Special Report: Remembering Mama Ida Papert

TRUE FRIEND: Ida Papert has shopped at and supported the Dallas Farmers Market since the ’50s. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Chad Houser, chef at Parigi, is the president of Dallas Farmers Market Friends, the organization founded by Ida Papert. He asked his good friend Randy Potts to write a short piece about Mama Ida. “I didn’t really choose Ida, or intend to write a piece like this,” says Potts. “Houser asked me to write a couple paragraphs on her for the Friends but I pretty much fell in love with her in the process and wrote this as a sort of tribute, not really knowing if I’d ever do anything with it.”

So far only tentative plans for public services have been announced: They will be held at Temple Emanu-El on Monday, January 31st at 2 pm, but please confirm that time tomorrow morning  here on SideDish or in the DMN.

Update: According to Mama Ida’s good friend Marsha Singer, the correct time for the service is 12:30 PM tomorrow.

Below is a tribute written by Randy Potts.

“Mama” Ida and the Friends of the Farmers Market: The Story of Dallas’ Favorite Locavore

Not every farmers market has a local matriarch, but the Dallas Farmers Market does, and her name is Ida Papert. Walking through the market on a Saturday morning, “Mama” Ida is greeted like royalty, hugged at almost every stall, her money often refused. She carries a bag around with her that says “Ida’s Gotta Have,” and this bag is full from the beginning of her shopping to the end. Her bag begins the shopping day filled with preserves she’s made from produce she bought at the market, and as she goes around distributing her little jars at each stall she is given something in return – tomatoes and spinach from Mr. Lemley, fresh eggs from Paul the Sweet Roasted Corn Man. On this particular Saturday, “Mama” Ida has made Red Pepper jelly, and sent me home with a jar as well.

Mama Ida by Randy Potts.

You never ask a woman her age (although I get the feeling Ida wouldn’t mind), but I did the math and as far as I can tell, Ida was born in Shreveport, Louisiana sometime in the early 1930s. When she was growing up, a dozen eggs cost a dime, a pound of spinach a nickel, and the word “locavore” wasn’t invented yet – if local farmers didn’t have tomatoes on the vine, you didn’t have tomatoes in your salad.

A lot can change in twenty years, and by the time Ida was a grown woman the local grocery store had been completely transformed. During World War II Americans proudly built up an immense supply system based first on railroads and later on highways, transporting goods made in local factories to shipping yards in the Gulf and both coasts to supply what became the largest military in the world. But it wasn’t just goods like nails, guns, and submarine propellers that were needed– most importantly, our army fighting on all points of the globe needed food. By the time Ida was buying her own food at the grocery store, the transportation system built to supply the army had been adapted to supply civilians and now, if tomatoes and bananas and peaches and pears could be grown somewhere like California or Florida, they could be found on the shelf in Shreveport, too. Eating local had meant going without and depending on local seasons – it was no wonder that Americans greeted the modern grocery store with open arms.

None of this, however, was of any concern to Ida – at that time, she wasn’t hanging around the house cooking. At 19, 20, 21 years of age Ida’s main concern was boys, and not just one of them but all of them. She studied the subject so well that she eventually exhausted local supply, and since there was no internet at the time which nowadays allows single men and women to browse beyond county lines, Ida decided she would have to move. “I was born in Shreveport,” Ida told me, “and I lived there until I had dated every guy in Shreveport, and finally decided that I would come to Dallas and see what I could do here, and I found somebody right away.” Sam Papert was the lucky man’s name, and he and Ida were married for more than fifty years

When Ida married Sam, the young couple moved in with Sam’s mother, and it was Ida’s new mother-in-law who taught her what she needed to know. “She taught me to cook,” Ida said, “but the most important thing she taught me was to use food from the local market.” Since 1953 when she moved to Dallas and married Sam, Ida has been to the Dallas Farmers Market at least once a week, convinced by her mother-in-law that preparing locally-grown food for her husband and others was worth the extra effort. I didn’t ask her to do the math on that one either, but I’m pretty sure Ida has been to the Dallas Farmers Market over 3,000 times.

