I grew up in the suburbs, not in Boston, so I didn't go to the Haymarket until I was about ten or twelve or so. But I knew about it, because my father's job would take him into the city some days, and if he were there on a Friday or Saturday, he would come home with bags and bags of produce. I always loved fruit, so this was a treat, because he would buy things he didn't buy at the regular supermarket, like plums and cherries and black grapes.
The first time I saw the place in person made quite an impression, though. In high school I participated in a writing contest, and for the creative portion I submitted a piece about feeling agoraphobic at the market. It's still a rather disorienting place to be: far more people than space; sometimes overwhelming smells, particularly on hot days; lots of shouting. But it's been a big part of my food-buying life since I moved to the city, and I have great affection for its somewhat rough charms.
For those of you who don't know about Haymarket, let's first clarify what it is not. It's not a farmers' market. The guys who sell produce there are certainly not farmers. It might better be described a sort of outdoor fruit and vegetable outlet store, a last chance discount center for overstocked, aging produce.
The Haymarket has a long history, having started in the 1830s as an area of produce vendors selling from horsecarts. Now the vendors set up tents in U-shaped area about two city blocks long on Fridays and Saturday and sell produce they buy at the Chelsea wholesale market on the cheap before the new shipments come in for the new week. The prices are unbelievable. The quality is, to say the least, mixed.
Culturally, shopping the Haymarket is a authentic Boston experience. The vendors are mostly from Italian families who have owned their stands for generations. A few Asian families have gotten in on the act, too, which is nice. The clientele is far more diverse. There are lots of old Italian women from the North End, students on budgets, slow-walking tourists getting in everyone's way, and many, many recent immigrants from all over. I once heard a vendor tell his buddy, in a thick Boston accent, that he could name vegetables and count to ten in 15 languages. He didn't mention the number of languages he could swear in, but I bet it was impressive. The vendors can be rude or at least brusque, but if you smile and are polite, generally they're fine, and they might just call you sweetheart, which I always like.
But what about the goods? I go to Haymarket primarily when there are no local options (dead of winter), so I would be buying supermarket produce anyway, or when I need stuff that isn't possible to get locally, like limes and pineapples. This miserable, rainy, busy, exhausting pregnant summer, though, I've been going far more often. I'm not the only one. It's been crazy-crowded at the market since last fall, when the recession started to really hit a lot of people hard. But if you're going to get the most out of it, I suggest a few strategies:
1) Go early in the morning - preferrably on Friday, but early Saturday is better than late. The produce won't have sat out in the sun all day, so it will be fresher, and there won't be so many of the aforementioned slow-moving tourists.
2) Bring your own bags. Don't be a jerk and bring a shopping cart. Everyone will hate you. Just bring a bunch of tote bags, because you will buy more than you mean to, and carrying a bunch of heavy bags on your shoulder will be more comfortable than carrying a bunch of heavy bags in your hands. If you can find someone to come with you, do it - then you can get a watermelon.
3) Don't touch the produce unless the vendor tells you it's okay. Some things you can just pick up, like a pineapple or the top bunch of leeks. But the soft, delicate stuff, which unfortunately is just the stuff you would probably want to pick out yourself, is strictly off-limits. Is this a tactic to pawn off crappy produce on you? Yes, sometimes. But it's also reasonable - if every customer was allow to paw through the displays picking the perfect figs or tomatoes, everything would be bruised within an hour.
4) Expect rot. Have I mentioned that you will be paying a pittance? I used to say that you had to expect to throw away about 1/3 of what you bought here. Now, I would say I throw away less than a 1/4 (see strategy 6 - what to buy), but I still go through the bags when I get home and immediately toss anything that looks bad - one bad apple and all that. Also, if you're buying something that's likely to be delicate, plan on using it that day - don't even think about buying raspberries on Friday for a dessert Monday.
