By Andy Isaacson
Special to CNN
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SAN FRANCISCO, California (CNN) -- Even before it opens at 8 a.m., a devoted group of epicurean pilgrims is already arriving, wheeling knee-high cooler bags toward the produce stands that assemble every Saturday in downtown San Francisco's Ferry Plaza.
They queue a dozen deep for Ziplocs of fisherman Larry Miyamura's wild-caught king salmon and inspect organic peaches, which, on this brilliant May morning, have debuted a week earlier than expected. ("I don't know why," says farmer Lisa Kashiwase, "maybe global warming. What do you think?")
They've come for the snap peas, heirloom tomatoes, mesclun, fava beans and "humanely raised" lamb that, for the past 15 years, have served as centerpieces to an important community ritual. (Take the America's Favorite Cities survey)
"We think of Chez Panisse as quintessential California cuisine, and when you come here you get to see the same farms here that you do on the restaurant's menu," says Sandy Busboom, a regular who drives 25 miles to the weekly market and keeps the phone numbers of her favorite vendors in her Treo to find out what seasonal produce they'll be bringing that week. "You get to know them."
Chef Alice Waters opened the venerable Chez Panisse in 1971 across the Bay in Berkeley, and is widely credited as the progenitor of a national food revolution, one effect of which has been to reflect celebrity back onto local farmers.
"I think Alice's influence is pervasive, and the restaurants have all been influenced by the seasonal, local, artisanal, organic movement," says Traci Des Jardins of San Francisco's Jardinière restaurant and this year's James Beard award winner for best chef in the Pacific region.
By 10 a.m., the cooler bag crowd has long moved on, replaced by a more casual set of shoppers, evidenced by more baby carriages and fewer canvas sacks.
Mingling among them, chefs from San Francisco's most popular restaurants wheel two-tiered carts loaded with the strawberries, artichokes and salad greens that will wind up on the city's menus that evening.
Chris Cosentino of the Noe Valley Italian restaurant Incanto, and a recent contestant on "Iron Chef America," cradles his toddler in one arm and a bag of the salad green minutina in the other, dispensing recipe advice to a bystander.
"The market is a big part of San Francisco," says chef Annie Somerville while selecting Blossom Bluff apriums, an apricot-plum hybrid. Somerville's beloved restaurant, Greens, San Francisco Chronicle food editor Michael Bauer says, first "showed the world that vegetarian food could be great."
A century ago, the Ferry Building was the terminus for cross-country land and rail passengers; its 240-foot-tall clock tower, modeled after the bell tower on the Cathedral of Seville in Spain, stood as a welcoming beacon to some 50,000 commuters a day. The Bay and Golden Gate bridges slowly rendered its public function obsolete. Then in 2003, the building was dusted off and reincarnated as the Ferry Building Marketplace, San Francisco's seven-day-a-week cathedral of local gastronomy.
Today, the monumental Beaux Arts structure acts as a symbolic gateway, this time to the values of sustainable agriculture that the Bay Area now proudly showcases to the world. On the ground floor, flanking the Central Nave, vaulted rooms that once served as luggage berths now enshrine a permanent collection of household name food artisans -- Cowgirl Creamery cheese, McEvoy Ranch olive oil, Prather Ranch meat -- like chapels to a belief system which, as the scene on Saturdays demonstrates, claims a wide and devoted local following.
"We say it's like a church," remarks a woman who takes a seat next to me on the pier outside to organize her purchases. It turns out she's Cathy Simon, lead architect on the building's renovation effort. "Only it's more fun, and one just has to believe in the good life in some way."
The "good life" is what draws some 15 million visitors to San Francisco every year, and keeps 750,000 residents sticking around. That intangible ideal cannot be measured in annual number of warm sunny days received, for the city does not boast an impressive number.
But the bone-chilling fog and hilly topography for which San Francisco is so well known provides an ideal climate for grape vines and olive trees in Napa and Sonoma Counties, dairy cows just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County and the cornucopia of fresh vegetables that provide the city's denizens with healthy sustenance year round.
San Francisco's legacy of social activism helps spread the good life to all. The state's oldest farmers market, held on Saturdays along Alemany Boulevard, is decidedly more populist and ethnically diverse (and cheaper). On Wednesdays, there are markets at UN Plaza in downtown's Tenderloin district and in Bayview Hunters Point, two predominantly low-income neighborhoods. In all, there are 10 different markets, held every day of the week across the city.
A visitor to San Francisco might once have left the city without his heart but a stomach full of Ghirardelli chocolate, crab meat and sourdough bread. Today, he's more likely to find golden beets, king salmon and a glass of Sonoma Pinot Noir -- locally sourced, physician-approved foods to prevent a wounded heart.
That's a good life worth supporting -- or perhaps, a universal religion worthy of conversion.
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is held on Tuesdays and Saturdays in downtown San Francisco.
IF YOU GO ...
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market takes place at the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco at the base of Market Street on the Embarcadero. Tuesdays, 10am-2pm; Saturdays, 8am-2pm. http://www.cuesa.org/markets
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