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Get this. I'm holding a mulberry. Pale little thing...I've never seen one before in my life. "We only grow these for the birds," says Pio. "They love them. So they come and they eat the insects. We don't have to use pesticides. The birds are kind enough to leave about 25 percent of the fruit for us humans, which we bring here."

I bite into it. It tastes sweet in an apologetic way, no tart end-kick, the way you get with blackberries. Still, I buy a $2.00 tray to take home to impress Carla.

And that's just the first five minutes here in Escondido. I've been eating market fodder all week before realizing: This is where Mom and Pop went to when the Wal-Marts levered them out of Main Street. This is where town meets country, the people in contact with -- eek! -- Nature. Turns out, more than 6000 farmers grow food in San Diego County. Most are small family farms, nine acres or less.

No surprise we have about 25 farmers' markets operating around the county.

My interest in these places starts accidentally on a Sunday morning, when I wander past that mural of a five-toed dragon painted on a wall at Third and Market -- I hear it represents the Emperor of China -- a herald to let you know you're entering Chinatown.

I wander down Third to the awesome statue of Chin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, in the garden of the Chinese Mission Building. And suddenly, I'm into the Third Avenue Farmers' Market and Asian Bazaar, a bunch of tents and stalls on J between Third and Fourth. I'm hungry, and I like the idea of looking for unexpected foods. I walk past flower trucks, fresh veggie stands, a stall where a lady crochets hats, a fresh-bread stand, and a Mexican food tent called "Picnic Stop," which a couple of people tell me has delicious tacos. Two bucks each.

But my nose is twitching at the smells coming from a stall with paper signs you can hardly read in the breeze. I catch the word "Sambussas." Aha. This is great. A Somali business. They make these little pyramids of pastry and fillings just as Indians and Pakistanis do (except in those cultures, they call them samosas). This guy Hamse says his are stuffed with chicken or beef or "spicy spinach" or lentils, with green chili and herbs. It all sounds good, but the deal-closer is the last on his list: a cream cheese, coconut, and potato sambussa. They're a dollar each, 3 for $2.50, 6 for $5.00. Delicious. Abdul, one of the other guys behind the counter, says I've got to have Somalian tea with it. I take a sip of one of the samples they have laid out. Hmm. Intriguing. "It is Lipton's," he says, "but with honey, ginger, and Somali spices." Costs $2.00 for 16 ounces.

But now I've spotted a place two tents down that I've gotta try. "Malaysian Satay," it says. "Five sticks, $3.00, or combo, $5.00." The combo includes rice and veggies.

Just the sight of golden chicken spiked on satay sticks and smoking away on the fire grill makes me think of those famous night markets in Singapore, like the Newton Circus Car Park market, or the Orchard Road Car Park market. I order the combo, get seven sticks with a nice blob of peanut sauce, plus rice and veggies, and go find the sole table in the entire market that you can sit down at. A family from Hyderabad in India is seated there too. The mother, Lakshmi, eats a crêpe from La Crêperie, another food tent at this Third Street end.

I usually think of crêpes as sweet: strawberries, cream, Grand Marnier. But Lakshmi has ordered a vegetarian, bulging with jack and cheddar cheese, raw veggies like spinach, tomatoes, and mushrooms. "It is very good," Lakshmi says, "but I thought $7.00 was a bit steep for market food."

I really want to try them, except the satay and rice have left no room whatsoever. But don't feel sorry for La Crêperie. The joking, singing, boisterous, flamboyant, French-speaking chef has a never-ending line waiting just for him. Chef Louda's his name. A character. His customers seem mostly a downtown condo crowd, well-off empty-nesters who'll pay to get their veggies and fruit fresh, local, and organic.

Oddly, the one thing that's missing here is Chinese. This was supposed to be an Asian market for the historically Asian part of town, but David Klaman, who manages the market, says he just hasn't been able to get interest from Asian foodies. Well, at least we had the satay.

