This is the time of year we flatlanders pine for the snows of January, when it’s a full 100 degrees colder than it is right now, and all the humidity is frozen to our windshields. August in Iowa may be unbearable for humans, but vegetables love it — the hot, sticky dog days bring us sweet corn (different from the “field” corn that feeds confined hogs and ethanol plants), hot peppers, and the very first tomatoes.

At this time of the year in Iowa City, you can shop at farmers markets every day of the week, if you pay attention to the schedules and know the locations. The markets range from just a couple of awnings in a parking lot to massive affairs with cooking demos and live music.

As I’ve written before, fresh produce was not always so easy to find here in farm country. When I moved to Iowa City 16 years ago, people looked at me quizzically in the one small farmers market as I walked through in my chef’s uniform. What was a chef doing in a farmers market? There was nothing imported from France here!

But things changed relatively fast. By 2004, Iowa had more farmers markets per capita than any other state, and the chef’s distinctive double-breasted coat had become a far more common sight.

The farmers market boom is a wonderful development, not only because it provides fresher food with a smaller carbon footprint, nor even just because it keeps more than $20 million from leaking out of the state’s economy every year. On top of all that, farmers markets also provide vital public space. People relate. They socialize. They connect.

Watch people for a little while in the typical Wal-Mart “super center.” They push their massive carts down halogen-lit aisles as if they are wearing blinders, totally unaware of the other people near them. Then they gather at the checkout lines looking like a cross between deer in the headlights and lambs to the slaughter.

Compare this to people at the farmers market, where they walk around brightly colored stands of fresh food with their bags and baskets, always waving and saying hello to those they know, comparing items with complete strangers and asking insightful questions of the producers. There is laughter, witty banter, and genuine human interaction. It is another way that real food brings us together, while mass-produced food-like substances further divide and isolate us.

People seem to trust the food in my restaurant more because they feel they know me — and that comes primarily from my being at the market every chance I get. I trust the food more because I know the farmers making it. We all feel better as part of a community and as participants in each other’s lives.

It seems silly to need to point these things out, but this is where our industrialized food system has brought us: out of the fields and the gardens and the kitchens and the dining rooms, and into the drive-thru lanes and checkout aisles. So a little reminder of the sustenance that comes from human interaction is needed now and then.

So I went to the market yesterday and got all the ingredients I needed for an awesome salsa. Well, almost all — I’m still waiting for the Iowa limes (go global warming!). Then I went back to the restaurant and prepared it in about 10 minutes, whereupon I served it to our guests — some of whom were at the market with me — over grilled sablefish. Smiles abounded over all the tables.

Iowa Sweet Corn Salsa

So spicy yet so sweet.

Photo: Kurt Michael Friese

2 tomatoes, one red, one yellow, roughly baseball sized, diced
1 cup fresh, local sweet corn (cut from 2-3 cobs)
1 red bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded & diced
1 red onion, peeled and julienned
2 serrano peppers, seeded & minced (or jalapeno — or whatever turns you on)
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped
Juice from 2 limes
Optional: a pinch or two of sea salt, to taste

Simply mix all the ingredients 1 hour to 1 day before serving. Makes about 6 servings.