The Underground Market melds egalitarian ideals with remarkable access to free cupcakes.

En Español

Petitioners to the food auditions for the Underground Market will find themselves looking up at an undistinguished Victorian in the Mission District. A disgruntled-looking roommate is sitting on the porch in the late afternoon twilight. As people approach, hesitantly, he jerks his thumb in the direction of the door. “There,” he says, without further explanation.

Inside, there is a high-ceilinged dining room. A volunteer, Marissa Hockenberry is seated at a kitchen table piled high with boxes and packages. She is typing furiously on a laptop.

The doorbell rings. A woman in a Google hoodie enters, bearing Tupperware. She seems nervous.
“This?” she says “Is a Vietnamese pancake?”
“Excellent,” says Hockenberry, briskly. “Just set it on the table.”
The woman looks unnerved. “You’re not going to eat it now?”
“We will taste everything later,” says Hockenberry, not unkindly. Later it will be revealed that she has a degree in business administration (with a focus on the hospitality industry.) This will come as a surprise to no one. “Just set it down.”
The woman takes it out of the Tupperware and leaves it on the table, uncertainly. “It’s better when it’s hot?” she says. “So maybe…heat it up before you try it?”
“Thank you so much!” says Hockenberry.

To get into the Underground Farmer’s Market you have to do two things: pay a $50 fee, and prove that your food is delicious. Food auditions: As a concept, it seems utterly simple, and yet also like the cleverest way imaginable to get people to bring free cupcakes to your house and leave them there. Were it not for Hockenberry’s professionalism, this would feel even more like a scam.

The doorbell rings again. It’s a man, carrying an unmarked glass bottle full of yellow liquid.
Hockenberry looks up. “Kombucha?” she says hopefully.
“Hard cider,” says the man. “Made with apples from Woodleaf Farm.”

“Set it on the table,” chirps Hockenberry. “We’ll be in touch!”

The doorbell rings again. It’s a middle aged couple. The man pulls apart the lid of his Tupperware with a flourish. “This,” he says, theatrically. “Is salumi.”
“Excellent,” says Hockenberry. “If you’ll just set it on the table…”

“Oh, just one taste,” says the man smoothly, reaching into the container, and peeling a ribbon of meat off of a sheet of waxed paper.

This is mortadella.” He dangles it in front of Hockenberry, expectantly. After a pause, she takes it.
“That is delicious.”
“And this,” he says, reaching further down into the container, and peeling up a dark red oval, “is sopresetta. I cure this with juniper berries. Juniper is not normally used as a flavoring in America.”

He shrugs. “Except in gin, of course.”

Behind her the roommate, now wearing only a towel, stomps through the kitchen. No one looks up. All eyes are on the meat.

The doorbell rings again. It is a woman, bearing boxes and boxes of cakes.

The doorbell rings. It is a man with a single, foil-wrapped, tofu mole taco.

A group of volunteers begin to trickle in from the back of the house, where Iso Rabins, the creator of the market, has been conducting an orientation. They look at the cakes with a hopeful ferocity. “Go ahead,” Rabins says, laconically. “Just make sure there’s some left. Anyone want some wine?”

He saunters over to the table, and picks up the bottle of yellow liquid. “What is this?”

“Hard cider,” says Hockenberry. “Do we sell alcohol?”

Rabins looks faintly regretful. “No. It’s just so much more…illegal.”

Iso Rabins, a professional forager, started the Underground Market after he tried, unsuccessfully, to get into any local farmer’s markets. “They would get really excited about it,” he says, “and then they would get thrown by the ‘wild’ thing.” Only two markets have occurred so far, but they’ve revealed a remarkable hunger among San Francisco residents for both a) selling food that they’ve made at home, and not in a licensed kitchen and b) buying and eating things made by people at their homes, and not in a commercially licensed kitchen. A hunger for what, under certain circumstances, might be described as a bake sale. Health inspection issues have thus far been averted by making the markets into a members-only “club” (sign-up is free, and takes place online), and by dropping the “Farmer” from the name (It turns out “Farmer’s Market” is a term that is legally controlled in the state of California.)

Back at the kitchen table, things have turned into a melee. The cakes are in fragments. Hands reach into a jar filled with peach halves floating in syrup and long, black vanilla beans, grab them, and down them like oysters. A popular frontrunner among the loot are some suspiciously professional-tasting espresso macaroons. A phone call reveals that they are Christopher David Macarons, and are indeed, made by a professional pastry chef. In a commercial kitchen, even. And they’re sold most days out of the Sandbox Bakery – an actual professional bakery, in Bernal Heights. “It seemed a little suspicious, just dropping off these macaroons at someone’s house,” says Katy David, partner in the macaroon business, and self-described “cubicle people” by day. “But it’s just so hard, getting into the farmer’s markets. It feels like you have to have a well-known name, or know somebody who knows somebody.”

Meanwhile, further discussion reveals the salumi maker, James Grossman, to be a near opposite: a passionate and entirely amateur cured meat enthusiast. When in the Bay Area, he forays into Oakland’s Chinatown to buy buckets of blood and other difficult-to-obtain animal parts (“At Ranch 99 they don’t keep the pigs heads in the case because they might scare children. But if you ask for it they’ll bring you one from the back.”) When not in California, he travels around Europe eating cured meat products (“The Tuscans love to cure with red wine. The Venetians use white. The south – they are affected by the Arabs and the Phoenicians. And the markets in the Rialto- that’s where God gets his groceries. Or her groceries.”) Until he ran across a mention of the market online, he never even thought about selling what he makes.

Now, he’s a man with plans. “Have you heard the saying, ‘In New York and in San Francisco, no matter what you make, they’ll buy it?’ I think I’ll make a neat pate with pork liver.”

The next Underground Market is this Saturday, March 6th, from 5 to 11 p.m. Details here.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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