On Martha's Vineyard, Celebrating the Local Bounty

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It was late August in Martha's Vineyard, a bright, sunny day perfect for a farmers' market. I arrived at 9 a.m. with Chris Fischer -- chef, farmer, guy who knows everyone. Mr. Fischer, who grew up on a farm here and has had a job since he was 9, looks as if he grew up on a farm here and has had a job since he was 9. His dark, weathered skin, wrinkly eyes, graying beard and cracked, calloused hands belie a mere 33 years.

Mr. Fischer, a 12th-generation Islander, was here to shop for the evening's menu at Beach Plum Inn and Restaurant, where he took over the kitchen four months ago and where, as you may have heard, the Obamas recently had a date night ("lobster for him, mussels for her," according to Mr. Fischer). The farmers' market here in West Tisbury is small but serves two entirely different needs. The first is for vacationers: bouquets of zinnias, alpaca sweaters, gluten-free muffins, fresh ears of corn to throw on the rental house grill.

Then there's the market that only the farmers themselves see. In this one, the players know who has the best field greens or who had a rough year. They pay each other in trade as often as in cash. There's camaraderie and history and real friendship among them.

At the Whippoorwill Farm stand, Mr. Fischer grabbed more beets than any civilian could possibly need. Next, he hauled an armful of basil plants from a man whose hair could only be described as Bozo the Clown Goes Brunette. At the Tea Lane Farm stand, we stopped to inspect buckets of delicate, papery flowers being organized by a young, cherubic-looking woman. And finally, I was introduced to a farmer named Bob, who handed Mr. Fischer two bags of potatoes.

"Arrgh, sorry," Bob said. "I didn't bring any today."

"Bob makes his own hooch," Mr. Fischer explained. "He usually brings me a bottle."

Scratch the surface of any vacation town and you'll find the locals. But on Martha's Vineyard, which has long been a popular getaway for Northeasterners (it's only two and a half hours from Boston by car and ferry), local culture is particularly storied: farmers, cheesemakers, coffee roasters and fishermen who have established an ad hoc New England utopia. They know one another intimately, date one another occasionally, work the land, rarely go to the beach and keep to the area known as Up Island.

This pocket of Martha's Vineyard -- actually the western side of the island -- revolves around the towns of Chilmark and Menemsha. It's where resorts give way to pastures and farmland and wildlife. It's where you find centuries-old farms run by 28-year-olds, as well as lithe women, whom you might mistake for models or actresses in New York or Los Angeles, picking kale on bucolic 10-acre plots. It's a bohemia that's both real and not: on one hand, there are dairy farms and free-roaming turkeys and people who barter vegetables; on the other, Bill Clinton plays golf nearby and Seth Meyers just had his wedding here. (Mr. Fischer catered, Tea Lane Farm did the flowers, and so on.)

And Mr. Fischer, who runs the famed Beetlebung Farm and who recently returned to Martha's Vineyard to helm Beach Plum (in my opinion, the best restaurant the island has ever laid claim to) is at its center. But here's the trick: Mr. Fischer's insider world -- the farms, the food, the storybook beauty -- is wide open to the public. The farms have unmanned stands on their driveways where fresh produce is sold. (Just leave your money in the cash box; it's the honor system.) At Beetlebung Farm, you can actually cut your own flowers. Other spots, like Tea Lane Farm and North Tabor Farm, are not technically open to the public, but the proprietors are usually happy to let you meet the animals, especially this time of year, when the tourists drift back home and the island empties out.

Mr. Fischer's approach to food comes from his father, Albert. A former commercial fisherman, Albert (imagine an only slightly trimmer Wilford Brimley) taught his children to hunt, fish, forage and farm, all before they hit puberty. "We ate off the land," Albert said. "Living on this island, you eat well." And then, in a phrase that could be printed on every Beach Plum menu, he added: "Food should be simple and fresh and you should be able to see your ingredients."

After learning such lessons from his father, Mr. Fischer went off to work for Mario Batali, eventually rising to sous-chef at his high-end flagship, Babbo, in New York. Mr. Fischer then worked at the American Academy in Rome and the River Café in London, and in 2007 returned to his family's farm -- and the Beach Plum, a rambling inn and restaurant overlooking Menemsha harbor.

"Beach Plum had the ugliest dining room you've ever seen," he said. "White tablecloths, bad food. I did the renovations myself -- I cut the kitchen open with a chain saw, built a new ceiling. One of the tables is an old door my grandfather made."

Mr. Fischer isn't exactly humble, but he's cocky in the way that you want your pilots, surgeons and chefs to be. Showmanship is clearly part of his approach; he has a habit of serving the food himself and leaving the kitchen in the middle of dinner to chat up customers. He also takes genuine pride in his home turf.

