On a summer steamy afternoon, customer after customer meandered into Uncle Don’s Local Market on St. Simons Island, perusing crates of fresh tomatoes, corn and other natural treats.
It’s a familiar scene for owner Don Maxey, who is often available to lend shoppers a hand. While the farmer’s market is always busy, summer is the season where it really hits its stride. Residents and tourists enjoy popping into grab the freshest produce for light, healthy meals.
“Corn, peaches, squash and okra, they are all huge in the summer ... and of course, peas. In the South, it’s field peas ... that is what everybody wants. They are the biggest thing in the summer — white acres, crowders, pink eyes, zippers,” he said, listing out the variations. “Lady peas are a favorite. They love them.”
Of course, getting one’s hands on a bag of those can be a tricky task, even for Maxey. He currently only has one supplier, having to make early morning treks to Atlanta or other cities to grab bushels for his shop at 1610 Frederica Road.
“There’s only one guy (close by) and they’re not getting them right now. I had to drive up to Atlanta to get them. It’s actually been a bad harvest year,” he said. “Animals have eaten a lot of them.”
But Maxey does what he can to keep the shelves filled, making as many trips as he can and calling customers to alert them to the restock.
“People really love them,” Maxey said with a smile.
Another thing that his customers love is nature’s candy itself — peaches. Naturally, with Georgia being the “peach state,” the fruit is a hot summer commodity.
“South Carolina actually outproduces Georgia in peaches ... 20 to one,” he said.
But Maxey stays loyal to his home state.
“We started getting them in about two weeks ago. These are white peaches and are actually from the island. They’ll be here throughout the summer,” he said.
Like peaches found locally, figs are another sure sign that summer has arrived. Harvested on St. Simons Island, they have to be scooped up as soon as possible because nature offers fierce competition.
“You have to get them before 7 a.m. or else the birds will get them. They eat them up,” he said. “They’re called brown turkey figs. I’ve never eaten figs until I started to get these. You can literally take them off the tree and just eat them.”
The figs usually arrive right at the Fourth of July, so there are still a good few weeks before they will appear on shelves. However, another Independence Day delicacy has already taken its place — watermelons. Equally representative of the season, Maxey feels there’s only one place to get those.
“Cordell has the sweetest watermelon ... bar none,” he said.
Blueberries round out the popular summer fruit selections.
While they are typically harvested in the spring, they are still a very important part of the lineup. Maxey’s customers often use those as toppers for sweet treats like ice cream or even summer salads.
Like blueberries, tomatoes are another staple making appearances upon beds of greens this season. For Southerners, there’s nothing like a really good tomato in the summer. And customers are incredibly discerning when it comes to which ones they select. For Maxey, the go-to is heirloom tomatoes.
“This is an heirloom tomato. They’re so hot in the summer. They have thin skin so they don’t have a real long shelf lives so you have to turn those pretty quick,” he said, holding a green tomato in his hand.
Like tomatoes, no summer meal is complete without an ear of corn. Maxey offers a variety, including silver queen corn.
“Everybody wants that. They love it ... me? I like ‘peaches and cream’ (corn) which is a little sweeter,” he said.
Maxey has housed his stash of corn, peas and the other produce in the building at 1610 Frederica Road for several years. Over time, he expanded to include the entire complex, which was formerly an antique store. Many vendors still rent spaces there adding a variety of handmade wares and found pieces to the mix.
Recently, Maxey branched out again.
This time to the outdoor farmer’s market located at 2009 Demere Road, adjacent to the airport. Now, he’s also selling produce like watermelons, lemons and other fruit there.
“Before I ever opened this place, that’s where I’d go. Then one day, I noticed it wasn’t open and I asked about it. Long story short, they didn’t want to do it anymore so I said, sign me up,” he said.
There were a couple of reasons Maxey wanted to take on the new location. First, the market has become an island institution of sorts, with generations of families picking out fresh produce at the stand.
“Also I wanted to do boiled peanuts there. It’s hard for me to do it here ... I have to run around all over the place. But out there we can just have pots boiling. We have three pots now. And my wife and I have ruined enough peanuts through trial and error that we’ve gotten the recipe right,” he said with a chuckle.