***

A few days later I'm up at UCSD, near that incredible library that looks like a 3-D crossword puzzle. It's a Tuesday, lunchtime, and the wide pathway is packed. Tents and tables, smoke from barbecues, and some guy shouting over music about a band called Ludacris.

Except it seems Ludacris is a rapper, not a band. Famous. And he himself is here handing out free tix (the rest of us'd pay $32.50 and up) for the "Anger Management tour," which -- wow -- also features Eminem. Except the longest line isn't for Ludacris and Eminem. It's for the lemongrass barbecue. A white tent, and behind it, two way-big barbecue grill racks, with guys turning chicken pieces by the dozens, sending out that smoke that makes me dizzy. I stand behind a student wearing a T-shirt that says, "I [heart] Nerds." She orders a rice combo with teriyaki chicken, rice, and grilled vegetables. She pays $6.00, and $1.00 for a soda.

"Uh, line here," says this guy, and I realized I've cut to the front. I go around to the end of the line. Eight back, I'm looking over the half a dozen selections, combos, or wraps with satay chicken, teriyaki chicken. But everyone ahead of me just says, "Green wrap." The board describes it as chicken, grilled veggies, lettuce, lightly pickled cucumber, and red onion wrapped in a flappy flour tortilla. So I go for it too (it's $7.00), with the lemongrass chicken -- seeing as that's what they're all about. Besides, I have good memories of the dish from when I was this spotty, sweaty kid, happily lost in Thailand and Laos. Suzanne, who takes my order, is from Battambang, in Cambodia. The owner, Pat, grew up Thai-Lao. She's originally from Laos. She escaped when she was young, a night trip with her family by tiny boat across the Mekong River. "It's amazing," she says. "I started off here with one little grill. But UCSD...the students have been wonderful." And the wrap? Doesn't sound too Thai. "I just dreamed that up about four months ago." She'd noticed how students were always eating on the run. It's now her most popular item. "Here I am living the American dream," she says, looking at the long line.

Oh, yes. That lemongrass flavor is the real thing. Aroy di mak mak! Delicious! The grilled veggies are nice and squelchy, and the wrap's easy to rip, not rubbery.

As I nibble, I wander about 30 yards down to where a bunch of mostly Korean students have their own barbecue. A smaller operation, but it smells good. They're from Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian-oriented fraternity, and they do this a couple of times a week to raise money. They use meat they buy already marinated, in garlic, soy, sesame, and ginger. And boy, do they offer a deal. For five bucks you get barbecued beef, rice, kimchee (the classic Korean pickled cabbage), and a drink -- unless they run out of sodas. Which happens most days.

You could spend all day eating here, if you had the stomach space. I meet Martine, another real character who runs Bibby's Crêpes. Next time I'll come for her turkey-avocado-spinach-brie crêpe ($7.00). Or maybe the wicked creamy Crêpe Suzette, smelling of orange and Grand Marnier ($6.00). This campus is looking up.

***

Businesses such as the Somali sambussa guys follow the markets around the county day by day. And why not? David Klaman, who manages the Chinatown and O.B. markets, says the main expense for vendors is the ten percent of their gross income that they must give the organizers. Musicians, buskers, and poets, on the other hand, don't pay a thing. If they fill their hats with Washingtons, that's fine by Klaman. "They give the market its atmosphere," he says.

So it's no surprise to find this older violinist standing beside an Irish pub in the middle of Escondido's Tuesday-afternoon market, sawing away at "Humors of South Ballynure Sloe," an Irish jig.

It sets the tone. Escondido's near veggie-growing areas, so you'd expect to see chefs from upmarket eateries coming to buy the best. Prices may be 25 percent up on Vons, but they're fresh, organic, and local. That's market rules.

Again, I need to eat. I see some of the usual suspects -- like the ubiquitous sambussa guys. But I want something new. Bitsying my way through the market, I come across Gina. She sells corn on the cob. Oh man. For a couple of bucks she hauls one out of its steaming bath, douses it in mayonnaise, sprinkles it with Parmesan cheese, then paints the length with four stripes of her hot sauce. It has to be the most delicious snack I've had all year. I strip that baby and wander on, past chocolate truffles, plumcots (what if you married a plum and an apricot?), white peaches, nut stalls with yummy varieties like lemon almonds, a place with soup mixes like Malabar Coast Curried Lentil, and special beans like organic anasazi beans ($3.00 for a pound).

