It’s midnight, and the last batch of green beans have 20 minutes left in the processor. Then it’s time for a quick nap before the tomatoes hit the boiling water to blanch. In the meantime, here are a few take-aways on the wild world of produce auctioneering.
This is my third year visiting the Owl Creek Produce Auction.
Look, growing a garden is great. And one day, I hope to have a tractor with power take-off and I hope to have life in control enough to grow and preserve all my own produce. Right now, that isn’t happening. So we do the next best thing: Exploit the hard work of the Amish slave-children!
The fields surrounding the produce auction are full of watermelon, sweet corn, tomatoes. Before you arrive at the auction you have to pass about a half a dozen draft horses led by little Amish who appear to be, I don’t know … in third grade. Together, the team is pulling huge bins of squash, cantaloupe, eggplant, onions that they rose to pick for us at some ungodly hour.
The produce auction is heaven on earth.
Once you figure out what you are buying and HOW (it is easier than you’d think to accidentally walk off with a semi-truck full of potatoes…) you generally can pay less than retail—most times a whole lot less. Your competition is actual retail; Krogers, Neffs, little IGAs and U-pick operations. Most folks there have been sent by their employer to come home with a list of produce TINY CANNING-CRAZED WOMAN REGARDLESS. So you have to learn to pick your battles.
I have to say that I feel incredibly powerful when the auctioneers have memorized my number. I mean, that is their job, but still. “Another batch sold to 2516.” It helps to be morbidly obese from pregnancy, but if you can’t have that, a small child or infant MIGHT get the auctioneer to shut down the bidding a little quicker. But it’s also a risk because the child could cause you to “Hep!” or she could raise your number or otherwise accidentally bid on 17 bushels of green beans. For example.
We used to try to buy the most beautiful stuff, and you can. But I think the best way to play it is to buy a lot of rotten crap.
Grocery store hitmen are in and out: They want the biggest, most perfect fruit. However, if you bid on something that looks bad, you will get it for nothing. For example, my mother and I bought 64 pounds of strawberries that were rolled out at the last minute for $8.
You can’t buy three quarts of strawberries for that much, but about a quarter of them were in bad shape and gross and mushy. However, the rest of them were not. Even 48 pounds of strawberries for $8 is a steal. Grocery store hitmen do not want to mess with this lot of half-gross strawberries. But me and my pigs? We were born for this pallet of fruit.
You have to be flexible. My mother and I went for beans, which were selling very high, so we bought sweet corn and strawberries and tomatoes instead. You have to be diligent. Take your receipts from last year so you will have an idea when to stop saying “Hep!” before you’ve spent hundreds of dollars in tomatoes. Know how many pecks are in a bushel.
Strangely, lots of people have shown an interest in attending with me at some point, and I would be MORE than happy and VERY (!) excited to take you to an auction and to show you what I know, which is approximately three years’ worth. Or three visits. Whatev.
Here is a warning: Buying is the fun part. But then you have to do something will all the food. You have to set aside your entire weekend to preserve whatever you buy. And you will become so sick of this item that you will wonder how you can ever find it appealing again. You will work until 1 a.m. each night and your bean-snapping finger will probably start bleeding or you might cut yourself or burn yourself and then you will think, “I am NEVER doing this again.”
And then you will pack your jars away and then—in the winter!
In the winter you will pop open a jar and you will take one long sniff (why haven’t you thought to stop to sniff your food like this before!!??) and you will look back on those nights fondly as if they were the best nights of your mortal existence. And you will start counting the days until you can put yourself through it again!
I am kind of a fan of the Owl Creek Produce Auction.
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