MARKETS: FORGOTTEN CONNECTIONS
“Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from it’s own wine-press.” Khalil Gibran, The Garden of the Prophet (London, Heinemann, 1934).
My passion for markets began as a young Alberta small town boy visiting Mexico with my parents. I vividly remember the strange-smelling food cooked and sold from tiny sidewalk stalls. I tasted my first fresh corn tortilla, fried and rolled around chopped oily onions, chicken and chilies, and passed to me on an old newspaper by a poor man with blackened leathery hands. I was fascinated with how quickly he stirred and flipped the sizzling morsels before scooping them up with a wooden tool in one hand, while fanning his fiery coals with the other hand. Back in North America “T.V. dinners” were just becoming popular.
Since then I have been enthralled by the romantic mystique of traditional trading places. I’m enchanted by the spectacle of food and spices, and the smells of cooking smoke, leather and animals merging in overwhelming abundance. These are places where carts, wagons, rickshaws and trucks change places and mobilize ageless energy. My imagination easily slips to times of storytellers, thieves and fairy-tales where dark alleys, passages and old doorways remain hidden like dreams, but not forgotten. Places that are more than meet the eye.
Compared to the glaring fluorescent-lit monotonous rows of shelves stacked with indistinguishable and disguised packaged stuff paraded past batteries of barcode-scanning checkout clerks, along conveyor belts of so called modern ‘supermarkets’, traditional markets are veritable communities of vibrant raw creative humanity where presence and participation is neither partial nor remote.
In the ‘supermarket’, ‘a little bit of everything’ quickly becomes a lot of nothing, a numbing distraction that all looks the same, an analgesic rather than awakening experience. Places where presentation and packaging is valued more than content, the bulk of it ends up as landfill, and advertisers make consumers want what they have to sell, including the National Enquirer at every cashier.
Souqs satisfy my instinctive attraction to natural and human qualities. In the good ones, there is little or no pretentious packaging or additives, and the real nature of what is sold engages and invites my fingers, nose, and mouth with a profusion of fascinating foods.
What is sold is present and visible. The workers and the place seem inseparable and immediate. People are direct with their purpose and character. They are expressions of their work, and part of what they sell. Their inventory is all around and in some cases all over them. There is space to imagine. I often fantasize that some of the old vendors start to resemble their products, like the Chinese man who resembles the round, plump duck eggs that he sells. They are romantic journeys.
The details of the market emerge quiet and still, out of what is always a colourful chaotic moving adventure, to reveal a personality of ingredients, design and individual styles that is as exciting for me as a child magically entering its favorite fairy tale. I see artistic grace in people. Like the man in Mandalay who carves his fish like a sculptor, – his hands, move with speed, precision and dedication, and seem indistinguishable from the fish. Or the man, with his two sons who work by his side, in Peshawar selling raw cotton. I stop to watch and end up visiting for the afternoon. They use their hands for weighing scales. They have their own gravity and time and honesty with themselves, and like mythological tales, connect me to my roots. We sit on big bales of earth-smelling cotton, tell stories and drink fresh tea delivered by boys who bring it from fires that never go out. Here the side streets are squeezed with sellers and buyers: inspecting, weighing, feeling and smelling produce and wares. They please each other through well-honed bargaining strategies. Each is a story unfolded through the meeting of customer and vendor.
Buying in these markets is mindful rather than seductive. What I barter for depends on my needs and wants and what I get depends on my skill and knowledge of the commodities. It is about human relationship rather than reading labels. I feel that I am part of where I am. I am present and I breathe with it as opposed to being suffocated by it. I always want to stay longer – meet more people and taste more things. And reflect upon the shortest and simplest way between the earth, the hands and the mouth. Compare this to pushing a cart up and down a spreadsheet of sterile aisles only to end up in the shortest checkout line?
If I want to taste a culture, I eat their food. I gravitate to
Markets for new culinary experiences and to find cultural authenticity, operating on a human scale without sophisticated technology, middlemen or advertising. In the west we eat the chicken or the egg. In Asia one of the most delicious market foods, “baloot” are fertilized eggs that are boiled after fifteen days of incubation – or about five days before the embryo matures and hatches.
As I move through the market each vendor’s stall is like a different stage set presenting itself, a series of never ending events. It is a moment, more than a place that exudes continuity. A quality where elements of the past and the present continue to meet. My senses sparkle. Understanding the nature of food, what’s in it and where it comes from is to touch the earth, and be a conscious consumer.
Watching a blood-spattered man deftly remove cow brains with an axe from a pile of heads delivered fresh every morning is a humbling and healthy ecological reality. The scene is not nearly as exotic, or unnatural, to me as drugged-up feedlot fed meat disguised in perfectly cut uniform morsels packaged in plastic and displayed in glass cages.
Markets are not just symbolic of what the world is
losing to globalization, which moves the world’s economies, and ecological and cultural systems away from diversity and sustainable development towards more instability and insecurity. They are the alternative to it. A commitment to personal and local exchange is part of the solution to the problems symptomized by alienation from our lands and our cultures, unemployment and lack of social direction, soulless ness in our cities and individual anomie.