Two customers approach vendor Nam and Anna’s Garden, whose folding table contains a few leftover bags of produce and potted plants after a successful morning at Iowa City Farmers Market.
After a few minutes of talking about growing plants at home, they walk away with a jade broadleaf plant and tips on how to care for it.
For 13 years, Nam Lam and his wife Anna have sold fresh Asian vegetables and plants from the garden of their Iowa City home to shoppers at farm markets.
Their wide selection of produce, including winter melon, Malabar spinach, bok choy, and sweet beans, attracted new and returning customers, slowly transforming the plates of community members and filling a gap in local Asian produce.
“Because we sell things that are not generally available in local markets, we have people from different cultures who will come up like, ‘Do you have this? “And sometimes we have to figure out what they’re talking about because sometimes we have it and we call it something different,” son David L. Law told The Citizen. Other times, we’d like, ‘No, we don’t. …they would bring something they had from home and say, ‘Hey, are you going to grow these?’
earlier:The Iowa City Farmers Market is active at the start of the mild season
From Vietnam to Iowa City: How Lams Started Participating in a Farmer’s Market
Lams own one acre of land dedicated to growing vegetables from Japanese eggplant to fruits such as white peaches.
Inside their homes there are small gardens as well.
In addition to selling produce and plants, Anna will make sesame balls, traditional almond cakes, and coconut bread.
“In 2008, I was laid off from my job, and in 2009 (I started) at the farmers market,” said Nam Lam.
Lam Lu said that year has been tough financially for the family.
A sleepover job at International Automotive Components. Joanne Nelson, a family friend who was a saleswoman at the farmers’ market, suggested Lams join the market. Lams introduced her to Tammy Newman, then the farmers’ market coordinator, who approved her at a booth.
Both Nam and Anna grew up on farms in Vietnam. Lam Lu said Nam’s parents were farmers who wholesaled to other shops in the city.
Nam said he had a little knowledge of gardening, but that changed when he came to America as a refugee in 1982.
“I loved gardening for family use only and every time (I plant) I learned a little,” he said.
When Nam arrived in Iowa, he and his brother Hong Lam opened Saigon Restaurant in 1986 in Iowa City.
Located on Lin Street, the restaurant was a converted two-storey house selling Vietnamese and Chinese food.
Things like chicken feet and bone marrow for making foo were cheap because people didn’t cook with it to a great extent. As people discover how to use these ingredients, L-Lo has seen a price hike.
The Saigon restaurant ran until 1993. Hong Lam told Press-Citizen in 1990 that he sometimes got frustrated while trying to cook more Vietnamese dishes.
“You can’t get all the vegetables you need in Iowa,” he said.
It was an honest feeling with Nam, who said when he first arrived in Iowa, there was no food comparable to what he ate in Vietnam. He said the owner of a small grocery store in the Iowa City area used to drive to Chicago weekly to bring some things back.
‘The garden allowed us to live beyond our means’: What the Lam family’s growing Asian produce means
Lam-Lo said that when they first started operating at the farmers’ market, most vendors sold similar products. The Lam family brought vegetables that people were largely unfamiliar with, and as a result, some people were looking and turning away.
People would look at their stuff, Nam would explain how to use it and give them a sample to take home for cooking.
“They would come in and say,[It was]very good,” he said.
Lam-Lu said they have employees from restaurants like Big Grove Brewery and Alebrejie stop by to buy produce to use in a new dish.
“It’s interesting to go to the market now, because a lot of the vegetables we brought to the market you can start to see other vendors selling as well,” Lam-Lo said.
Lam Lu and his three brothers grew up with these vegetables and plants at home.
He said, “We had no idea what to eat. We knew what we liked. We didn’t know it was so unique in this area.”
Lams have always had a personal garden in part because the vegetables they grew up on were not available in Iowa.
Lam-Lo said it was also because they couldn’t buy food.
“My father had no connections when he arrived as a refugee,” he said in a letter. “As a high school student, he split his time between going to school in a language he didn’t know, working in construction and staying up all night with a dictionary looking at every word to make sense of his homework.”
Lam-Lo remembers that his father told him how to cut a cucumber into pieces and eat a portion with a bowl of rice every day.
He also remembered that he was young and only ate rice and water, then rice, soy sauce, and vegetables.
“The garden allowed us to live beyond our means,” Lam-Lo said.
Those experiences stayed with Lams.
Lam-Lu often hears from customers that their vegetable packages are generously portioned or their prices are too low.
He will tell his parents to re-price or repackage 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.” “My parents remember poverty and how food binds them to home.”
Nam and Anna’s Garden finds a community through customers and fellow sellers
By helping his parents at the farmers market, Lam-Lo learned more about the vegetables he grew up on. He knew how they were used, but not their unique properties.
At the end of the market, Nam and Anna’s Garden donated to Table to Table, a non-profit organization that provides food to those in need.
Nam uses compost from coffee beans from Cafe del Sol Roasting, another vendor at Iowa City Farmers Market.
Stephen Dunhome, owner of Café del Sol, told the newspaper it’s a good thing that the Lam family are using their coffee grounds to make compost, a mixture of coffee bean husks and fallen coffee beans.
Dunham has some L. plants that grow in his yard. He’s known the Lams over the years, a natural relationship that blossomed given that their farmers’ market stalls are across from each other.
“When they’re not there, which is rare…it’s like a huge gap in the market,” he said.
Dunham said the foods that the Lam family has made available to shoppers over the years “elevate the whole community.”
Apart from Dunham, Lams has enhanced communication with their clients.
“We wouldn’t have stayed in the market 13 years later without the first few customers who were willing to explore different vegetables from Vietnamese gardeners and our loyal customers who come back every season,” said Lam-Lo.
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle, and the arts for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.