On the blocks of ninth street between Washington and Christian, there is not a lot of sidewalk between the rutabagas, broccoli, mangoes, pears and squashes on the street side and the severed fish heads and sundries that line the other. At times, you have to navigate around the shoppers requesting their produce, people walking dogs, and the man yelling “Shop bags!” and selling large, handled paper bags in what is reportedly the oldest and largest working outdoor market in the United States.
I ask one man for two red peppers and a bag of carrots, compliment a spice shop attendant on her musical selection as I purchase my thyme, rosemary, arrowroot powder, and Spanish paprika, buy celery from another stand, and a head of organic cauliflower—$1—from a tanned, older-looking Asian woman.
I walk into a Mexican bakery and about die. It. Smells. So. Good. It is all I can do to buy only two .75 cent bags of spaghetti and leave behind every one of those pink donuts, iced loaves, and perfect looking muffins. My mouth waters remembering them to write this sentence. As I wait in line, the cashier seems to be teaching a girl in Spanish about making change.
I go in a crowded Italian grocery that smells like melted cheese, cooking meat and spices. I don’t want to buy anything, but I look at homemade raviolis and gnocchi for a few minutes. I feel like I should say to the couple I am crowding who are trying to stand in line and out of the way, “I’m just here to smell.”
“What can I get you?” asks the man at the other spice shop that’s past the used bookstore where I pick up a bag of Mocha Java coffee beans, half a pound of bulgar, and a bag of walnuts. I end my spree with two bags of grapes being hawked by a guy with only three visible top teeth calling “Grapes! One dollar a bag, one dollar a bag—come on people!”
Which I hadn’t intended to buy, but his tone persuaded me.
Almost nothing in the Italian market is self-service and this is what the market as an institution will always have over the grocery store—that it requires eye contact. That there is a face behind the food, and very little shrink wrap.
Someone once said that the life of a place is in the market. I can’t remember whom. It might have been Prof. Roy on his roof in Kolkata talking about the fruit wallahs in Lake Market. But the market that I imagine when I think of that statement is a Korean one, specifically an image of dried frogs hanging upside down next to dead quail.
I find this statement to be both true in my experience, and to have terrifying implications for a society in which the mall is the new social market space.
I have read recently that credit card debt is rising, that people are increasingly charging necessity items like groceries to their credit cards, and that the rising cost of fuel to transport raw materials like wheat and hops has caused the cost of previously “recession proof” items like pizza and beer to rise.
“Your best option for cheap eats ,” the author of one article writes, “is a gut-busting McDonald’s double cheeseburger for a buck. Makes you want to cry in your beer … if you can afford it.”
My meal of pasta and wheat balls in carrot and red pepper sauce, all of the ingredients for which I bought today in the Italian market, cost $11.25, including spices and other excess raw materials, and the leftovers will be my lunch for the next two days.
I had stopped at the Save-a-Lot for coffee milk on my way home from the market and was delayed in line behind a woman making her purchases on an Access Card. Her bill was apparently more than she expected it to be and so she was verbally running down the items on the cashier’s screen, double checking the values against her assumptions. It turned out she had been slightly overcharged for a bag of apple slices. “That’s not as much as I’d hoped to find there,” she said, and swiped the card with resignation.