Iowa City Farmers Market vendor has sold Asian vegetables for 13 years

Iowa City Farmers Market vendor has sold Asian vegetables for 13 years

Two customers approach the vendor Nam and Anna’s Garden, whose folding table holds a few remaining bushels of produce and potted plants after a successful morning at the Iowa City Farmers Market.

After a few minutes of conversation about growing plants at home, they walk away with a broad leaf jade 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 their home garden in Iowa City to farmers market shoppers.

Their vast options of produce, including winter melon, Malabar spinach, bok choy and sweet beans, have attracted new and returning customers, slowly transforming the palettes of community members and filling a gap in local Asian produce.

“Because we sell things that are generally not available in the local markets, we do have people from different cultures that will come up and be like, ‘Hey do you have this?’ And sometimes we have to figure out what they’re talking about because sometimes we do have it and we call it something different,” son David Lam-Lu told the Press-Citizen. “Other times we’re like, ‘No we don’t.’ … They’ll bring something that they have from home and be like, ‘Hey will you grow these?’”

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From Vietnam to Iowa City: How the Lams began participating at the farmers market

The Lams have one acre of land dedicated to growing vegetables from Japanese eggplant to fruits like white peaches.

Inside their home are little gardens as well.

In addition to selling produce and plants, Anna will make sesame balls, traditional almond cookies and coconut bread.

Nam Lam poses during the Iowa City Farmers Market on July 2. The Vietnamese immigrant, along with his wife Anna, have seen their produce increase in popularity during 13 years as vendors.

“In 2008, I was laid off from my job, and in 2009 I (started) with the farmers market,” Nam Lam said.

That year was financially difficult for the family, Lam-Lu said.

Nam had worked at International Automotive Components. Joanne Nelson, a family friend who was a vendor at the farmers market, suggested the Lams join the market. She introduced the Lams to Tammy Neumann, then the farmers market coordinator, who approved them for a stall.

Nam and Anna both grew up on farms in Vietnam. Nam’s parents were farmers, selling wholesale to other shops in town, Lam-Lu said.

Nam said he was only a bit familiar with gardening, but that changed when he came to America as a refugee in 1982.

“I loved gardening just for family use and every time (I gardened) I learned a little bit,” he said.

An image of an Iowa City Press-Citizen article from October 1990 about the Iowa City eatery, Saigon Restaurant.

When Nam arrived in Iowa, he and brother Hung Lam opened Saigon Restaurant in 1986 in Iowa City.

Located on Linn Street, the restaurant was a converted two-story house that sold Vietnamese and Chinese food.

Items like chicken feet and bone marrow to make pho, a soup, were cheap to buy because people largely didn’t cook with that. As people have discovered how to use those ingredients, Lam-Lu has seen the prices increase.

Saigon Restaurant lasted until 1993. Hung Lam told the Press-Citizen in 1990 that he was sometimes frustrated trying to cook more Vietnamese dishes.

“You can’t get all the vegetables you need in Iowa,” he said.

It was a sentiment that rang true with Nam, who said when he first arrived in Iowa, there was no food similar to what he had in Vietnam. One small grocery store owner in the Iowa City area would drive to Chicago weekly to bring back some items, he said.  

‘A garden allowed us to live above our means’: What growing Asian produce has meant for the Lam family

Lam-Lu said when they first started at the farmers market, most of the vendors sold similar produce. The Lams brought vegetables people were largely unfamiliar with and as a result, some people would merely look and walk away.

People would look at their items, and Nam would explain to them how to use it and provide them a sample to take home to cook.

“They’d come and say, ‘oh, (it was) very good,’” he said.

Lam-Lu said they’ve had employees from restaurants like Big Grove Brewery and Alebrejie stop by to purchase produce to use in a new dish.

“It’s interesting going through the market now, because a lot of the vegetables that we kind of brought to the market you can start seeing other vendors selling them as well,” Lam-Lu said. 

Amaranth is seen amongst other produce at Nam and Anna's Garden during the Iowa City Farmers Market, Saturday, July 2, 2022, at Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp in Iowa City, Iowa.

Lam-Lu and his three siblings grew up with these vegetables and plants at home.

“We had no idea what we were eating,” he said. “We knew what we liked. We didn’t know it was unique to this area.”

The Lams always had a personal garden in part because the vegetables they grew up with were not available in Iowa.

It was also because they couldn’t afford food, Lam-Lu said.

“My dad had no connections when he arrived as a refugee,” he said in a message. “And as a high school student, his time was split between attending school in a language he didn’t know, work in construction and staying up all night with a dictionary searching every word to understand his homework.”

Lam-Lu recalled that his father told him how he’d split a cucumber into pieces and eat one section with a bowl of rice each day.

He also remembered being young and eating just rice and water, then rice, soy sauce and vegetables.

“A garden allowed us to live above our means,” Lam-Lu said.

Those experiences stayed with the Lams.

Lam-Lu often hears from customers that their vegetable bundles are generously portioned or priced too low.

He’ll tell his parents to re-price or re-bundle their produce in hopes to reduce his parents’ work load in the long run.

“They always refuse. Their reason is because we have a lot of immigrants, refugees and students who buy our foods,” Lam-Lu said. “My parents remember the poverty and how the food connects them with home.”

Nam and Anna’s Garden finds community through customers and fellow vendors

In assisting his parents at the farmers market, Lam-Lu has learned more about the vegetables he grew up with. He knew how they were used, but not their unique properties.

At the end of the market, Nam and Anna’s Garden donates to Table to Table, a nonprofit that brings food to those in need. 

Nam uses compost from the coffee beans from Cafe del Sol Roasting, another Iowa City Farmers Market vendor.

Stephen Dunhum, owner of Cafe del Sol, told the Press-Citizen it’s worked out well that the Lams have been using their coffee materials for compost, a mixture of the skins of a coffee bean seed and fallen coffee beans.

Dunham has some of the Lam’s plants growing in his yard at home. He’s gotten to know the Lams over the years, a natural relationship that blossomed considering their stalls in the farmers market are across from each other.

“When they’re not there, which is a rare thing … it’s just like a big hole in the market,” he said.

The foods the Lams have made available to shoppers over the years “lifts the whole community,” Dunham said.

Aside from Dunham, the Lams have fostered a connection with their customers.

“We wouldn’t still be at the market 13 years later if it weren’t for those first few customers that were willing to explore different veggies from Vietnamese gardeners and our loyal customers who return each season,” Lam-Lu said.

Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at [email protected] or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.