Friday, August 17, 2012

Thank You, Enoch Pratt

Ever since I was a little girl, I've loved going to the library. Especially in the summer. Walking out of a steamy summer night and into the library, I'd sigh with relief as cool air washed over my body. This cool and quiet land was a place of wonder and I'd stand stand amazed by the sheer volume and variety of books surrounding me. I'd stare in awe at glossy hardcovers with bold titles and polished author portraits on the back. I'd slowly pry out a classic wedged on a bottom shelf, carefully brushing my fingers over its crumbling binding. I'd flip open front covers and skim through summaries searching for stories to grab my attention. Someones deepest thoughts and dreams printed clearly on paper for me to read - I knew books were special. Gathering book after book into my trusty cloth bag, I'd walk through the library like a triumphant farmer after a bountiful harvest. I signed up for a library card and couldn't believe that just by printing my name on the back of a small piece of plastic I could access all of these books, whenever I wanted, for free! It was magic.

Baltimore has a great public library. The Enoch Pratt Free Library is one of the oldest free library systems in the United States and has 23 branches throughout the city, plus a bookmobile. 23 branches! This means that in almost any Baltimore neighborhood books are easily accessible to everyone and anyone, for free. I try to go to the library every other week to stock up on books. Spending time at the library is one of my favorite things to do in the city because it's fun and free. An amazing resource for books or media of any kind, each time I go, I know I'm the lucky recipient of an amazing gift.

This gift came from Enoch Pratt. Enoch Pratt grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Baltimore with only $150 in his pocket. Pratt worked hard, very hard, and turned that $150 into a fortune. As a successful businessman Pratt saw that the people of Baltimore were ambitious, but that they "didn't have many ways to improve themselves." In 1886, Mr. Pratt founded the library with 32,000 volumes, four branch libraries, and a $1,058,333.00 endowment for upkeep and expansion. He said that Baltimore needed a library "for all, rich and poor without distinction of race or color" and he used his fortune to provide it.

I think most people can agree that libraries do good for their communities, but only in Baltimore have I really seen just how much good they can do. The official mission of The Enoch Pratt Free Library is "to provide equal access to information and services that empower, enrich, and enhance the quality of life for all." Every time I visit the Enoch Pratt Free Library, I see this mission in action. I see students studying in specially designated areas, focused and learning hard. Many of these kids don't have a quiet and undisturbed home where they can do their homework, but at the library, they have this space.

The library also has a huge number of computers which you can reserve by the hour. It's one of the only places with totally free Internet in Baltimore and for many people, "free" is the only thing they can afford. There's also an extensive media collection at the library and audio books, DVDs, and CDs in case you have trouble reading or just want something to listen to in the car. In the hot summer and freezing winter, the library is a haven for Baltimoreans who need shelter and a break from the elements. Filled with light, seats, peace and quiet, if you to spend time indoors, do it at the library.

I find books on gardening, on business, on cooking, on traveling, on everything I can think of and more. I pick up books and delve into someones thoughts and ideas, stretching and expanding my own. My fellow library goers are Moms and their babies, college students, high school students, homeless people, business professionals, entrepreneurs etc., all mixed races and walks of life. Each person is different, but all are given the same opportunity at the library which is to read, learn, educate, and "improve themselves" just as Mr. Pratt wished.

As I check out, a father helps his son sign up for a library card across the counter from me. The boy's excited face tells me that this is his first, his own, library card.  While they wait for the librarian to assist them, I overhear the father tell his son, "This card is better than any plane ticket. Books can take you anywhere. Here, at the library, this is where the adventure begins."

I watch the boy sign his name on a small piece of plastic. He reverently checks his first book out of the library.

It's still magic.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The BEST Bazaar

Sunday morning in Baltimore. It's hot and it's humid. Steamy air pants at the windows waiting to ravage the AC the moment I open the door. Stay inside, stay cool, my lazy bones coax me. A tempting offer, yet I can't accept. No matter how hot out it is, Sunday morning hosts one of my favorite outdoor events in Baltimore - The Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar. So embrace the heat and get outside! It's summer after all! 
The Farmers' Market & Bazaar is located under the Jones Falls Expressway. Yes, it's kind of strange to shop for your dinner underneath a roaring highway, but it's totally awesome too! Walk under the highway Monday through Saturday, and you'll find an empty wasteland of trashcans and dust. Walk under the highway on a Sunday, and you'll find a bustling, vibrant, and thriving market. Funky murals mask concrete beams and bright banners hang from lampposts. White tents and street performers give a party atmosphere. The ceiling made by the highway overhead keeps the space cool and prevents plants, produce, and people from wilting in the sun. I call the market, "Repurposed Urban Space At Its Best."
Feeling, smelling, eating, looking, walking,  talking - the market swarms with Baltimoreans. Young children swivel hula hoops while Moms and Dad watch, gratefully sipping their tall coffees. A bearded craftsman displays wooden cutting boards while the adjacent farmer slices up samples of peaches. A couple with dreadlocks piled high on their heads stop and listen to the old man playing a tune on his PVC trombone.  A crowd gathers around a Native American dancing demonstration, transfixed by the booming drums and fiery feathers. A mother laughs with customers while her baby sleeps in the back of a truck, surrounded by flowers. Other Baltimoreans come strictly to shop. They stride through the market at rapid speed, hunting for the freshest basil,

stripiest heirloom tomatoes, flakiest pastries, and hardiest seedlings. Stocking up on fresh produce for the week or winter, plants for the garden, or dinner tonight;  the shoppers make their rounds. "Cash only" quickly changes hands and soon cloth bags and bicycle baskets bulge with Maryland bounty.
Even if you don't like to cook, you can still come to the market to EAT. Food stands dot the market, and the smells wafting from their boilers, fryers, juicers, woks, and skillets coat  the entire premises. It's hard to resist. Even if it is only nine A.M., people tuck into spicy sausage sandwiches and stir frys like there's no tomorrow.  Made-to-order omelets are sprinkled with peppers, sausage, and mozzarella and sizzle on a cast iron skillet. Mounds of wheat grass, carrots, mangoes, and apples are turned into juice, and fried beer-battered mushrooms are topped with hot sauce and cheese, then served on a bed of micro greens.

I buy a small hot  bag of freshly made doughnuts and douse them with powdered sugar. "Would you like a napkin" asks the doughnut maker. Definitely! I reply,  my hands already coated with white. Some people eat at tiny plastic tables and others camp out on the ground. But no matter where they sit or what they eat, people chow on this market food with true pleasure and enjoyment. The blatant disregard for time and decorum is awesome. Want to eat dinner for breakfast? Dessert for breakfast? At the market you can, and you should!
As I peruse the market, my first stop is always at a small bakery booth for a perfect taste of France. A fresh, golden, crusty, chewy, sleeved-in-paper baguette, and I'm in heaven.

Armed with my baguette, my other purchases depend entirely on what is seasonal and what looks the freshest. I love shopping this way, without a list and without a plan. I never know what the different stands will offer each week and this makes cooking much more creative and exciting. Market shopping is such a great excuse to let myself get caught up in the colors and textures of so much local produce, and then come up with a plan for it later in my kitchen.
This week I score dark leafy kale, giant portobello mushrooms, strawberries, leeks, chives, red potatoes, cilantro, and apples. On the walk home, I start concocting meals in my head. Grilled portobellos with chives? Baguette with kale and a fried egg on top? Endless possibilities, all from the Farmers' Market & Bazaar! I can't wait to get to my kitchen.

Think I'll walk a little faster.