outside experience 1: the salsa contest

Okay, so they’re not salsa yet… but they will be! Too late for the contest. Just in time for some back-to-school lunch-packing.

If you’ve been to the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market (BCFM), you know that it’s no wonder they’re one of the nation’s best. Not only the largest in Indiana, BCFM is also one of the longest running. Saturday mornings at the market is more than grocery shopping. It’s a deep-rooted family tradition, a testament to Bloomington’s unique focus on sustainable food & agriculture in a state more known for its commodity production.

This summer, I was fortunate to have an internship perfectly in tune with my focus on sustainable food systems: a spot with Bloomington Parks & Recreation, serving as the Farmers’ Market & Community Gardens intern.

To close out my internship, I helped with the 24th annual Salsa Contest, a tradition that stirs as much passion in some as the market does for me. It was an early morning–helping set up the market at 6:30 before moving onto contest set-up at 8. By 10, the plaza in front of city hall was transformed. Pepper-covered banners. Tasting tents for all three categories: specialty (with anything but tomatoes), cooked & raw salsas. Rags, chef at Nick’s English Hut, was set up for his salsa-making demonstration. Judges, a sampling of Bloomington’s crème de la crème foodies, were warming up their palates. (No pun intended.) Anxious market-goers were forming lines, licking their lips while deciding which salsas to taste first.

More than 30 community members had submitted salsas to the contest. By noon, three from each category would receive prizes for best, most unique tastes. By 11, the tasting would already be complete–gobbled up by attendees. From my station behind the cooked salsa tables, I soaked in the smoky notes of chipotle, the clean heat of habañero, the kick of deep red chilis. I listened to families tasting–cautioning children to avoid #14, the hottest at the table; leaning over bowls to guess at ingredients; laughing & sharing reactions with fellow Bloomington residents they were meeting for the first time.

The most popular in the cooked category? An intriguing green salsa we were sure was tomatillo-based. Or is that eggplant? It took until the last drops for one man to recognize the subtle flavor & distinct texture. Okra. You’re reading that correctly. The most commented-on salsa I saw was okra-based. Someone, figure out this recipe for me!

What I loved most about the contest was the sense of reconnection to food & the empowerment that attendees experienced. Working together, they sifted through the flavors & uncovered ingredients. They cautioned each other on delayed spice & shared their own recommendations for salsa success.

When they asked where they could buy the salsas, I explained that they weren’t made by stores or restaurants. They were made by the general Bloomington community. After a moment of disappointment & another frantic taste of their new favorite salsa, I invariably got this reaction: “Huh, well maybe I’ll submit a salsa next year!”

And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? That food belongs to all of us. That the division between foodies & the most novice cook is a construct. Food is, quite literally, what we make it. We can be as connected & engaged as we choose, and when it comes down to it, completely ruining a recipe is pretty darn difficult.

My favorite moment of each market this season has been meeting the person attending for the first time, the person buying fresh herbs for the first time, the person buying their child their first fresh pastry. Because don’t we all remember those moments of communion? I find that they’re the most moving, deeply rooted & deliciously textured memories we share.

Do you love BCFM? Show your support! Visit the American Farmland Trust page and vote for Bloomington as your favorite market.


About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
This entry was posted in Outside Experiences and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to outside experience 1: the salsa contest

  1. Pingback: outside experience 1: the salsa contest | francofile

  2. ccarwein says:

    Wow! After reading your post, I wish I didn’t have to work the Environmental Commission table that day! I really like your descriptive writing style as well. At times, while reading your first outside experience post, I felt like I was there tasting the salsas and interacting with the BCFM crowd. Great blogging Megan!

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