Two customers are approaching the seller Nam and Anna’s gardenwhose folding table holds a few leftover bushels of produce and potted plants after a successful morning at the Iowa City Farmers’ Market.
After a few minutes of talking about growing plants at home, they walk away with a broad-leaved jade plant and some tips on caring for it.
For 13 years, Nam Lam and his wife, Anna, have sold fresh Asian vegetables and plants from their garden in Iowa City to shoppers at the farmer’s market.
Their extensive product options, including winter melon, Malabar spinach, bok choy and sweet beans, have attracted new and returning customers, slowly transforming community members’ palettes and filling a gap in the local Asian products.
“Because we’re selling things that aren’t usually available in local markets, we have people from different cultures coming in and saying, ‘Hey, do you have that?’ And sometimes we have to figure out what they’re talking about because sometimes we have it and we call it different,” his son David Lam-Lu told the Press-Citizen. “Other times we’re like, ‘No , we don’t.’ … They’ll bring something they have from home and say, ‘Hey, are you going to grow them?’
From Vietnam to Iowa City: How the Lams Became Participating in the Farmer’s Market
The Lams have an acre of land dedicated to growing vegetables ranging from Japanese eggplant to fruits like white peaches.
Inside their house are also small gardens.
In addition to selling products and plants, Anna will make sesame balls, traditional almond cookies and coconut bread.
“In 2008 I was fired from my job and in 2009 I (started) with the farmers’ market,” Nam Lam said.
That year was financially difficult for the family, Lam-Lu said.
Nam had worked at International Automotive Components. Joanne Nelson, a family friend who was a vendor at the farmer’s market, suggested the Lams join the market. She introduced the Lams to then-farmer’s market coordinator Tammy Neumann, who approved them for a booth.
Both Nam and Anna grew up on farms in Vietnam. Nam’s parents were farmers, selling wholesale to other stores in town, Lam-Lu said.
Nam said he was only somewhat familiar with gardening, but that changed when he came to America as a refugee in 1982.
“I loved gardening just for family use and each time (I gardened) I learned a little bit,” he said.
When Nam arrived in Iowa, he and his brother Hung Lam opened the Saigon Restaurant in 1986 in Iowa City.
Located on Linn Street, the restaurant was a converted two-story house that sold Vietnamese and Chinese food.
Items like chicken feet and bone marrow to make pho, a soup, were cheap to buy because people didn’t cook with it. As people figured out how to use these ingredients, Lam-Lu saw the prices go up.
The Saigon restaurant lasted until 1993. Hung Lam told Press-Citizen in 1990 that he sometimes got frustrated trying to cook more Vietnamese food.
“You can’t get all the vegetables you need in Iowa,” he said.
It was a sentiment that rang true with Nam, who said that when he arrived in Iowa, there was no food similar to what he had in Vietnam. A small grocery store owner from the Iowa City area used to travel to Chicago weekly to bring back some items, he said.
“A garden allowed us to live beyond our means”: what growing Asian produce meant for the Lam family
Lam-Lu said when they first started at the farmers’ market, most vendors were selling similar products. The Lams brought vegetables that people were largely unfamiliar with and as a result some people just stared and walked away.
People would look at their items and Nam would explain how to use it and provide them with a sample to take home to cook.
“They would come and say, ‘oh, (that was) great,'” he said.
Lam-Lu said employees at restaurants like Big Grove Brewery and Alebrejie stopped by to buy produce to use in a new dish.
“It’s interesting to browse the market now, because a lot of the vegetables that we kind of brought to the market, you can start seeing other vendors selling them as well,” Lam-Lu said.
Lam-Lu and her three siblings grew up with these vegetables and plants at home.
“We had no idea what we were eating,” he said. “We knew what we liked. We didn’t know it was unique to this area.”
The Lams have always had a personal garden in part because the vegetables they grew up with weren’t available in Iowa.
It was also because they couldn’t afford to buy food, Lam-Lu said.
“My father had no connection when he arrived as a refugee,” he said in a message. “And as a high school student, his time was divided between going to school in a language he didn’t know, working in construction and staying up all night with a dictionary searching for every word to understand his homework. .”
Lam-Lu recalled his father telling him how he cut a cucumber into pieces and ate a section with a bowl of rice every day.
He also remembered being young and only eating rice and water, then rice, soy sauce and vegetables.
“A garden allowed us to live beyond our means,” said Lam-Lu.
These experiences stayed with the Lams.
Lam-Lu often hears customers say that their vegetable packets are generously proportioned or priced too low.
He will tell his parents to revise the price or bundle their products in hopes of reducing his parents’ workload in the long run.
“They always refuse. Their reason is that we have a lot of immigrants, refugees and students buying our food,” Lam-Lu said. “My parents remember poverty and how food connects them to home.”
Nam and Anna’s Garden find community through customers and other vendors
While helping his parents at the farmer’s market, Lam-Lu learned more about the vegetables he grew up with. He knew how they were used, but not their unique properties.
When the market ends, Nam and Anna’s Garden make a donation to Table to Table, a non-profit organization that brings food to those in need.
Nam uses compost from coffee beans from Cafe del Sol Roasting, another vendor at the Iowa City Farmers’ Market.
Stephen Dunhum, owner of Cafe del Sol, told the Press-Citizen it worked well for the Lams to use their coffee materials for compost, a mixture of the skins of a coffee seed and fallen coffee beans.
Dunham has some of Lam’s plants growing in his yard at home. He got to know the Lams over the years, a natural relationship that has blossomed given that their stalls at the farmers’ market face each other.
“When they’re not there, which is a rare thing…it’s like a big hole in the market,” he said.
The foods the Lams have made available to shoppers over the years “uplift the whole community,” Dunham said.
Aside from Dunham, the Lams have fostered a connection with their clients.
“We wouldn’t still be in the market 13 years later if it weren’t for those early customers who were willing to explore different vegetables from Vietnamese gardeners and our loyal customers who come back every season,” Lam-Lu said.
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and the arts at Iowa City Press-Citizen. Contact her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.