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Redemption in Sin City

It was out to Las Vegas late Friday to join an elite and interesting group of top caterers for a day of roundtable conversations. The group is comprised of heads of leading companies, generally one from every major U.S. city, and meets bi-annually to discuss industry issues and share best practices in a non-competitive, collegial forum. This gathering was set against the backdrop of Sin City, the most startling, bizarre, and artificial landscape on the continent.

I have been to Las Vegas several times, always for business, and never longer than two or more days. Though the distant mountain range is visible and alluring, I have never had the time to escape the Strip and discover the beauty of the West. Until yesterday.

Halfway through the morning meeting session, my colleague Kevin (on assignment for Great Performances in Miami as our purchasing director for the Sony Open Tournament) checks in via text message with a link to the Las Vegas farmers market. Farmers market? Oddly, I had queried my catering colleagues about that exact subject a few hours earlier with the response of rolled eyeballs and mild disinterest. But leave it to Kevin Konopka, the Sherlock Holmes of fresh food, to find a green oasis 20 minutes away. Professional development would have to wait, I had a mission; visit a different Las Vegas and get my Saturday green fix at the same time.

More disbelief when I gave the hotel doorman my destination — the whereabouts of the Tivoli Market was not a FAQ — and he gently suggested I go to the nearest Whole Foods. I persevered and found myself in the front seat of a taxi with driver Kubrom, an Eritrea native transplanted to the Vegas desert seven years ago. With a fluent command of English, it was an excellent journey. Kubrom is married to an American-Eritrean woman, has three sons under the age of six, works hard, and loves Nevada. In the open spaces near the mountains, he runs and bikes. I think our food culture is a mystery to him, but so was my quest for the farmers market — a trip he had never made in all his years in Vegas.

Twenty minutes later, we arrived in another man-made oasis on the outskirts of town — an eclectic architectural mash-up of western-meets-Italian-fantasy-structures-com-shopping-center whose narrow streets harbored familiar white pop-up tents with farm banners. We parked and Kubrom asked to accompany me rather than wait in the car. Off we went.

By now you are also wondering — what could possibly populate a farmers market in Vegas? There’s no water, no farms, no green. This is what I found. First of all, Las Vegas and the state of Nevada boast a vibrant agricultural community: nevadagrown.com and fresh52.com. There are dozens of farms and a wide range of seasonal vegetables and markets in many cities; seven in Vegas alone on rotating days.

The first tent was admittedly not from Nevada (but then again in NYC Greenmarket, we have New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania farmers) and had a dazzling selection of citrus — I bought two bags worth of clementines and tangerines. On to another California grower with asparagus! My first “local” asparagus crop for 2013 –I loaded up. Avocados, lettuce, collards, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, beets with field fresh tops, radishes, green onions — a sight for sore eyes that have grown very weary of faithful root vegetables. There were local growers of micro-greens and producers of value-added foods, herb farmers (herbsbydiane.com and bloomindesertherbs.com), and beekeepers.

We sampled salsa, pesto, pomegranate juice, and other local specialties. We swooned (well, I swooned) over giant fresh sweet strawberries that didn’t have a 1,500-mile travel ticket on them. At each tent, Kubrom kindly offered to carry the produce bag — we made a good team. And so we shopped the market from end to end with infectious enthusiasm, sharing stories about food and cooking. Dried jalapeños for farmer Bob, beef jerky for the chefs at GP, herbal soap for me.

When at home, I photograph my weekly market haul as a snapshot of the season — and in the parking lot under the Nevada sun, we arranged the produce on the hood of the taxi. Camera, fruits, action! Then back to the Strip, the meeting, the fast-food joints, and fabulous foodies. I split the fresh goodies into a small bag for me and the rest for Kubrom. I think he was a little speechless but managed to express that this was an unprecedented experience for him. It was for me, too.

A mission statement from Nevada Cowboy Trail Farms:

  • To benefit people by giving direct healthful food assistance to families in need.
  • To help the community by educating families on how to grow local and healthy food in the desert.
  • To show families how to improve their quality of life with healthy low-cost sources of food in their homes.