Home again, home again, market is done.
This little piggy went to market.
A-tisket a-tasket A green and yellow basket
She went to the fruiterer's
To buy him some fruit;
When she came back
He was playing the flute.
Garnet red meats, raw, cured and smoked, stacked up or spread out in mouthwatering temptation, huge bunches of sausages dangling from shiny aluminum racks like so many ball-gowned debutantes waiting for the next dance. Chickens, hens, squabs, pigeons, claws stretched outwards, head, beak tucked under a feathered wing. And the pastries, graciously decorated pastries flaunting their beauty, trying to outshine the perfect little chocolates nestled in rows beside them. Loaves of bread, crusts a deep golden color echoing the plywood background.
The scents and smells of a market assault, tease, attract. Tangy, sharp, briny. Of the sea, of the barnyard, of the earth. Yeast.
Rue Mouffetard. We picked our way between the wooden stalls erected up and down the street, agog at the splendor stretching out before us. The fame of Rue Mouffetard had reached us long before we arrived in Paris, two young things on an adventure, armed with little more than a sense of adventure and a few years of high school French. This busy, bustling street was usually buzzing with students and tourists, its cafés and restaurants open all hours, spilling out onto the street in the brightness and heat of a summer’s day. Except for market day. Terraces cleared and made way for market stalls; butcher shops, fruit vendors and the like opened storefronts and set up shop right on the narrow street.
We stumbled up to the burly man - thick ropey arms sporting a portrait gallery of tattoos, apron stretched taut over his belly, his entire being in perpetual movement- on the other side of the plywood stand, separated from him by mountains of peaches, tumbles of cherries, perfect apricots the color of the bridesmaid’s dress I wore for my cousins wedding. We watched as he scooped up handfuls of fruit with his weathered hands, scooped up fruit and pushed it in brown paper sacks, deftly twisting the corners with a single flip of the bag. He looked in our direction, pausing only long enough for our command. And we stood there, mouth open, sweating just a little under the hot sun and waiting for the other to say something. We had been so confident, felt such the parisienne… and now words failed the both of us. How to ask for two peaches, a handful of cherries, a dozen apricots? It should have been so very simple, but words failed us on this, our very first market visit. Finally, holding up two fingers with one hand, my cheeks blazing, I pointed to the pile of peaches with the other and mumble “Deux”. Pointing to the cherries I charaded a scoop, my cupped hand brushing through the air in a sweeping comma. I smiled sweetly hoping to be forgiven for my clumsiness, my lack of mastery of his language.
We slunk away from the stall, embarrassment mixed with pride and contentment. Here we were, our first day in France, our first market trip in Paris and, no matter the communication barrier, our basket was filled with fruit, a roasted chicken and cheese, our own purchases.
The sweet taste of success.
We are market fiends. Wherever we travel, whether small town, country village or cosmopolitan metropolis, we search out the market: sprawled across a paved parking lot, tiny booths gathered in the town square or multi-storied covered complex, we are drawn as moths to a flame. We collect markets as others collect stamps or coins, with the same glee as teens collect autographs of their idols, the same satisfaction with which vamps collect broken hearts. While other tourists are sitting in sidewalk cafes or searching out famed monuments, we, camera in hand, are heading towards the market.
A marketplace is a microcosm, a reflection of society as a whole, with its own codes and rules of behavior, a market etiquette, if you will, that is known and understood only by those who have grown up living the experience. Others must learn it like a foreign language. There is a vocabulary to learn: mûr (ripe), pas trop mûr (not too ripe), bien cuit (well done), pas trop cuit (slightly underdone), croustillant (crispy), pour aujourd'hui (for today), pour demain (for tomorrow). There is a certain dance to be learned as one wiggles one's way up and down the aisles or as one waits in line. There is the etiquette of politesse: the greetings, the chit chat, the deference to the advice of the vendor, the indubitable authority.