Life with Sam was comfortable – he worked in the newspaper industry selling advertisements and there was no need for Ida to work outside the home. In between having three children, Sammy, Peggy, and Lee, Ida began to seek out work beyond the home, hoping to help the local community – “I call myself a professional volunteer,” she said. She volunteered on local community boards and also dabbled in politics – “Papa” George Bush had been a neighbor and friend since 1964 when he ran for the Senate, and when he ran for President in 1980, Ida signed on to chair the Dallas-area campaign offices. Being a delegate at the national convention gave her experience in national politics and she became highly-sought after by Texas politicians. Quickly tiring, however, of partisan politics, she gratefully accepted a position on the Dallas Park Board from Mayor Starke Taylor in 1984.

Ida enjoyed her time with the Park Board, but her true love was cooking and entertaining; during all this time she continued to visit the Dallas Farmers Market weekly. Unfortunately, other local shoppers were going less and less. During the 1980s, grocery stores transformed from small mom and pops into warehouse-sized supermarkets, selling produce not just from Florida and California but also places as far away as Chile and New Zealand. All across the country, local farmers markets were in crisis, struggling to compete with the trend toward big-box stores. To top it all off, during the late ‘80s/early ‘90s the streets around the downtown market in Dallas were under construction, and Shed 2 was not yet finished – the market site, in short, was a mess. In its efforts to make the market a better place, the city temporarily made the market more difficult to visit, and farmers (and shoppers) were leaving in droves.

Ida had just resigned from the Dallas Parks Board in 1991 when Paula Peters from the Central Dallas Association (now Downtown Dallas) asked Ida to meet with her. Ida, Paula, and several others from the city had breakfast at La Madeleine on Lemmon Avenue and came up with a plan to save the market. What was needed, they argued, was not more money, but someone who could organize volunteers and come up with events that would attract more visitors to the market. Ida was the perfect choice – her experience in political campaigns would come in handy when the market needed volunteers, and as a weekly visitor since 1953 nobody was more familiar with the market and its needs.

Out of that meeting, the Friends of the Farmers Market was born, a private, non-profit group devoted to bolstering the city’s efforts to improve the Dallas Farmers Market with Ida at the helm. “Each year,” Ida told me, “we tell the City Administrator what we have to offer, and ask what the city needs.” The Friends’ agenda is the city’s agenda, which is to help the Farmers Market in any way possible.

The first thing the Friends did to bring more people to the market was to start a series of cooking classes. Paula Lambert of the local Mozzarella Company and Debra Orrill, a friend of Ida’s and, at the time, local chairman of AIWF, suggested the idea of starting classes at the market. Jim “Sevy” Severson, then chef at Dakota’s and now chef at his own establishment, Sevy’s Grill on Preston, helped to get the classes on their feet — “Sevy, for ten years, recruited all the chefs for all of our cooking classes,” Ida told me. Because of Sevy’s longstanding commitment to the market and to helping young, local chefs, there is now a Jim Severson scholarship fund at El Centro.

Ida is a healthy, glowing woman whose stride was sometimes difficult for me to keep up with, and yet unlike our current crop of localvores, Ida smokes and drinks as much as she wants. It was over several glasses of Scotch, in fact, that the idea for the annual Farmers Market Hoedown was born – Ida happily showed me pictures of the night she and her friend Marsha Singer, a local event organizer, drank enough Scotch to come up with the annual hoedown idea. The hoedown was a success and has been bringing in crowds ever since, allowing chefs to show off their talents and local farmers to ply their wares to large, eager crowds.

I asked Ida what she felt was her biggest accomplishment, and she paused. “I would say, the fact that we are still in existence,” she finally told me, “because there were maybe two times since [we started the Friends] that I was ready to close it down.” There were times, she told me, that she even considered privatizing the market, because there didn’t seem to be any better alternatives. “The membership [of the Friends] would go up and down, up and down,” Ida continued, “and you couldn’t get anybody to work, and you expect board members on any board to work, and a lot of years, that didn’t happen . . . the fact that Chad [Houser, current President of the Friends Board] was smart enough to have that orientation, and have somebody come in and explain the role of the board, that was brilliant. The fact that the Friends are still alive, the fact that the market has reached the point where they are, the fact that the city finally believes that it is worthwhile, and the fact that Janel Leatherman has helped the Market finally show a profit ” –these are the things that make Ida proud.

