Most Sundays here in Mexico, I take my son to the market a few blocks from our home in Morelia’s colonial old town. Some weeks my husband comes too, even when he feels behind in his work, but other than the variable of his presence or absence, we pretty much follow a careful routine: We always go mid-morning, for example, before the bread lady has run out of the long crusty loaves I like, but after the rotisserie chickens have finished roasting. Between these stops we wind through the dimly lit alleyways of the covered marketplace buying fruits, honey, vegetables, fresh flowers, brown eggs, warm tortillas.
Ordinarily, my willful toddler won’t tolerate a long stroller ride, but he makes an exception for market day. This is good luck for me: without his stroller handles to hang bags upon and the counterbalance with his little body, I couldn’t cart home a week’s worth of food. In his lap he clutches a little woven plastic basket that he begged me for one Sunday (it’s a miniature version of what many Mexicans carry for their marketing). In this he keeps a few scraps of paper that we have decorated to look like money. Sometimes, when we arrive home, I discover that he has added a shoplifted tangerine or a tomato to this assortment.
Because Sundays are our market day, they are my favorite day of the week. They are the day when living in Mexico has that glistening sheen, not of the foreign—although that too—but of the increasingly familiar. On Sundays, so full of ritual and metaphor—those social gestures of exchange, of mutual benefit, of interconnectedness, I feel a little less lonely. And, since loneliness is the state of rest when one is a foreigner, this reprieve is a blessing.
In his book Mornings in Mexico, D.H. Lawrence describes a very different Mexican market—one that existed in the 1920s, but has since been run down by the incessant flow of northbound truck, a phenomenon of yet another market. At the heart of the market, Lawrence suggests with his usual enthusiasm, is the basic urge to beat back the loneliness that is the state of rest for humans in general:
In the old world, men make themselves two great excuses for coming together to a centre, and commingling freely in a mixed, unsuspicious host. Market and religion. These alone bring me, unarmed, together since time began. A little load of firewood, a woven blanket, a few eggs and tomatoes are excuse enough for men, women, and children to cross the foot-weary miles of valley and mountain. To buy, to sell, to barter, to exchange. To exchange, above all things, human contact….
It is a bargain. Off you go with multicoloured pinks, and the [seller] has had one more moment of contact, with a stranger, a perfect stranger. An intermingling of voices, a threading together of different wills. It is life. The centavos are an excuse.
The covered market where I shop nearly ninety years after D. H. Lawrence made his forays into Mexico’s markets is no longer a reprieve for farmers after a week in the fields. Urban Mexico has become too efficient, too modern, for that. And the U.S.’s romantic dalliance with farmers’ markets has yet, or perhaps will never, regain its charm for Mexican shoppers. My marketplace in Morelia may look a little like the old covered market Lawrence frequented, but my market is open seven days a week, and the same surly man sells eggs and sundries each of those seven. And those eggs cost 18 pesos for a kilo, no discussion. Like the seller, the sources have been streamlined too: produce from one stand to the next is strikingly similar—Roma tomatoes, large or small white onions, a streaky pale green summer squash. Clearly, there is an auction somewhere, and clearly large growers, maybe even export growers with surplus or overripe (for shipping) produce, flood out the subsistence set.
In spite of some homogeneities, in no way does this market resemble the gleaming, chilled fluorescence of the supermarkets—like the Costco-affiliated Mega Commercial or Walmart’s Superama—that exist here in Morelia. Nor does it compare much to the globalized marketplace my husband has come to do his doctoral research on—open and free markets, imports and exports—although there are telltale signs of this. In our market, although some of the bananas have Dole stickers and the cucumbers have been waxed to a high shine, these items are sold beneath rafters hung with fading piñatas, and piled burlap sacks of dried red and black chiles. And Morelia has a clear preference for this eclecticism: on Sundays, the supermarkets are as hushed and cavernous as any other day; the bustle still belongs to the dark market alleys. Sometimes, the bustle becomes so thick that it is nearly impossible to get around with my laden stroller, but I am learning to navigate this and I have no interest on shopping on uncrowded days.
My first stop after bread is a particularly popular vegetable stand. The two efficient ladies in plaid smocks who run the stand already count me as a regular customer; one calls to me on the periphery of the shoppers examining their squashes and peppers. (Lines are never linear in Latin America.)
“Señora, what would you like?”
“Todo,” I answer. “Calabazas, jitomates, y ajo…”
She hands me a bag and people make way for me to pick out my own green squashes and tomatoes while the lady cuts the stems off of onions and picks out an garlic head.
“…poblano, jicama, cebollas…” I continue, and she piles the items on her table.
“Y flor de calabaza,” I conclude. She shows me two bunches of orange squash blossoms and I pick one.
When I get home, I will make a simple squash blossom soup for Sunday dinner and green chile chicken enchiladas to eat during the week (a homesick food for my New Mexican husband and son).
She tabulates. The cilantro is free.
“43 pesos,” she tells me. At less than $4, there’s no reason to check her math.