A market is a gathering place of every section of society: just stand in one single spot and you will bump up against everyone who lives in one place… the snooty uppercrust with their sense of entitlement and their urge to squeeze the fruit and riffle through the lettuce, oblivious to those around them; veiled women dressed from head to foot in black fingering the shimmering fabrics in baby blue, shocking pink and pearly white embroidered in gold; mothers in pastel polos and pleated skirts surrounded by a gaggle of blond children all dressed much like mom; hippies and beatniks sporting dreadlocks or frazzled hair tucked up in colorful scarves selecting loaves of organic bread, sacks of tomatoes, scoops of spices; elderly couples weaving in and out, from booth to booth, hand in hand, tucking purchases into an old-fashioned basket or an overflowing caddy, leeks and potatoes, apples and sweet corn. Young, old, smartly dressed or dressed down, singles, couples, families, they line up together at the meat counter, stand patiently elbow to elbow awaiting their turn in front of the chilled glass cases filled with cheese, gather their paper bags of fruits and decide what to make for Sunday lunch.
A slice of society.
Everything can be found in a market. Food, yes, fresh fruit; sausages of beef, pork or lamb, spiced, herbed or boozy with the local wine; chicken or rabbit straight from the farm – watch the butcher remove the head and feet as you wait; salads in which tiny slugs nestle or carrots with the dirt still clinging to their gnarly bodies; salt fresh farmed from local bogs or paprika by the tableful in tiny plastic sachets or ceramic pots shaped like the pepper; handmade linen tablecloths, mops and brooms, couscous pots large enough to serve a dozen convives. Racks of clothing, hand-tooled leather bags, socks and handmade knives. Live animals…I once carried a live chicken home from a market, grasping the flapping beast by the legs, holding on for dear life.
A dreamlike gathering of food trucks. Crêpes being flipped on a huge griddle and slathered with Nutella. Ladles of Chicken Yassa or Beef Maafe scooped up into aluminum containers by a bevy of lovely Senegalese women. Samosas and tandoori kabobs wrapped in waxed paper, loaves of fresh brioche, tressed and dotted with grains of sugar twisted into a plastic bag. Pizzas slipped into cartons, fragrant couscous topped with spicy merguez or chunks of grilled lamb, sizzling nems accompanying a chicken and green pepper curry. A Tower of Babel at the market: Russian, Arabic, English, Breton. French, Portuguese, Vietnamese.
I push my way through the market, dodging baby strollers and impossibly sharp metal shopping caddies. I press through the crowd towards my favorite fruit and vegetable stall like a salmon swimming upstream. I stand and observe the guy next to me in his pale blue polo and his obviously expensive sunglasses perched atop his head manhandle the lettuce that will soon be selected to go into my basket. I see utter delight and surprise light up the face of the elderly woman who was offered to move ahead in line by a gracious fellow shopper. I spot a local chef, wooden crate tucked under one arm, standing in line unrecognized by all but me waiting for his order. Christmastime and the mayor makes his appearance, buying bread with his wife, shaking hands; one spies the jolly, old Santa, plump and joyful, handing out candy to the little ones. Ocassionally we are offered a musical accompaniment by the top-hatted violinist or an accordian player or two. Or a holiday choir. We offer a brisk yet warm Bonjour Madame or Bonjour Monsieur to the vendor at each and every stall, behind the stand before pointing to the melons or pears, before selecting a goat cheese or a wedge of comté, before asking which of the chickens is best for roasting, how much veal for eight guests. And a cheerful Bonne journée as we are handed our change and a package of something fragrant wrapped in crisp white paper.
That stretch of road became one, long farmer’s market every single summer, a romantic lead in the story of our childhood, a familiar, much looked for sight, a part of the landscape. The long stretch of road was dotted with gas stations, their open lots allowing for a string of stands, welcome respite from supermarket fare.
Nothing fancy or slick about this market. The vendors most likely grew the fruit and vegetables themselves, simply stuck on a baseball cap to protect against the searing southern sunshine and came to sell their wares. No perfect pyramids of fruit, designed to attract, no fancy billboard or backdrop with logo and name in elegant calligraphy. Just a single booth, maybe two in a half dozen gas station parking lots, prices scrawled across pieces of cardboard.
Strictly Florida casual. But a market nonetheless, serving the best of Florida homegrown.