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Farm to Mall Court

So what do you think of the concept?" demands Morris O. Jenkins Jr., the barest trace of anxiety invading his upbeat cadences. The youthful Texas Agricultural Extension agent and urban-gardening specialist nods toward the vaguely surreal tableau unfolding on Westwood Mall's atrium balcony. Right there in front of The Gap, a line of primly green-skirted tables offers up a modest cornucopia of fresh vegetables and baked goods. Below, amid potted ficus trees, the plumed horses of a rococo Venetian carousel plunge in their endless circles; in the background, Tina Turner rasps "What's Love Got To Do With It?"

It is a September Saturday morning, and "the concept" -- an improbable farmers' market inside that profoundly Houstonian institution, an air-conditioned shopping mall -- has shrunk to three vendors from a summertime high of eight. Two of the vendors (Jenkins included) happen to be agents from Texas A&M's extension service, which took the state's fledgling farmers' market program under its wing after Jim Hightower's consumer-friendly Texas Department of Agriculture regime was toppled by the Republicans. But Morris Jenkins, clear of eye, high of cheekbone, optimistic of heart, remains undeterred. "The concept! It'll work!" he insists, fluffing up a crate of green beans and rearranging the wax-free cucumbers procured from two Spring-area farmers he works with. "These things have gone over big in places like Seattle, and they can be a big thing here."

As even the eternally positive Jenkins would have to admit, though, pioneering urban farmers' markets in Houston is no bed of catnip. Bringing locally grown produce to suburban malls may be a cleverly contrarian notion in a town where you must buy in bulk at the outdoor Airline Market or resign yourself to the grocery store. And it's certainly smart PR for Westwood Mall, where a couple of incidents of violent crime have heightened the need for warm-and-fuzzy promotions. But the experiment that started out with such a bang in June, when vendors were often sold out by noon, faltered during the dog-day lull in the local growing season. Confusion about the schedule siphoned off customers. (Originally set to continue through September 5, the market took a recess during August and resumed after Labor Day.) Removal of the mall's big sign touting the market didn't help. Neither did the fact that some of the vendors whose presence had made the market such an interesting grab bag grew discouraged and drifted off.

Now that the Gulf Coast's second growing season is under way, Jenkins and his extension-agent colleague Arnold Brown are determined to hold down the fort until the prodigals -- vendors and customers both -- return. "We put out public-service announcements this week to encourage consumers," says the bespectacled Brown, an earnest apostle of fresh vegetables who is busy shelling with sacramental reverence the purple-hull peas from his 25-acre Rosenberg farm. The sharp, sour scent of Brown's green peppers penetrates the conditioned air; his pile of Hempstead cantaloupes perfumes everything within a 4-foot radius. A passing shopper in a sari slows, sniffs, halts in her tracks, startled out of her mall-induced cocoon.

Around the corner at Jenkins' display, a parade of passersby is engaging in supremely un-mall-like shopping behavior. They have reverted to vegetable selection as an old-fashioned contact sport requiring the pawing of melons, the hefting of yams, the rummaging through cucumbers and the feeling up of zucchini. Two Chinese matrons scrutinize fat baby eggplants; a Hispanic woman dwarfed by her Chanel tote bag staggers off with a week's worth of produce. Elderly mall-walkers in athletic shoes and Bermuda shorts interrupt their perambulations to pinch vine-ripened tomatoes so red and fruity that they can be eaten straight out of the hand. "We could make tomato sandwiches," a woman speculates to her mate. Alice Davis, a regular from the Westwood neighborhood, waxes nostalgic over some white-fleshed peaches she found here early this summer. "Ripe peaches," she testifies vehemently, "that you wouldn't use to lob a mugger in the head."

Lured from a store window full of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers by a table arrayed with gorgeous pastries and loaves of bread, two small African-American kids confer with young Spanish baker Domingo Diaz. As one bites into a buttery cinnamon roll, a beatified expression lights up her face; Le Moulin European Bakery has won its newest convert. Diaz and his wife, Sylvia, use the Westwood market as a sort of outreach effort for their deep-Meyerland bakery, spreading their gospel of sour mother-doughs and 10-hour fermentation and wrecking diets with their elegantly glazed raspberry twists and tart apple strudel.

Vendors like the Diazes place the Westwood project in the new, eclectic generation of farmers' markets. On any given Saturday at Westwood, shoppers might encounter a Latin American entrepreneur plying his line of habanero-based sauces or volunteers from the Willow River organic farm, a residential community for the retarded, selling their herb plants, produce and a green-tomato salsa that's not for amateurs. Dividends like these -- plus guest appearances by such locals as a Conroe blueberry farmer selling 4-pound sacks at pick-your-own prices -- send patrons reeling off the escalators with unplanned burdens in tow; laden with funky plastic bags, they can be seen wrestling their booty through the mall doors. They look as if they think they're getting away with something.

Perhaps they are. This highly unlikely enterprise trades not just in new potatoes and sweet corn straight from the field; it also offers nourishment of a higher order. Firmly rooted in time and place, its transactions are commerce in a pure -- and vanishing -- human form: the swapping of recipes, the exchange of greetings, the imparting of personalized information. "I eat okra raw," announces Arnold Brown to a customer. "Excellent snack." Then he throws some hulled peas into a sack of purple pods by way of encouragement. "This'll make you finish what you start," he says. Around the corner, Morris Jenkins sends a new client off with a parting guarantee -- "If it's not good, I'll be here next week to make it good," he vows. Ideas cross-pollinate, just as they've done in marketplaces for thousands of years. People depart with unfamiliar foodstuffs. ("The only okra I've ever bought was frozen," admits one poor soul.) An Indian shopper informs the purchaser of a fine-looking catnip plant that in his homeland, this is a holy herb. Jenkins' wife, Marsha, quits hulling peas long enough to have her hair done in the mall. Arnold Brown secures one of Domingo Diaz's opulent focaccia breads -- "cocas," in their Spanish incarnation -- to take home to Rosenberg.

There is a bigger idea than easily available fresh vegetables percolating in Morris Jenkins' brain. It has to do with Keeon Wash, the silent, broad-shouldered 15-year-old who stands behind the crates of squash and melons, his right hand sheathed in a plastic sack, poised to bag up purchases in a flash. Wash is part of the extension service's youth entrepreneur program; on Saturdays, he and two other boys (neither of whose behavior was good enough to earn them a slot this week, Jenkins confides darkly) man the vegetable displays. "A lot of these kids don't have functional families," says Jenkins; he's bent on giving them self-esteem and interpersonal skills along with their crash course in free enterprise. "What have you learned, Keeon?" Jenkins asks rhetorically. "I learn to sell vegetables," responds Wash, who conserves his teenager's cool as carefully as he husbands his words. But minutes later, a glimmer of interpersonal skill sneaks through Wash's low, shy rasp: some of his friends, he notes laconically, still think vegetables come from cans. For the briefest moment, his eyes glint with amusement.

Then Jenkins, part social worker, part promoter, part true vegetable believer -- and sounding every bit the Houstonian -- is off on a speculative riff, envisioning a future in which malls ask for fresh vegetables, in which there will be a vegetable store in every self-respecting mall, in which people will shop for vegetables as a hobby rather than a chore. Surely the mall-ified farmers' market concept can survive a few setbacks.

"If we ride it out, it's gonna be better times ahead," says Jenkins fervently. His voice follows shoppers halfway to the escalator. "We'll be here next week!" he reminds them. "All the way through December! Every Saturday!


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