Foodie at the Flea

Marina Cookson explains the difference between Japan and American egg plant Saturday at the Coastal Carolina Flea Market at the Exchange Park fairgrounds in Ladson.

It helps to get up early, near the crack of dawn. Trek out to Ladson before the parking lot billows with its chalky dust. That's when the good stuff can be found. Trinkets and trifles, a thousand crescent wrenches nested beside 35 pairs of Latino cowboy boots, the kind made with neon alligator hide and toes that reach out a good eight inches beyond your big toe, table upon table of tools, records, cookware, used tires, live chickens, and a smorgasbord of ethnic cuisine.

There's good food at the Coastal Carolina Flea Market, dozens of vendors offering the gamut, from live conch still squirming in the shell to enough dried chilies to make any form of mole known to the Mexican palate.

For those foodies adventurous enough to brave the market, it's the best shopping trip in town.

A Saturday or Sunday morning always begins on the "Asian aisle," a long stretch of tables and tents south of the main enclosed structures (all of the food vending at the Ladson market occurs outside).

Here you'll find a handful of local vendors, Filipino women mostly, selling fresh ethnic herbs and vegetables from their backyards - and they sell out quickly. Most of them, like Dee and Cynthia, (who declined to give their last names) are regulars at the far end of the strip and full of jovial advice.

They're passionate about bitter melon and sweet potato leaves and stack baby green onions and watercress that would make a Whole Foods junkie salivate.

"You gonna be famous in the newspaper, Dee?" Cynthia chides as she hands me some glistening purple Japanese eggplant picked that morning. "I'm already famous," Dee laughs, "everybody know me at the bingo." Tell her I sent you.

Just down the way you'll find Marina Cookson, who usually has a cooler filled with ice and tilapia in addition to squash blossoms, zucchini tendrils, and some dangerous looking bunches of leaves cut from hot pepper plants (she says they go in shrimp soup).

Lynn Coers, across the concrete walk, specializes in eggs. "I brined these 21 days in salt, then dyed them with pink frosting," she offers. They are deeply seasoned, tasting of sulfur not unlike a Chinese "century egg."

"Next week I'll have my pickled eggs ready; I grow habanero and ghost peppers; the Mexican people wipe those out pretty quick." A middle-aged woman stops, unsolicited. "This woman makes the best eggs in the world," she testifies.

"To make these," Coers tells me, "you have to know how to grow the peppers. I torture them, grow them out in the sun, hold back the water, and that makes them hot, hot, hot." She smiles a big grin. "Torture them," she cackles, "so that you can torture other people."

Eduardo, who also didn't give his last name, the watermelon man routinely sets up near the entrance to the parking lot, by the old couple who usually have live chickens and rabbits for sale. Recognizable for his white cowboy hat, big warm smile and trailer full of watermelons, he makes a brisk business as cars exit the market, often pulling over to get a big striped beauty on the way home. The melons here are cheaper than in town, and probably more sustainably grown.

"I'm from Georgia," he says, "but I drive up here every week from Florida." He buys his melons from a few small farms, "20 or 30 acres," and brings them north to market.

These small vendors make up a large percentage of the offerings and the market wouldn't be the same without people like Herbert Richardson, who for eight years has manned the "Pop's Crops" table, a kaleidoscope of pickled vegetables vibrating to the ubiquitous groove of James Brown that spills from his boombox.

The main vendors set up under big tents, their large stacks of ripe vegetables hard to miss. Yon's overflows with fresh okra and fava beans, more beautiful yellow squash blossoms, bunch beets and a thousand baskets of tomatoes and tomatillos, jalapenos, plums, plantains and other tropical fruits.

I go for the "Coco Frio," a large box with dozens of coconuts nestled within a layer of ice. Fish one out and Fernando will chop it into pieces with a machete, deftly extracting the water and pulp inside into separate Ziploc bags. The ice-cold coconut water comes with a straw.

Opposite Yon's, and its chief competitor, stands Carellano Produce, a wholesale operation during the week and a full sensory overload on the weekends. Giant stacks of cactus leaves and strange herbs reach head high. Tortillas stretch for the heavens. A dozen forms of dried chilies - small, large, smoked and searingly hot - peek from large bulk bins. They are still supple and leathery, not brittle like the chilies you might find hanging elsewhere in cellophane plastic.

There are three forms of papaya here, sold in large flats; you can get bushels of small cucumbers to make grandma's pickle recipe; there is a checkout girl who will sell you homemade tamales if you ask nicely and in advance.

All of this food will work up an appetite, and a trip to the market is never complete without a stop at Maya, a food truck whose grills provide a heavenly trail of smoke that snakes its way through the stalls.

It's standard taco truck fare, offering tacos, burritos, tortas and tostadas with the requisite meat choices, but the chicken is smoked on site and the bottles of green salsa that adorn the plastic tables set under a makeshift tent should come with warning labels.

A large torta stuffed with slow-braised beef cheek, an orange Fanta to swill it down and a breezy seat from which to watch the cross-section of Americana pass by in search of rummaged treasure might be a quintessential way to spend an early Saturday morning in Charleston.

If nothing else, you can grab a watermelon on your way out from Eduardo and head straight to the beach.