"Eighty-five percent of what we serve comes from the island," he said. "The best restaurants -- Blackberry Farm, Manka's -- have a perspective on a place. You have to go there and eat the food there. I call this Chilmark cuisine." My two experiences at the island's other famous restaurant, State Road, were a far, and very disappointing, cry from when I first dined there in 2009. But Mr. Fischer has a simple plan to keep Beach Plum on top: Serve only what's fresh, and usually not the same way twice.

The day after the farmers' market outing, my husband and I had dinner at the bar at Beach Plum. "Bar" is a misnomer considering it's a dry town and Beach Plum is B.Y.O.B.; even the Obamas brought their own (vodka for him, wine for her). We dined on seared medallions of tuna with chunks of boiled potatoes smothered in salsa verde and took in the show: Mr. Fischer; the sous-chef, Lee Desrosiers; a guest chef, Nick Perkins (from Marlow & Sons in Brooklyn); and the rest of the staff making dinner, enjoying quasi-legal glasses of wine and, by night's end, grooving out to music thumping on an old boom box. Like everything else on this part of the island, it was a community affair, where spontaneity is revered and everything is casual. (Then again, that tuna cost $44.) That laid-back attitude is particularly apparent when Martha's Vineyard hits its stride in the off-season.

"Summer isn't the best time here," Todd Christy, the owner of the Chilmark Coffee Company, said in the midst of his spotless, state-of-the-art laboratory, full of oddly shaped glass pots and cylinders, evidence of an obsession with coffee roasting. "It's the fall, when we forage and explore and mountain bike through people's yards."

But even in the throes of the high season, when we visited, the hipster agrarians inhabit an island all their own. Whether the striped bass are running or the dahlias are in bloom, Up Island thrives year round. The Black Angus cows are right there, grazing on a hillside next to Tea Lane Farm, where Krishana Collins assembles her vibrant, ethereal bouquets. Down the road, Mermaid Farm stand is bursting with fresh vegetables and even fresher cheese.

"Even the fish know a good thing," said Jennifer Clarke, a charter captain. We were on her boat in Menemsha harbor, where Ms. Clarke and Mr. Fischer had just caught 15 striped bass. "This area is quieter and calmer. That's why the fishing is so great."

A few days after dining at Beach Plum, I found Mr. Fischer and a dozen waiters, farmhands and young people of no discernible vocation having an impromptu lunch at Beetlebung Farm. The menu: tomato sandwiches on focaccia drizzled in olive oil and sea salt with baby broccoli rabe salad on the side, served on a single long table next to a field of dahlias. A farm-to-table meal in which you could actually count the distance between the farm and the table in inches.

Soon enough, though, the crowd dispersed. A few women collected scraps to feed to the chickens. Farmhands had to resume picking the kale. And Mr. Fischer had to get back to the Beach Plum. Seth Meyers was coming for dinner.

TIPS FROM AN INSIDER

Chris Fischer shares his favorite spots on the island.

Allen Whiting Gallery Mr. Whiting's oil paintings of local spots are transporting; 985 State Road, West Tisbury; (508) 693-4691; allenwhiting.com.

Book Den East This shop's collection includes works by residents like David McCullough and William Styron; 71 New York Avenue, Oak Bluffs; (508) 693-3946.

Chicken Alley Part thrift store, part art gallery, it's a clothing mecca for hipsters; 38 Lagoon Pond Road, Vineyard Haven; (508) 693-2278.

The Chilmark Coffee Company Todd Christy sells his rich brews all over the island; (508) 560-1061; chilmarkcoffeeco.com.

Fishing With Jennifer Clarke Ms. Clarke is a charter captain with "an uncanny sense of where the striped bass hide"; (508) 776-7286; captainclarkecharters.com.

Great Rock Bight "Hike 10 minutes in to a cove -- the most serene spot on the island"; mvlandbank.com.

Larsen's Fish Market "Get a steamed lobster, and watch the sun set over the harbor"; 56 Basin Road, Chilmark; (508) 645-2680; larsensfishmarket.com.

Mermaid Farm & Dairy You could put their feta cheese up against the best pecorino in Pienza; 9 Middle Road, Chilmark.

North Tabor Farm Buy whatever is on the stand: usually salad greens, eggs and, if you're lucky, shiitakes; 4 North Tabor Farm Road, Chilmark; (508) 645-3311.

Tea Lane Farm Krishana Collins sells her dahlias and sunflowers at the farmers' market and creates ethereal arrangements; tealanefarm.com.

West Tisbury Farmers' Market Open Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon, through Oct. 5, when it moves indoors to the Agricultural Society (35 Panhandle Road) on a more limited schedule; thewesttisburyfarmersmarket.com

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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