TAMPA — She walks into Sanwa International Wholesale Foods with a loose agenda. • "Tahini is up substantially. A container that used to cost $4 is now $7. I thought I'd get sesame seeds and see if I can make my own." • There they are, a 5-pound bag for $10 and a 50-pound bag for $85. That's a lot of sesame seeds. • In the end, Jennifer Hollowell forgoes the seeds. Maybe next time, after she's researched exactly how you toast and grind them to make the sesame paste that goes into hummus and other Middle Eastern dishes. Hollowell is a DJ at WMNF-FM 88.5, spinning the alt-country ND Hour from 9 to 10 a.m. Mondays. And she's a bargain shopper. Big time. These days, many of us would benefit from taking a page out of her book. • "I never thought I'd be a housewife. But now that I am, I'll do it as long as we can afford me to." • She and her husband, Ed Lehmann, have two sons, Justen, 13, and Grayson, 10. Lehmann works for Palm Harbor Homes in Plant City, a company that, like so many, has seen contractions and layoffs in the past year. • Hollowell works hard to keep the family's food expenses down. We followed along with her on her weekly shopping trip to the produce market at 30th and Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, and then on to the wholesale Sanwa market, both of which are open to the public with no membership fee.
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Geronimo Gamez Jr. has worked with his dad at the Tampa Produce Market at 30th and Hillsborough since 1988. It's a 24/7 business, the two taking turns overseeing wide bins of onions, bananas, bell peppers and tomatoes in the middle of the night. Gamez says the collection of produce stalls has been here since the 1940s, the bulk of business historically conducted in the deep night hours, restaurateurs and small market owners haggling with the vendors and then schlepping flats of vegetables to their pickups and vans. But the market is changing, he says. A couple of years ago corrugated tin roofs went up to protect vendors and customers from the elements, and it's busier during the daytime now, populated by home cooks looking for deals.
There are more customers like Hollowell. She has her favorite vendors among the dozen or more. Still, she walks by them all, sniffing a mango here, pricing peppers there, before beginning to purchase.
"It makes Tampa seem like a truly international city," she says. "I recently read White Shadow by Ace Atkins, about organized crime in Tampa in the '40s and '50s, and one of the scenes is set at the produce market."
Customers represent many nationalities, but booths are mostly run by Latinos, Spanish-language radio providing the soundtrack as one vendor scrapes spines from nopal cactus pads for her own lunch bubbling on a portable burner. Hollowell begins to fill the canvas bags slung over one shoulder: a pound of mushrooms for $2, a cantaloupe for $1.50, five bananas for $1, 5 pounds of potatoes for $2, a generous bunch of cilantro for 50 cents.
She's a hawk about prices, sometimes swooping in for a major deal like 25 pounds of Roma tomatoes for $7.
"What do I do with 25 pounds of tomatoes? Give some away, make about a gallon of salsa, make marinara sauce to freeze, or just peel and freeze the rest of the tomatoes. It depends on what I've got time to do."
Ah, and there's the magic word: time. No getting around it, savvy shopping is about time and planning. Hollowell comes to the market each week with a rough idea of meals she will serve — a stir-fry one night, steak tacos the next and, a family favorite, chicken cacciatore the night after that. Cacciatore is the Italian word for "hunter," a suitable signature dish for this fierce deal seeker.
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Sanwa looks like a Sam's Club for restaurants, rough around the edges with huge cans and jars stacked to the ceiling on pallets. It was started in 1981 by Tony Leung, who grew Chinese cabbages and melons on 160 acres in south Hillsborough County. What started with five employees has grown to more than 200, the business changing in scope to represent numerous growers and businesses, selling mostly to small wholesale markets, restaurants, delis and large families. It still specializes in ethnic produce but also offers a full meat counter, dry goods and other groceries.
We follow along behind Hollowell, skirting restaurateurs' carts stacked with cases of tomatillos, soy sauce and straw mushrooms. The meat counter is full of gargantuan cuts of beef and pork, many with inscrutable names like "cushion meat." After browsing the oddities, Hollowell gets down to business. What are the good deals for consumers like her, those who cook daily for a small family? Skip the 10-gallon drum of mayonnaise, but check out Vigo extra-virgin olive oil, $13.85 for 2 liters; or 6 pounds, 6 ounces of crushed tomatoes for $4. She looks at products she uses regularly or considers them for dishes she makes in quantity and freezes.
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Later that night, we convene at Hollowell's house to watch her make dinner with the day's finds. Her Temple Terrace house is small and inviting, the kitchen clearly its heart. Her two boys finish their homework, the dog, Serra, prowls for dropped bits, and Lehmann arrives home as the kitchen begins to fill with the smell of tomatoes simmering with garlic and wine.
Hollowell's radio show, the ND Hour, stands for "No Depression," a reference to a 1936 song No Depression in Heaven, popularized by the Carter Family. It's a term that has come to be identified with alternative country music, but as a culinary credo it's not half bad. For Hollowell and others, this newest economic downturn has been met head-on with careful planning and smart shopping.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs. tampabay.com/dining.