Pellegrini Award: Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance Founder Chris Curtis  

The Pellegrini Award speaks not only to its recipients' personal philosophies—the way they live their lives, think about food, and go about their business—but also to their effect on those around them. Angelo Pellegrini did not come by his beloved and (in certain circles) near-mythic status just because he was a local writer, Shakespeare professor, and decent home cook. No, he is remembered today because what he did—the words he wrote, the dinners he made for friends and family—had a profound impact on those fortunate enough to know him or know of him (see Ruth Reichl's sidebar).The award we give in his name has as much to do with this idea of generosity of spirit and inspiration as it does with a recipient's actual work. One essentially has to have changed the world—or at least Seattle—even to be in the running.And that is what Chris Curtis has done. We recognize her not necessarily for her role as director of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, or for her day-to-day work supporting local agriculture and farm families, overseeing the smooth operation of seven of the city's local markets, and providing a true farm-to-table experience to those lucky enough to live here. This award is actually being handed back to the Chris Curtis of 17 years ago—the one who, while running a Häagen-Dazs franchise on University Way with her husband in 1993, looked out the window and wondered what would happen if she could stick an honest, local farmers market right in the middle of the city."I was ready for a big change," says Curtis of that time. "Running an ice-cream store? That wasn't exactly meaningful." What she wanted was an actual farmers market: no crafts, no kettle corn, no pony rides—just food. "And actual farmers, too."Back then, the Chris Curtis who would change the world had absolutely no idea what she was doing. Other than a stint in VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, a kind of domestic Peace Corps) after college, she'd never done anything like it before. "It was totally grassroots," she explained. "Totally by the seat of our pants." She had no funds, so she had to look for donations and grant money from the city. She had no staff, so she had to take on volunteers. Most important, she had no farmers—something of a liability when one is looking to start a farmers market.So Curtis wrote letters, conducted polls, and held meetings. "We went beating the bushes for farmers," she recalls. And once she found them, they all said the same thing: Don't let any wholesalers in. Don't let brokers in. And if you can manage it, don't let any crafts in. These notions were all right in line with what Curtis had in mind.In 1993, the U District Farmers Market opened to the public. On the first day, 17 farmers sold their produce to about 800 shoppers—a huge number no matter how you look at it. New markets followed in Columbia City (which followed Curtis' U District model) and West Seattle. In 2000, Curtis formed the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance, which brought together folks from all three markets operating at the time, soon to be joined by a fourth in Lake City. Then a fifth in Magnolia in 2003, another on Broadway in 2005, and then the newest, in Phinney, in 2007. What started as one market with 17 farmers now stands as a group of seven with well over a hundred farmers and ranchers represented—still local, still farmer-driven (free of wholesalers and brokers), still with no crafts or kettle corn or pony rides.Simply put, Seattle is a different place because of Chris Curtis.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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