Life's Marketplace

By Michael Ableman

Slavka Kovarick stood crying amid the crowds and bustle at our stand at the farmers market. I had just given her a sample of the large black mulberries we were selling. When I pulled her aside, she told me that the taste of the fruit had transported her to her childhood in Czechoslovakia -- to a mulberry tree and a village that she had not seen in 22 years. Such is the intimate connection between food and the human experience.

I've been to markets all over the world -- Asia, Africa, South America, and Europe. In Burundi, for example, entire families travel on foot for a full day with heavy baskets on their heads, not just for trade and commerce but also for news, gossip, and social exchange. I watched women gather to peek into folds of colorful cloth where a newborn child rode on its mother's back, or huddled in a circle with straws made from reeds sipping sorghum beer from a communal clay pot.

I love selling at my local farmer's market. It would be easier to load boxes and pallets on trucks, include an invoice, and wait for the check in the mail. But then I would never see the faces of those who eat my food, never get to entice them by placing cherry tomatoes in their mouths and watching the expression as it explodes with juice and flavor, and never get to hear their recipes or how their children finished the strawberries before they got home last week.

A good market has rhythm and a certain drama. On Wednesdays we sell in Santa Monica, California. We arrive in the heart of downtown at 8 a.m. to set up in our usual spot, directly across the street from the four-screen movie theater. We carefully build a display that is living sculpture: piles of tomatoes framed by fragrant bunches of basil and peppers-red, yellow, red again, then orange next to purple.

"Don't forget to keep the habaneros out of reach of the children!" someone reminds me. French filet beans are piled so high that you have to look to either side to see the customer. We yell out, "Come visit bean mountain!" Thirty braids of garlic frame the stand like hanging beads at the Casbah.

On the days we have white peaches or early sweet corn, crowds form in front of the stand afraid to miss out. They jockey for position and when the opening bell rings it's like a horse race has begun -- 40 arms extended with bags of produce, all wanting immediate attention. On a good day the math is easy, money and conversation interchange at a rapid pace. "How were last week's asparagus?" "Eighty cents a pound for the tomatoes," "Try roasting those poblanos," "That's a dollar fifty change for you, thank you."

The farmer next to us scolds her customers into long regimented lines for cherries brought down from the mountains. The crowds are obedient when it comes to cherries. They listen, line up, and wait patiently for their turn. When the Middle Eastern women arrive at lunchtime for the eggplants there will be no such order as they clamor for pounds of them while office workers in business garb meekly choose a few small purchases for after the gym. The chefs come early for the best and the freshest; in the afternoon women with nannies and helpers in tow move confidently through the stands, outpacing the entourage that follows them overloaded with goods.

As the day wears on, hot and bright, bean mountain gradually becomes smaller. I watch customers pick through them, examining each one until they have meticulously selected half a pound, one at a time. A woman passes her pendulum over the food to test for the right vibrations. Clockwise and she buys, counterclockwise she moves on. Guys in pinstriped suits and manicured hands gasp to discover a worm in their corn. "I'd be glad to de-worm them for you," I offer. They always decline and prefer to tear open 20 ears to find the two or three absolutely perfect ones.

It takes patience, this coming together of city folk and people of the earth. Food is the gathering point, but people come to the markets for much more. They come for a weekly chance to experience a world they are distanced from, a world brought forth by farmers who gather some of the life and bounty of their land, pile it into a pickup or flatbed truck and converge on the city. People come for the gathering -- as they have for thousands of years -- to experience the community; they come knowing that the person who sells the corn is the one who grew it.

They come for the offerings -- a tree ripened peach, or a carrot dug only hours before -- for the pleasure of discovering that corn does not need to be boiled and coated with butter and salt, that fruits do not need sugar, and that potatoes are not just a tasteless utensil to convey salt and catsup to the mouth. We come to these markets to watch each other and to briefly meet over tables laden with beautiful food.

The ritual of a meal begins in these markets. There is urgency in the air. The farmers know that this day is it. The clock is ticking on the lettuce, the corn, the soft ripe peaches. We cannot bring them home. The buyers feel it too. They are moved by their own urgency -- the meal brewing in the mind of the cook, the expectations of family and friends, the surprise of a new discovery, a new recipe, the knowledge that on this day alone this urban environment is blessed with the smells, the tastes, and the bodies and minds of those who work the land. In a few hours we will be gone and this street will once again be filled with cars and buses.

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