Saturday, September 22, 2012

Farm Bulletin: Gathering of Dusty Feet

I don't know about you, but when I go to the farmers' market, I just grab my shopping bag, jump in the car and go. As I walk the aisles looking for that perfect bunch of carrots or winter squash and talking with friends, neighbors and favorite vendors, I'm not thinking about how markets evolved or where the custom of ringing the bell to start the market came from. That's why I'm so glad contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm is there to enlighten me about the things I take for granted.

When the market manager's designated representative swings the bell on Sunday, it is a gesture steeped in history. Markets are regulated places of exchange. The antecedent to the market structure, a big and heavy club in order to whack somebody over the head and exact their goods, was woefully inefficient. The lump on the head approach of unfettered exchange requires double the number of transactions, and headaches all around. People of a libertarian bent rant about the need for "free markets," but that is an oxymoron. From the earliest times, the right to conduct a market or a fair was granted by the reigning monarch to an individual or institution by means of a charter. A critical component of the charter was granting of safe passage to and from the market or fair by the monarch. Without that guarantee from the government, there would be a paucity of vendors and buyers.

Markets must also have rules of trade. When Adam Smith was contemplating his "invisible hand" in the late 18th century, he recognized three conditions necessary for an efficient market. The first is the requirement that buyers and sellers have free will, no coercion, no big clubs. Second, the market is composed of atomized buyers and sellers, in other words, everyone is operating at the same scale and no entity can dominate or monopolize the market. Third is the notion of perfect information. These are sweeping conditions impossible to fully meet. Ideally, rules and regulations nudge the market closer to meeting them. For example, standard weights and measures are there to help the market advance towards the third condition, consequently we must use an inspected and licensed scale to conduct trade at Hillsdale. A standardized opening time signified by the market bell is another gesture at meeting the third. In times past, the weight of a loaf of bread was also standardized, giving rise to the extra loaf in a "bakers dozen" to avoid the stiff penalties for coming up short.

As soon as rules and regulations supplanted the big wooden club, the need for a means of a club-less resolution of disputes arises. Probably from the time of first organized markets an organic and rational system of justice arose, ultimately giving rise to merchant law. In England during the time of the Saxons, market charters granted the right to "sac and soc and tol" and "infangthef." This meant the owner of the market could investigate (sac) and adjudicate (soc) claims, and exact goods and money (tol) to satisfy a claim found legitimate. The right of infangthef allows the owner of the market to purse and apprehend miscreants within the market or fair boundaries.

With the Norman conquest, these rights evolved into the Court of the Piepoudres. The name "piepoudres," in its various spellings, is derived from the French/Latin words for "dusty feet," a reference to the long distances traveled by the merchants as they walked between markets and fairs. The merchants may have traveled from France, Spain, the Low Countries or Ireland, as well as other parts of England. They were a transient population, and needed to move on as soon as the market ended. Consequently, these courts displayed a streak of practicality. The investigation and trial had to be completed within a fixed time, typically a day, or in the case of seafaring merchants, three tides. The proceedings relied on evidence rather than testimony regarding characters of the plaintiff and defendant. The tribunals included merchants and customers. When an alien was before the court, an alien was also seated as a member of the tribunal. We have in these courts the inkling of a jury of peers. The Courts were administered by the market itself, a separate and limited jurisdiction distinct from the town or borough in which they were located.

Over time, a body of merchant law developed and the need for a separate court within markets and fairs faded. The very last of these courts was seated in middle of the 19th century. Though, in the United States, the modern tradition of small claims courts shares the spirit of the dusty foot courts—expedience and practicality. If you are interested reading more, Charles Gross discussed the court in The Quarterly Journal of Economics (1906), vol. 20: 231-249. It includes the proceedings from the mid 15th century case of Thomas Smith vs. the contumacious Cristina van Bondelyng.

Fortunately, the Hillsdale Court of Piepoudres sits very infrequently, and if all goes well this Sunday and there no infractions of the rules, we can hasten home and enjoy a tasty plum cake (Zwetschenkuchen or Pflaumenkuchen) with a mix of the prunes we picked for market. This recipe is adapted from The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, 11th Edition. As New Englanders, Fannie Farmer is where you go for basic recipes.

Plum Cake

Butter a 9" x 9" pan. Preheat the oven to 375°.
    1/4 cup butter
Beat in:
    1 cup sugar
    1 egg, well beaten
Sift together:
    1 &1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt
Add to the first mixture alternately with:
    1/2 cup milk
 Cut plums in half and place cut side up close together in even rows over batter.  The plum flesh should float slightly above the batter.
Sprinkle with:
    2 Tablespoons melted butter
Then sprinkle with turbino sugar, especially over the plums.

Bake about 20 minutes or so until the batter is cooked. Cut into squares.

The original recipe suggests placing the plums in the batter cut side down, and adding cinnamon to the sugar.  Wouldn't look as pretty, and who needs cinnamon when you have a good plum.

The Style Manual for Market Farm Newsletters (3rd Edition) satisfied, that's it.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Another ancient custom to which we may yet return was the practice of having Markets no furthur apart than a man could walk in a day. This generally meant a distance of no more than 10 miles!! We have a ways to go...........
Thanks for another fine piece by Mr.B