I have a confession to make. I like places that sell food. I like grocery stores. I like farmers’ markets. I like little stores chock full of things I can’t pronounce in the middle of China town. I like the way food is sorted, shelved, displayed, and sold. I think the places where locals can buy their food are very telling of how people live. I also think the food that people choose from these shelves is telling of who they are but that story is for another day. Whenever I have visited a new town, either for work or play, whether alone or not, I like to look at the places where people can buy food.
When my husband and I were in Albany, New York for a conference he was going to, we had brought along our little fellow who was only a few months old at the time. He wasn’t very easy to put to sleep so we often found ourselves roaming the streets at night trying to get him to settle. On a night when we were hoping to get the little one to sleep in his portable car seat bucket, we had hoped to head out for a late dinner with him sleeping at our side. Instead, he continued to be upset and wanted to keep moving around. As it was a cold and sleet-filled October night, we opted to do this movement in a grocery store with the bucket lodged inside the cart. My husband was restless and unhappy the entire time as we paced the aisles but I took note of everything on those shelves. It turned out that was to be the extent of our date. The grocery store. Our little guy never went to sleep the whole time and it was a strangely memorable night out with my hubby.
When I was heading up north for work last summer, I had a stopover in Iqaluit, Nunavut. Although this town can feel like the end of the road, there were more stops to make before we would get to our destination of Resolute Bay. In Iqaluit, I visited the North Mart. Like other big box stores it was lined with plastic gadgets (10 times more expensive than what I pay in my hometown) and other goodies besides food. The produce was limited but available, yet this was July. Winter months would be much leaner. This was apparently true for the towns I visited in Newfoundland as well. If produce came in at all, it would be very expensive and not always fall into the ‘freshly harvested’ category. Other grocery stores in the coastal towns along Baffin Bay sold things like animal furs and hunting gear.
After a May wedding, my husband and I spent the growing season on the farm and then took off to Europe for our honeymoon in October. I call this the food tour. We ate crepes on Paris street corners, croissants in the mornings and sampled cheese all around town. We had delicious pasta and gelato on the Mediterranean Sea in Italy and ate the most amazing squeaky cheese pizza in Milan. Some of the best food I have ever eaten was consumed during this trip.
I also had the benefit of the insatiable hunger that comes from being pregnant while I was there. My favourite part of that trip was our visit to a Farmers’ Market in Turin, Italy. You’d think we would have wanted to get away from what we call our ‘work’ but we couldn’t get enough of it. The displays were gorgeous with dried meats, fresh fish, delectable cheeses, bins of olives and spices, fresh figs, nuts and tomatoes. I could have spent my whole two weeks in this one spot and been happy.
Recently we visited some friends in Manhatten and on the evening before we were leaving, our hosts were sitting around reading the newspaper and relaxing after the children were all in bed. That night I snuck out and walked the 20 or so blocks to the Fairway grocery store where each display was separated into little hut-like sections. One was full of different kinds of coffee beans in bushel baskets. Another was filled with dried meats and hard bricks of cheeses on cutting boards. There was a bakery section for freshly baked breads wafting their yeasty smells around.
Food does not have to be plentiful and excessively available to have a story. In East Africa, I lived among people who ate simply and sparingly. A biscuit-type bread and mangoes were common for breakfast, dinner was mashed cassava (a potato-like root vegetable) and boiled kidney beans or rice that may or may not have been washed free of sand. I also happened to be visiting during the month that Muslims observe Ramadan. This means that almost all of the local people were going without food or water from sun up to sun down (7am to 7pm as we were near the equator). Many would not swim in the water for fear of getting a splash in their mouth (and the outside temperature was very hot).
At 7:30pm each night on the island of Zanzibar a whole series of booths would be set up along the beach and an incredible feast was laid out. There were various meats grilled on sticks, freshly pressed tropical fruit juices, fish and other fruits and vegetables. Some things I could not recognize and some things made me scared but I tried each and every thing anyway. Although I was not fasting the entire day, most of the restaurants and stores were closed for the day that month.
Other Farmers’ Markets I have enjoyed include the Upper East Side market in Manhatten, the Hornby Island market in British Columbia, the St. Andrews by the sea market in New Brunswick and the one in Carp outside of Ottawa for the sundried tomato feta dip, pepperettes and homemade butter tarts. Last fall we biked from one end of the island of Montreal to the other to visit two different markets - although the number of vegetable re-sellers were disheartening at these markets, the ability to pedal your way across the big city was delicious!
I must admit that my favourite is the market in Halifax, Nova Scotia because of its excellent smoked salmon, multi-levels of artisans and other food producers. I have actually threatened to take the 3-hour flight to Halifax for the day just to go to this market again. Gorgeous. Delicious. Outstanding. Another that stands out as a frontrunner is the Ithaca, New York market. Besides gawking at the enviable vegetable displays, however, all I recall is eating the best refried bean and scrambled egg burrito on the planet.
And of course, there is the Main Street market in Ottawa that we go to sell at every week. The sheep cheese there is award winning in my books. And every lunch hour I must wrestle with the decision between Sawaddee’s homemade Pad Thai or green curry. Little Stream Bakery also makes a girl want to quit baking bread in my opinion. The magic touch that goes into Graham’s spelt bread is something I’ve never been able to even remotely emulate. To die for.
Now a story a little closer to home. Just before Christmas, the grocery store near our home closed due to a labour dispute. In the past six months, stories about progress (or lack thereof) have been front-page news in our local paper. For a while it seemed as though the store would be closing for good, leaving the town of Shawville with little more than a discount store, a bulk wholesale food distributor and a butcher/deli (which is better than nothing, I know). The nearest grocery store is at least a half hour away from us. I did not realize how much I depended on my local store until it closed. Although far more than half of our food is stored from our land, there is still the baking powder, raisins, olive oil and many other things that I use regularly in our meals. Local businesses were reporting decreases in sales as much as 70% due to the mass exodus of people buying their food (and then other things) elsewhere.
Today I have learned that the store will be re-opening. When I went to pick up a few things at the Home Hardware store (which is attached to the grocery store), I saw a group of women collecting cleaning supplies and paper towels getting ready to re-stock the shelves that had been barren for months and months. You could hear the silent hum of ‘hallelujah’ in the air as this town was relieved of another hardship that it could barely fit onto its already steep pile of troubles. Coping with higher than normal rates of illness and unemployment are examples of what day-to-day life can be like around here. The news brought tears to my eyes. Something good. A grocery store.
Around the globe I went visiting food marts wherever I went. But as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz so aptly put it: ‘There is no place like home’.