Ahh, there it is. It’s the musky, fertile smell of heaping mounds of produce. This unmistakable odor hits you when entering a really big market, and is, for me, the scent of adventure and mystery. It’s the aroma of my early adulthood. Living in Atlanta in my mid-twenties and finding my way in the kitchen, I regularly journeyed across town to Your Dekalb Farmers Market, a sprawling market with, at that time (and arguably still today), the city’s largest collection of fruit, vegetables, specialty items, and ethnic food knowledge under one roof.
Opened in 1977, just east of downtown Atlanta Georgia, Your Dekalb Farmers Market is a true world supermarket, offering staples and specialty items from well over 150 countries, in a big bright warehouse atmosphere that feels a bit like you’ve entered one of the ginormous, cacophonous local markets common elsewhere in the world, and generally frowned on in the U.S. for not being clean and polished enough.
That said, the international staff are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, and the inclusion of a bakery, prepared foods, seafood, meat counters, and a dairy section make this an option for everyday market shopping and not just the hunt for hard to find items.
In the early 1990s I worked in a bookstore, a really good one, and spent way too much time sneaking peeks at the cookbooks. It was those early glimpses into the foodways of other cultures that piqued my interest in travel and food. But until I could roll up the cash to take my first trip overseas I consoled myself with trips to Your Dekalb Farmers Market (everyone calls it just “Dekalb Farmers Market”) where I could speak to employees from around the world, fantasize about trips to come, and take away the ingredients for a feast of my own creation. It’s this sense of “place”, of a larger world community, that is key to the Dekalb Farmers Market vibe.
The market makes a point of displaying flags from all (or most) of the countries that supply them. At last count they had 184 hanging above the market floor. And the employees all wear nametags proudly showcasing the languages they speak, and emblazoned with the flag of their “home country”. So you can ask someone from Malawi how to work with cassava, or get tips on taro from a Cameroonian salesperson. Additionally, Your Dekalb Farmers Market has a longstanding tradition of pairing employees so that their strengths compliment each other, or encourage one another to learn new skills. For example, an employee who works in marketing but doesn’t know a lot about rotating produce might be teamed up with a produce employee who wants to learn marketing and Photoshop, etc. Over the years this program has not only helped employees develop their own skills, but has ensured a high level of employee dedication, loyalty, and stability.
In the name of full disclosure you should know that my early forays to Your Dekalb Farmers Market were at a time when pesto, chorizo, and chipotles were still considered somewhat exotic. But fortunately for all of us curious cooks, Dekalb Farmers Market has done an excellent job of changing with the times, and has grown to meet the demand. In fact, at the time of my last visit (spring 2015) they were well into construction on a long overdue expansion that should let them continue to grow for many years to come.
That said, even today (pre-expansion), the market seems to go on and on. The fruit and vegetable section alone is the size of an American football pitch.
Then there is the warren of shelving units boasting dry goods, specialty food items (from artisan honey to hard to find flours and packaged Cajun jambalaya mix), pre-packed spices, nuts, wines and beer from around the world. And the Dekalb Farmers Market also includes an extensive baked goods section as well as meat, dairy, and fish sections.
Finally, you’ll want to save a bit of room in your basket for the prepared foods section, and room in your stomach for the hot food counter.
One Dekalb Farmers Market peculiarity that shoppers should be aware of comes at checkout. Keep in mind that once you enter the equally sprawling room with the checkout stations (tills), you are not allowed to return to the sales floor. So, before crossing the threshold into the cashiers’ room, make sure you have everything you want.
Overall, Your Dekalb Farmers Market is a very un-American market. By that I mean that you don’t find many places like this in the U.S. It’s absolutely clean, and the produce is fresh and rotated regularly. The products are high quality. But the thing that makes it un-American is the lack of glitz and pretense. The focus here is on the food, the variety, and the expertise of the staff. As a result, you won’t find fancy stand displays or fancy fixtures. It’s all fairly utilitarian. But it’s a great place to stock up on the hard to find, do a bit of everyday shopping, or grab a quick bite, a gift, or a treat for yourself. If you’re a curious cook, it may be one of the best hours you’ll spend down South.
Text and photos by Glenn D. Kaufmann
Dekalb Farmers Market
3000 East Ponce De Leon Avenue
Decatur, Georgia 30030
(Directions: At the intersection of East Ponce De Leon Ave. and Laredo Drive, 2 miles inside of I-285 off of Exit #40 (East Ponce De Leon)
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1. Personal Interviews and experiences