Only at the end of my circuit do I discover Randy Bowen and his olde worlde kettle-corn trailer. He pops the corn in a big black cauldron and bags it in lots of $1.25 or more. Next to him, his buddy is closing up. Chuck Richardson just roasts peanuts. Dollar a bag, but hot, fresh. You can't beat the smell.

***

The mother of all markets has to be O.B. A farmer's market suits these streets. It's an extension of who O'Beings are. It's great for the vendors too, because all the rich folk come down from the hills of Point Loma and La Jolla to get organic -- and maybe to break free of their starchy lives.

There's food aplenty here: "Atkins Is Dead!" says a sign. Next to it, another reads: "I (Heart) Carbs." This is Devine Pastabilities, and the idea is to stuff different pasta dishes down hollowed-out French breads, so you can carb away with no mess. They have a shop somewhere but are regulars at the market. The spaghetti meatball torpedo costs $4.50.

I stop at a stall selling squash blossoms ($4.99 a pound). "Bake 'em with pesto, stuff 'em with crab meat, deep fry 'em with eggs and bread," says Edouardo Dias. He grows them in Carlsbad. In the tent next door, Gourmet Tamales, his sister Alejandra sells 20 different kinds of tamale. The sign says that their tamales won first and second place at the Indio International Tamale Festival. Flavorwise, they have everything. Spinach, feta cheese, and tomatillo; squash blossom; tinga (spicy chicken with chipotle); nopal (cactus); and dessert tamales like pumpkin spice, and pineapple, coconut, and raisin.

I go traditional: pork loin with roasted green chiles. I pay my $2.50 and peel away the corn husks. A squirt of hot sauce, and it's warm heaven. Funny to think that Aztecs and Incas were making these 7000 years ago.

To swill it down, I stop at Barrett's Old-Fashioned lemonade tent, where the dude squeezes the half-lemon, adds sugar, pours water, and shakes it all up between two plastic cups. I pay $2.50 for a 16-ounce.

I follow my ears to another commotion. What do you know? It's Chef Louda, of Le Crêperie. I swear, he's everywhere. Here he's got himself a line 12-strong, mostly women, and he's flying, pouring the batter on hot plates, raking it flat, adding spinach, avocado, taking orders, telling jokes, spouting in English, Spanish, French. David Klaman told me this guy does 25 percent more business just because of the show he puts on. He came here with his recipes from Brittany in northern France and on the basis of half a dozen savory and half a dozen sweet crêpes has built an awesome following -- the weight-conscious, mostly, it seems. He's done so well, he's recently opened a full-fledged restaurant at 3773 30th Street, North Park.

He serves crêpes like the Popeye's Revenge, with spinach, avocado, cheese, and garlic ($7.00). Or the California Surfer, with bacon, avocado, and cheese ($7.00).

So the question is, is it worth the seven bucks? And the verdict is yes -- for the freshness and flavor. The crêpe is good and garlicky, and it's filling. Plus, I kind of enjoy listening to Chef Louda carry on, as inexhaustible as the Energizer bunny.

Only one thing to do before I'm through. The Muffin Ma'am's here somewhere. Paddy Wilson. She has $2.00 muffins that are vegan, sugar-free, high-fiber, low-fat. I'm after a pumpkin and blueberry. Fifty percent bran, she says, and good for the brain.

Of course, this whole market idea is not exactly new in this part of the state. About 100 years ago, a group called the Little Landers set up down in San Ysidro as California's first commune. "Every man an acre!" was their cry. And the Little Landers did manage to produce a surplus of food on their single-acre plots. Starting in 1907, they brought that surplus up to a market at Sixth Avenue and C Street downtown. Ain't that great? In that 100 years, we've cracked the human genome, learned to fly and travel space, yet some things we keep coming back to. Call me a Luddite, but street markets are one piece of our past we need. I'm betting they're here to stay.