5) Take a walk through the market first. Sometimes only one vendor will have something you want, sometimes prices vary from stand to stand, quality almost always does. Walk through, then buy on your way back.
6) There are things you should buy here, and things you should not.
Limes. Standardly 8 or 10 for a dollar, usually in great shape. Lately they've been selling whole boxes for $2.50 - I'm guessing that's about 50 limes worth. If you're feeling ambitious, it would be smart to buy, juice and freeze in ice cube trays.
Lemons. Not quite as cheap or reliable as limes, but still cheaper than the supermarket.
Cherries and plums. My dad's favorites are very cheap here compared to supermarkets, and generally the quality is good, although sometimes the plums can be soft. I have been buying two two-pound bags of Bing cherries each week for about a month now, and have yet to get a bag that wasn't close to perfect, every last cherry. I will switch off to local plums once I see them at the farmers' market, but until then I'm stocking up here.
Bananas. My husband has all sorts of medical limitations on his fruit consumption, but he can have all the bananas he wants. I got a lovely bunch of about ten large bananas for a dollar this weekend.
Watermelon. Another fruit that can be hard to find at the farmers' market, and I have a hard time getting through summer without it. The little "personal-sized" ones have more edible area than you might think, because the rind is so thin, and they're easy to carry home.
Ginger. No local option, always cheap here and almost always of good quality.
Some things are generally okay and well-priced, so if your other choice is the supermarket, not a farmers' market, no reason not to save money on fennel, peppers, leeks, carrots, cabbage and other fairly long-storing basics.
Be careful, but consider looking for:
Tropical and Asian fruits and vegetables. The range of tropical fruits and vegetables has definitely increased in recent years, but the quality is questionable. Pineapples are usually a good bet, but a week ago, every pineapple I saw was rotten to the core (which was why they were selling for 50 cents). Sometimes you can get great mangoes; sometimes the mangoes look good, but inside they're rotten. But they generally have two types of papaya, and often you can find lychees, jicama, ripe platains and other things you might not be able to get at your standard supermarket.
Figs in season. I love figs, but only the most doting and devoted Portugese and Italian gardeners are able to nurse a tree through a New England winter. In supermarkets, the price is prohibitive, but figs at the Haymarket can be very reasonable. They can also be moldy, especially if you buy a little pint pack. Pick a weekend when you'll have company on Saturday, and go for broke with a whole case for 7 or 8 dollars. Eat them immediately.
Herbs. Generally, I would rather pick up dill, parsley, mint and so on at the farmers' market, but in the off-season, herbs are much cheaper at Haymarket.
Proceed with caution - or maybe just skip altogether:
Berries. I often give in for convenience if I'm there already, but the raspberries and blackberries will always be rotten. Strawberries are a mixed bag, but they will taste like supermarket strawberries even on the best of days. Blueberries are okay, and hard to come by at the farmers' market, probably your best bet.
Garlic. All they ever seem to have are those six-packs of garlic in the net bags. The garlic is always either dried or sprouting. Don't bother.
Bags of salad greens. Look, these are of questionable safety from the supermarket, let alone from a tent that sits in the sun for hours. It can be quite exciting to see a pillow-sized $3 bag of organic mesclun mix at Haymarket, where once organics were unknown, but the bottom half of the bag will be black mush. In season, you can get far better salad greens at the farmers' market. Off-season, the supermarket is still a better choice.
Pears. I don't really eat pears out of season; they just don't have the perfume and flavor of a real pear (rarely do I eat apples out of season, either, though sometimes I cook with them). The widely available commercial pears tend to rot from the inside out, making appearances deceiving. Get your pears from an orchard in the fall, and then forget about them until next year, or splurge on Harry and David of you're rich (and if so, why are you reading this?)
Potatoes. I don't know why the potatoes are so often bad. But they are. Again, farmers' market first, then supermarket.
Good luck. In this economy, we all need all the help we can get. A cheap bag of limes is a nice place to start.