The following week, I buy so much food that I can’t help explaining.
“It’s that my in-laws are coming to visit,” I say sheepishly.
The crowd around this popular stand is thick, but the ladies both hone in on me. How long will they be visiting? Where are they coming from?
“You must attend to them well!” the older one says, and then she reminds me that I’ll need garlic too.
I arrive at the market with a list for vegetables, but never fruits. Nor do I shop the same stands, although there is one vendor, a seller who works one end of a large stand, whose spread I examine first. I call him professor, even to his face, because he has been teaching me about the fruits I don’t know ever since I arrived in Morelia.
“What is this?” I’ll ask, picking up a tan, lightly furred, almond-shaped fruit about as long as my hand.
“Mamey,” he answers, pulling out a knife and carefully selecting one of the fruits.
He slices the mamey open, hands it to me, and gestures how I ought to eat it.
The next week I grill him about a fat green fruit called zapotes. How do I prepare it? Do I remove the seeds before I put it in the blender for juice?
The professor is generous with information and samples, but his selection isn’t always to my taste. He carries apples exported from the U.S., and plums too, and I know he’s baffled that I don’t buy these. Meanwhile, the fruits I do want—guavas, papayas, pineapples, mangoes (although the season is ending), and two kinds of bananas—are less impressive at his stand than elsewhere.
Usually, I get a few things from a few different stands, choosing what looks and smells best. Cantaloupe, plantains for frying (called machos here in Mexico), the sweet thumb-sized bananas (called dominicas here), and citrus: naranjas, toronjas, mandarinas, and, most important, limones. Lemons in Mexico would be called limes in the U.S., but they are not interchangeable, I’ve learned (with the help of some of the shopkeepers). Limones, whether green or yellow, are more similar to key limes in the U.S., with a thin skin and a flavor somewhere in between the two. Limas, on the other hand, are larger, their lobes visible through the skin, and they taste floral, sometimes to the point of being soapy. Twice I’ve bought them—they are beautiful fruits and hard to resist—and found no use for them.
The limones I will cook with, both for flavor and for further disinfecting uncooked fruits or vegetables. Or I will make lemonade. The other fruits I toss in the blender—or licuadora—to grind into thick juices, licuados, or milk shakes, batidos, which I learned to make years ago when I was a volunteer living in Ecuador. For some reason, I never make licuados in the U.S.—I don’t even own a blender, which, after a good, sharp knife and a bean pot, is the most important kitchen utensil in Latin America.
My market fluency drops precipitously when it comes to meats and ends entirely at cheeses. To tell the truth, I only buy cooked chicken. My family raised poultry when I was a kid, and I retain the muscle memory of plucking feathers out of cold skin, but I can’t quite handle the unrefrigerated raw carcasses heaped directly on tile counters at the market, their yellow feet reaching out as if to grab passing customers. Beef we eat only in restaurants, and, since I’m pregnant, fish is off the table.
Fortunately, rotisserie chickens are 65 pesos for two. The lady who sells them knows that I prefer to skip the cabbage salad that they come with and substitutes extra rice. I no longer ask. Even if I’ve arrived too soon for chicken and have to send my husband back to get it, she knows that he must be with me and won’t serve him cabbage. We eat chicken and rice as soon as we get home, while it’s hot and fresh, then pick the rest of the meat from the bones to add to things we cook during the week, and we boil the bones into stock for soup and enchilada roux.
All afternoon I cook until I am exhausted, and then I wash the pots and squeeze the fruits of my labor into my half-sized refrigerator. My son cooks beside me. He stirs whole limones and mandarinas in a bowl on the countertop, adds unpeeled cloves of garlic and a half-eaten tortilla. He offers me tastes of what is soup, now bread, now oatmeal.
This is our ritual. This is my homemaking, not in the housewife sense of mastering a casserole, but in the constructing of stability, familiarity, family, life, personal history.
But there is more to it than ritual. The social interaction, however contrived or standardized, is real. I see the vegetables ladies and the professor and the rotisserie chicken lady for a few minutes each Sunday. I am still learning my lines, gaining fluency, but even as I flounder through the steps, I do make contact and vice versa.
I realized this yesterday, a Sunday, when I did not go to the market. I’m eight months pregnant and however much I enjoy the market, when the time came, a long bath sans toddler was more desirable than pushing a heavy stroller over rough sidewalks. I stood in the doorway calling out last minutes requests as my husband and my son wheeled off without me, and then I didn’t think too much about it until we sat down two hours later to warm chicken and rice and my husband gave me the report.
The vegetable ladies had been eager to hear how his parents (whom they had seen in person the previous weekend) had enjoyed their visit to Morelia.
The rotisserie chicken lady wanted to know (since I wasn’t there) if I had had the baby yet.
The warmth of reciprocation—if only of curiosity of otherness—stayed with me as I boned chickens and peeled chiles and discussed revisions to a paper on NAFTA.
We had been expected that Sunday morning in a Mexican market, and, better still, I had been missed. D. H. was on to something: human contact, the centavos are an excuse.