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Farmer's Markets South of the Border: Oaxaca

By Vanessa Barrington

Here in the Northern California Wine Country, we go to our Farmer's Markets on specified days and in season, so we can stock up on fresh produce for the week. Many people see shopping at their local market as a social event and a way to stay in touch with the community. In contrast to a trip to the grocery store to buy food, the farmer's market provides a more complete experience.

Shopping at the farmer's market gives people an opportunity to socialize with their neighbors and support the farmers in the area by buying seasonal produce grown locally. In this way, the money spent on food stays in the community. The markets also provide a venue for unusual, organic, and heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables which many grocery stores don't carry. The economics of the small local farm are such that survival often depends upon specialization, which is why our markets in Sonoma County are filled with such an astounding variety of baby vegetables and unusually colorful tomatoes, beans, peppers, and peaches. This situation allows small farmers to keep farming, which in turn slows down development of rural areas, preserves heirloom plants, and allows those of us who shop at the markets to have access to the very best, most flavorful and most unusual items.

Still, a relatively small percentage of people take advantage of this resource. Issues of time, inclination, money, habit, or convenience mean that most people in the United States still do all of their shopping at the grocery store. Though one can find a nice cheese, some good local honey, some smoked fish, flowers, or craft items, our markets are not substitutes for the grocery store. We still need our grocery stores off-season for most of our food, and year-round for meat, dairy, and household goods.

When I was in Mexico, I was struck by how different the markets are. Like our markets, they are the social hub and the heart of the cities and the countryside. But, in addition, they serve as the "supermarkets" for everyone. The markets in the larger cities are open all day, every day, and have literally everything, almost like our malls. In many parts of Mexico refrigeration is still unreliable, and most people do not own a private car with a trunk which they can load with a week's worth of groceries. So, people set out to buy their food daily in buses, on foot, in taxis, on bicycles or crowded into the backs of tarp-covered little pickups that serve as public transport. Mexicans carry their purchases in large colorful woven reusable bags, just like we do here. In fact, many of the "market bags" we buy here are made in Mexico.

   
The larger markets have fresh meat, fish, and chicken, cheeses, tequila, dried chilies, and herbs, canned goods, teas, coffee, dried fish, leather goods, pottery, shoes, clothing, plastic kitchenware, soap, shampoo and other toiletries   and of course the fresh vegetables. The better markets in large towns display the fresh fruits and vegetables in towering, artistic, colorful displays. There are baskets filled with assorted reddish-brown dried chilies next to piles of watermelons, bright yellow papayas, orange mangos, bananas, fresh green chilies, dark leafy greens, citrus, pale tan jicima, yellow pineapples, bright red tomatoes, long strands of garlic, and grapes. The variety is so great because the climate in Mexico is such that many different types of produce can be grown year-round. The next time you shop in your local grocery store during winter or spring, look at the stickers on the peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, and berries, and you will see that a large percentage of our off-season items come from Mexico or other parts of Latin America.

Of all the markets I visited in Mexico, my favorite is the one in the middle of Oaxaca City called Juarez. It encompasses about three city blocks, and can be entered from any point along any of the streets. It is really a gigantic maze, and it is difficult to see everything, but after a few trips a pattern of sorts emerges. Leather goods, knick-knacks, clothing, toiletries, rugs, notions, and CDs dominate the periphery of the market. As one walks further into the middle, there are canned goods, cheeses (the local stringy salty Oaxacan cheese is delicious), dried chilies, and large booths filled with different brands of fiery and incredibly intoxicating Mescal. Food stalls called comedors, which consist of little lean-to type shelters with a sink, a grill or a small hot plate, dominate the next layer of the market. Opposite the lean-to is a counter where the food is assembled. On the other side of the counter are stools for the customers. These comedors serve a simple home-cooked everyday type of food. People can stop to get a quick bite and rest their feet while shopping. Most of these meals are around one or two dollars. The meals are very fast and affordable. The locals stop and eat these meals during a break in their shopping in much the same way we stop into a McDonald's or Taco Bell during a busy day.