All this is wonderful, of course, but Ida is a very modest woman, and her accomplishments with the Friends are far more impressive than she will readily admit. All the things that currently bring in the most shoppers to the market – the cooking classes, the hoedown, the ice cream social, the partnerships with local chefs, and even the new stress on local food as opposed to food brought in from further than 150 miles away – every single one of these originated with “Mama” Ida, and the friendships (and the Friends) she formed along the way. Margaret Crow, a long-time friend of Ida and a proponent of the local food movement, told me “I have been friends with Ida for many years and admire her civic work tremendously . . . especially with the support Ida’s shown to the Farmers Market.” Walking through the market recently, Ida stopped and pointed at what appears to be a giant basket turned upside-down and 4 or 5 “pumpkins” scattered around it, forming what serves as a set of table and chairs. “Isn’t that ridiculous?” she said, “but I love it!” The Friends get criticized, Ida said, when money is spent on public art at the market, but the media forgets to tell people that according to city bylaws that Ida helped put into place, 1% of market-related bond money has to go towards public art. It’s art like this, she maintains, that is making the market a more attractive place to be.

Everywhere you look at the market, in fact, you’ll find evidence of Ida’s work with the Friends. The administration building where the cooking classes take place was furnished with money and volunteers from the Friends — “the first year we had a Bunsen burner and a can of water,” she told me. The artist-created benches in front of Shed 2 product of the close relationship between the Friends and the city, as is Shed 2 itself which, through years and years of hard work, money, and input from the Friends and the city is finally coming together as the focal point of the market. Pecan Lodge Catering, the newest addition to Shed 2, not only has new, beautifully-built stall — its entire catering operation is run from there, a perfect example of what needs to happen to keep the market thriving.

Ida has been around the Dallas Farmers Market for a long time, 57 years in fact, and I asked her how it has changed over the years. “There are some faces that I see that I have probably seen for 30 years, but it seems to me it’s a younger crowd now. I think I am the only person my age who still entertains at home. Nobody does, they go to restaurants. But it’s my way of life.” It’s the younger crowd, she told me, and the chefs especially, who have transformed the market in the last five years. As more and more chefs have committed to buying local whenever possible, interest in the Dallas Farmers Market has grown.

The City of Dallas, according to Ida, did not always consider a downtown market an important thing to support, but all that has changed. “I think that the city is doing an incredible job at getting all the fresh stuff. They go out and really hit the streets, the roads, the highways to find the kind of market people that we want, the fresh lettuces you’re seeing, the mushroom guy, on and on and on are the result of their efforts . . . the lady that does the breads, they found her, then the Kurry King . . . what people are looking for, Janel [Leatherman] is smart enough to get out there and find.”

It’s taken twenty years to accomplish, but with the help of chefs like Debra Orrill and Jim Severson, local purveyors like Paula Lambert, members of the Friends board like current President Chad Houser and, increasingly, an eager group of city administrators hoping to build a permanent home for local food in Dallas, the Friends board Ida created in 1991 has given the market a new breath of life. Eating local is still a challenge, but the younger generations are increasingly interested in meeting those challenges head on. In fact, local farmers like Mr. Lemley are almost treated like rock stars among Dallas locavores, his tomatoes spoken of with a mixture of reverence and awe. “WHERE did these tomatoes come from?” I’ve often been asked when offering Lemley’s tomatoes to a new-found foodie. My son, in fact, has always refused to eat tomatoes, but now he simply asks “Are they Mr. Lemley’s?” and if I nod yes, he smiles and dives right in.

It’s been almost a century since Americans have truly eaten locally, and “Mama” Ida has been around to see many of the changes between that time and now. Talking to Ida, it’s easy to tell how excited she is, not about the work that has been done already but about the exciting changes ahead. Walking around the market with Ida was like watching a kid in a candy shop – at almost every stall she stopped and greeted the proprietor personally, tasting and smelling and smiling at everyone. I brought my three children along that last day I spent with Ida, and gave them a few dollars each and free range of the market while Ida and I talked. My kids and I did a lot of things on that Saturday – softball games, a movie, and dinner at a local Mexican restaurant.

Their favorite thing all day? It was unanimous – the market. It’s almost comical that in 2010 we would be trying to eat the way we did 100 years ago, but even children can tell that there’s something special about it. Children, that is, and big people like “Mama” Ida Papert.