FARMERS' MARKETS

Sunday

-Hillcrest: 9 a.m.--1 p.m., corner of Normal and Cleveland Streets (DMV parking lot), 619-237-1632.

-Solana Beach: 2--5 p.m., 124 Lomas Santa Fe Drive (Solana Beach Plaza parking lot), 760-720-9161.

-La Jolla: 9 a.m.--1 p.m., Girard Avenue at Genter Street (La Jolla Elementary School), 858-454-1699.

-Downtown Third Avenue Market and Asian Bazaar: 9--12 a.m., 400 block of Third Avenue between Island Avenue and J Street, 619-279-0032.

-Mission Valley: 9 a.m.--1 p.m., Fenton Parkway off Friars Road between Qualcomm Stadium and Stadium Way (next to IKEA), 619-294-6864.

Tuesday

-Coronado: 2:30--6 p.m., corner of First and B Streets (Old Ferry Landing), 619-435-8895.

-Escondido: 3--6 p.m., Grand Avenue between Broadway and Kalmia Street, 760-745-8877.

-La Jolla: 10:00 a.m.--2:00 p.m. UCSD Certified Farmers Market at the Price Center, near the bookstore near Lyman Lane and Library Walk, 858-534-4248.

Wednesday

-Carlsbad: 2--5 p.m., Roosevelt Street between Grand Avenue and Carlsbad Village Drive, 760-720-9161.

-Ocean Beach: 4--8 p.m, (closes one hour earlier in winter), 4900 block of Newport Avenue, 619-279-0032.

-Temecula: 9 a.m.--1 p.m., Promenade Mall across from Edwards Temecula Stadium 15 Theatres, 760-728-7343.

-Ramona Sun Valley Market and Craft Fair: 4--7 p.m. 2105 Main Street (Hwy 67) at the Sun Valley Charter School parking lot, Ramona. 760-214-1595.

Thursday

-Oceanside: 9 a.m.--12:30 p.m., Pier View Way at Coast Highway, 619-440-5027.

-Chula Vista: 3--7 p.m. (closes a half hour earlier in winter), Third Avenue at Center Street, 619-422-1982.

-North Park: 4--7 p.m., North Park Way between 29th and 30th Streets, 619-516-1618.

-Horton Square: 11 a.m.--3 p.m., from March to mid-October, 225 Broadway, 760-741-3763.

Friday

-La Mesa Village: 3--6 p.m., Allison Street, east of Spring Street (at La Mesa Village), 619-440-5027.

-Rancho Bernardo: 9 a.m.--

noon, 13330 Paseo Del Verano Norte (Bernardo Winery), 760-631-0200.

-Chula Vista (EastLake): 4--7 p.m., 1955 Hillside Drive, EastLake Elementary, 858-272-7054.

Saturday

-Clairemont Market and Bazaar: 3--6:30 p.m. 6991 Balboa Avenue at Lindbergh-

Schweitzwer Elementary School, 858-272-7054.

-Pacific Beach: 8 a.m.--noon, Mission Boulevard between Reed Avenue and Pacific Beach Boulevard (at Promenade Mall), 760-741-3763.

-Vista: 8--11 a.m., corner of Eucalyptus and Escondido Avenues (City Hall parking lot), 760-726-8545.

-Poway: 8--noon, corner of Midland Road and Temple Street (in Old Poway Park), 619-440-5027.

-Point Loma: 9 a.m.--1 p.m., Rosecrans and Lytton Streets, Liberty Station, Naval Training Center, 858-454-1699.

-Del Mar: 1--4 p.m., corner of El Camino Del Mar and Tenth Street (City Hall parking lot), 760-727-1471.

-Scripps Ranch: 9 a.m.--1 p.m. Corner Scripps Poway Parkway and Spring Canyon Road, 858-586-7933.

-Temecula: 8 a.m.--noon, corner of Third and Front Streets, 760-728-7343

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