There are no menus. Just pick a likely looking one (busy is better) and sit down; they will tell you what they offer. Most comedors are friendly and helpful. (Spanish helps, but pointing works.) Most comedors offer two or three dishes. You may get simple soup, such as a delicious full-flavored broth sporting a large chicken part on the bone and some chunky pieces of carrots and/or potatoes. For me it was all about the broth. The broths are clear and flavorful, like a tonic. The comedors will give you some fresh cilantro and lime to squeeze into your soup, and it will taste strangely refreshing in the hot weather. You may also be offered a perfect chili relleno a la carte, a taco filled with pork or chicken and topped with onions, cilantro, and hot sauce, or a meal of stewed chicken with rice and beans.

In addition to these comedors, there are also booths that serve liquados and agua frescas. Some have blenders and will blend different types of fresh fruit together. These are great for breakfast. The agua frescas are already-prepared juices like mango, pineapple, melon, or lime. Often they will come in a plastic baggy tied at the top with a straw sticking out. These are popular with school children on break.

   
Photos by Vanessa Barrington
Past the comedors, you will find the fresh food part of the market. Items are somewhat organized together. For instance, you will find all the fresh beef and pork in one row. Small, usually white little booths are crammed close together, and the meat hangs right out in front of the booth. Behind the curtain of meat, the person in the booth will be cutting more fresh meat to sell. All of the chicken booths are also in one row. The chicken is arranged in piles by part. Whole chickens in one pile, feet in the next, legs in another. The person behind the counter will be furiously chopping up chickens with a cleaver. Likewise, the fish is all in one place. Usually the fish will be whole, and the person in the booth will be cleaning and hacking heads off the fish. It is all very noisy, smelly, and a bit disturbing when you see and feel little bits of moist flesh flying around. This is especially true if, like most Americans, you are used to getting fresh meat out of refrigerated cases, neatly placed on Styrofoam trays, covered hygienically with plastic wrap, and dated reassuringly with a "sell by" date.

Besides the official booths, there are sort of traveling (or, I think probably, squatting) unofficial merchants. Women walk around selling fresh tortillas and homemade masa dough, or carry baskets filled with just one type of produce, like garlic. Other groups of women and children sit on the floors of the market with meager baskets of a few tired-looking chilies or a couple of bunches of greens. I'm sure it costs money to have a booth in the market, and these people are trying to eke out a living. The "unofficial" merchants can be quite forward. They thrust their baskets into your face and call out their wares. The official booths behave more like storekeepers.

 

The most interesting things sold in the markets, and the weirdest things I ate in Mexico, are the fried grasshoppers. Whole grasshoppers are arranged on baskets and usually carried around the market by women who will thrust them into your face like waiters at an hors d'oeuvres party. Some baskets have small, medium, and large grasshoppers arranged in a sort of amorphous pattern. They are fried earlier in the day and then sprinkled with chili, salt, and lime. You can get a little plastic baggy full of these salty, crunchy, buggy, morsels for a few pesos, or about 10-15 cents. I chose the medium size. They were OK   I thought they might have been more delicious hot, like French fries. But I didn't finish mine. There are too many other good things to eat in Mexico.

It's a little different than hitting the Healdsburg market on a Saturday morning, and munching on a sticky bun from the Downtown Bakery while gazing upon the tiny little carrots and beets, the perfect squash blossoms, and the rainbow-colored tomatoes, but that's one of the reasons why I enjoy travelling.


Vanessa Barrington is the chef at Jimtown Store in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley. She has been heavily involved in creating and testing the recipes for Jimtown owner Carrie Brown's upcoming "Lusty Country Cooking" cookbook for HarperCollins. She is also a frequent contributor to sonomapicnic.com and keeps us all regularly amused by her take on road cooking, travel, and life in the Wine Country.



  
"L'Heure de l'Aperitif," Marcel Bovis 1934Restaurant Juan et Juanita, 82 rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud

   
Seen around southeast StumptownGreetings from Mexico

 


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