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The Open Market

On the cobbles of the square people mill, moving their hands from this to that pile of apples colored-fiery as fall-ignited leaves, from this to that stack of crisp-skinned pears. Blood red peppers sit perky-fresh next to grass green peppers next to paler young-straw jalapeños next to the tropically alluring, rosebloom skin of mangos. Little staked slates with per kilo prices chalked on them stand at the apex of vegetable pyramids; occasionally the stakes fall to be trodden into the mush of already smashed tomatoes. The produce looks real, with the blemishes of tree-growth and without the tawdry veneer of cosmetically selected supermarket varieties. A Moroccan traiteur has just finished an enormous cast iron skillet of paella, a Spanish rice stirfry made with mussels shrimp jasmine chicken pork and whatever other sundry stuffs available, and started the chicken in his rotisserie spinning, both of which savory-scent the air. To the right of his van stands a table of olive platters, colored the black-tan range of classic camouflage, staked and labeled for provenance: some from Provence, some from Mexico, some from Greece. To the traiteur’s left is a baker selling Moroccan pastries, white powdered mushroom puffed or red-russet and tangled, resembling a diagram of the small intestine. Arranged on the curb perimeter of the market, old men stinking of sweat and tobacco, their faces grizzled greyblack with a half week’s growth of beard, sell bunches of strange mint, two varieties of parsley, the herbs freshly censing the air. Toothless smiles, toothed smiles, grins, gropings, pardons.

Since arriving in Montpellier, I’ve found the open markets which are held daily to be the best way to get produce. So, once a week, or perhaps twice, Alissa and I head go to the market-square closest to us, off the Faubourg de Courreau, where all the vendors, save la Blondesse, are immigrants, and where all the prices, save those of la Blondesse, are fucking steals: tomatoes for sixty eurocents a kilo; avocados for forty cents a piece. Besides the price, there is the freshness of the product, and besides the freshness of the product, there is the phenomenon of the market: better by far than perusing beneath putrefactive fluorescent lighting of an hypermarché or the crates of stale onions moldering along the moist walls of an épicerie, the open markets — and, to a lesser extent, the closed markets — allow one to trace the very weave of the social fabric: the exchange of sweet-tasting goods, peasant-form commerce, interrelations that appear so civil, so human when compared to the quick trip to TJs or Wholefoods or Vons. Or perhaps I romanticize the idea of an open market, forget the sort of backhanded dealings that must go on between producers and merchants, activity no doubt fomented by the impossibility of strict regulation of the sort sealed and dated packagings convey plasticwrapped and airtight from sterilized refrigerated shelves at the supermarket to sterilized refrigerated shelves in the home. It is true: I can not know, really, how long that apple’s been sitting in its box in the open air. This said, the best regulator of food may be the tastebud, the second best the immune system, and neither has my tongue told me the food’s bad nor have I come down with food poisoning.

But November progresses steadily, rapidly, and with it comes more rain. In the cool humid air I doubt much could last long, and now that the days’ve grown short it seems that fresh produce has grown and will grow ever more rarer. What produce remains unbought will likely remain that way, having cultivated on itself several cultures of rot. Saturday the steps climbing the apple ziggurat were moldy, the stems of the peppers also fuzzed over with a whitegrey slow-crawling velvet. One could still dig around and find a fresh cucumber among the limpstick others, if he so desired, but the idea of having an especially rottenly overripe one squish-explode rotten between his fingers deters. What remains fresh must have been shipped over the sea, from the south, and even that won’t last long. Winter comes, with it the need for confiture.

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2 Responses

  1. Despite the unpleasant prospect of late-in-the-season rotting, I am sitting here in my law school classroom salivating over your descriptions of the market. I long to be near that wholesome and purity again!

    Tell A I said hello and that I’m thinking of you guys often!


  2. Kelly: Good to hear from you. I hope things in Chitown are well, that the weather has not chilled overmuch. Glad you liked my description of the market! Tried to make it just so…

    A sends her greetings as well. She’s also already crafting plans for returning to the windy city next summer, so we’ll have to go to the overpriced Heartland and drink expensive stout and eat buffalo burgers. Burp.


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