes us three hours to go through the market because it's such a social occasion," she says happily.
Margi grew up in Connecticut and Owen in New Jersey. Together, they moved to the Quad-Cities in 1986, just in time for Owen to begin teaching English at St. Ambrose University. The couple quickly fell in love with the local farmers' market and have made near weekly pilgrimages ever since, witnessing the market evolve into what it is today: a year-round bustling marketplace at Davenport's iconic riverfront Freight House. Through the years, they have built treasured relationships with the vendors.
One such relationship was based, according to Rogal family lore, on watermelon. The Wagamans, Owen recalls wistfully, sold out-of-this-world watermelons. "Owen can consume watermelon," Margi says with a smile. "It's almost embarrassing. We have to take the compost out at night," she laughs.
Posted on the Rogals' refrigerator is a photo of a young, smiling daughter, Hannah Rogal, proudly bearing the weight of an enormous Wagaman watermelon. "We saw the Wagamans and their watermelons year after year," Owen recalls. "We got to know them and their family … we followed their illness and recovery. Even after our girls went to college, Mrs. Wagaman always asked about them and remembered their names."
In the early days, the Rogals' two young daughters wandered through the southern part of the market with their father and counted trains rumbling by. Always a family expedition, Owen recalls the joy the young family experienced there. Back then, crowds were sparse and their oldest daughter could sail through the aisles on roller skates.
Their children, now grown, have moved to new homes in Minneapolis and New York and embraced the market cultures there. Meanwhile, Margi and Owen continue to spend Saturday mornings at the Freight House Farmers' Market, now year-round since the market sprouted indoor offerings in 2011.
Around that time, Owen began keeping a daybook in which he lists everything he and Margi purchase at the market, how much it costs and who produced it. Flipping through the worn pages, you'll see that in 2011, the Rogals enjoyed blueberries in the middle of June, but in 2012 they didn't taste the subtle sweetness until July. Upon closer investigation, trends emerge: February is for greens like mustard, spinach, and arugula. In March, baskets get heavier, and by August, year after year, Owen's lists are long and reveal the height of summer tastes: corn, tomatoes, peaches, blueberries, broccoli, eggplant, beets and more.
While the Rogals share their bounty with others, they also lead a rich culinary life. The couple loves to entertain and cooks most of their food themselves, rarely eating out. They are vegetarians, but suspect that had they met Neal and Lucy Sawyer (who sell beef at the market) 30 years ago, they might not be.
Margi and Owen often turn to their collection of well-worn cookbooks, but the couple says they do a fair amount of improvising as well. "We love food and we crave good quality produce," says Owen. "To be able to get food that was just picked a few days ago, or even the night before market, is really, really amazing."
These days the Rogals are joined by thousands of other customers who gather at the Freight House on Saturday mornings during the peek of summer to enjoy the near-festival atmosphere. Children amuse themselves on the plucky playground while adults with canvas bags sip iced coffee and chat with friends. Farmers enjoy near rock-star status and customers of the farm-to-table era admire rows of in-season fare, beautiful flowers and freshly baked goods. Like the Rogals, throngs of Quad-Citians have made the market a joyful part of their weekend routine.
"Not only is the market more diverse," says Margi, noting the variety of everything from fresh produce to eggs to goat cheese to jams to dried beans to lots and lots of baked goods, "but younger farmers are joining the ranks."
Part of the growth of the Freight House Farmers' Market, Margi believes, has to do with a more common awareness of the importance of good, fresh food. "We're distanced from our food," she says. "But at the market, you get close to the food you're eating and the people who grow it. It's really quite magical."
In addition to a connection to local agriculture, the social aspect of the market that has captivated the Rogals for two and a half decades has surely influenced the changes they've witnessed. The market, Owen says, is a dynamic gathering place where people from all walks of life can enjoy a social exchange.
Margi agrees, "I think the market is what it is today because people love to take their dogs and their children out. And really, we've lost a lot of those public places where people can do so. The market is one of those spaces, and it's one that's amazing," she says, speaking from her decades of experience.
"To be outside in the morning on the weekend with the babies and the dogs and all of the wonderful food," Owen says. "It's a public space. And it's beautiful."
Leslie Klipsch is a frequent Radish contributor.
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