Elis: ‘To market! To market!’

The buzz of Bonne’s market grew closer, rumbling like a hunger in the pit of my stomach. Peaches and apricots tumbled from tilted boxes in undulations of fuzzed flesh; loaves of bread reposed on crumb-dusted tables, crusts in crackling conversation with calculator keys; golden poultry hissed lethargic, shimmering juices on glistening rotisseries; armor-clad almonds and walnuts beckoned diving fingers as their butter-browned compatriots clattered into cone-shaped cups. The berry farmer’s raspberries were at their peak, blushing in green boxes, small and sweet, the deep scarlet that bespeaks sun-ray ripeness — Danielle bought six boxes that later stained the kitchen table in our French apartment with sticky juice and sprinkled sugar.

There is an art to market navigation — too often, silent tourists are carried away by the current, emerging rumpled and rueful on a side street. Stop. Taste. Talk. These are townspeople in their element. Unaccosted by temperamental tourists, they will ask where you are from, what you are doing in their city, dropping a few extra kiwis into your bag as they invite you to return. Words exchanged weave food into a fabric of experience, tying local people to exquisite flavor.

The market is the heart of a place. Sprouting in squares and alleys in Europe, Asia, Africa and America, it snakes its way between buildings, slithers over curbs and down sidewalks between umbrellas blue-veined with sky. It is ephemeral, appearing for a morning to vanish in a flurry of crumpled receipts and fruit rinds. It breathes the smells and sounds of local culture, painting the street with a cacophony of color.

Market food should be consumed in the same haphazard way it is purchased: layered, spread, sliced asymmetrically, laid out in laps or splayed on grass. It should be consumed at high velocity, heaving colors rushing into the pungent distance, hands white-knuckled around fragile fruit.

Careening through the streets of Lyon, bombarded by the incessant wailing of our French navigation system, I am constructing a sandwich. My plastic plate perches on my lap. Cherry tomatoes have become G-force projectiles. A whole rabbit leg waves vigorously in my right fist, re-animated by our frenzied trajectory around rotaries and road-blocks. My mom and aunt oversee a network of bags and containers, snacking and sending hunks of bread and cheese into my dad’s outstretched fingers. My uncle happily imbibes from a yellow souvenir cup as he squints at road signs. As cherries plummet into the chasm at our feet, we are grinning ear to ear, enveloped in our avalanche of fresh, fabulous food.

Fundamentally, the market is about intimacy. You could not get any further from the clinical sterility of Shaw’s, where avocados await an uncertain fate like green-clothed convicts. When were those perfect plums picked, unripe, from their tree and shuttled into their impeccable plastic packages? Who baked that bread, anemic under fluorescent lights? This is faceless food; we are faceless feeders.

The market is as much about cementing our own identity as that of our food or the people who grow it. Walk to the farmer’s market in Wooster Square. Buy a pint of fresh milk in a glass bottle. Eat berries and seed-flecked bread on a bench in the park. This food has a root, a face and a set of dirt-stained hands. It has an energy, a velocity. It is a conversation, a link between farmer and foodie, nomadic college student and rooted resident. When you eat in the dining hall tonight, you might even remember that those vegetables were tended by the dirt-stained hands of your own classmates.

Comments