Open-air markets symbolize community to me. Time as commodity – which is how we view it in this country – disappears in the hustle and bustle of these markets. What matters is relationships between people. Community. And hospitality, in other words.
Hospitality takes many forms. Learning how to recognize those forms takes much time, sometimes many years.
First, a definition of hospitality:*
- the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
There are times when, unthinkingly, we provide hospitality, even if only as customers in an open-air market. Extending beyond the usual spending of time and money, the smiling and the shaking of hands, hospitality occurs when we give something more, even if we think of our gifts as minute and insignificant.
Small things become important when seen through someone else’s eyes.
Ice cubes, for example.
One day, while living in Haiti, I forgot my special basket for oranges. At the time, through my catering business – Le Brown Bag – I delivered brown-bag lunches to various ex-pat offices throughout Port-au-Prince, including the U.S. Embassy. So I always carried a cooler or two filled with ice cubes to keep everything safe and fresh. On that particular day, I’d delivered all my brown bag lunch orders, intending to stop at my favorite street market in Petionville on my way home and pick up a few dozen juicy oranges from my favorite Madame Sarah, or market lady.
I pulled up to the market on the flame-tree-lined street in the center square in Petionville, a quaint village located above Port-au-Prince, the coolness of the mountains there a welcome relief from the hellish torridity down below.
Realizing that I’d left my basket for the oranges at home, I decided to put any that I bought into one of the coolers. I opened up the back of my beige Isuzu Trooper 4WD and, without thinking, started tossing out the partially melted ice cubes in my cooler. And then I felt something behind me, a slight gust of warm air on my bare arms telling me so. I turned as one of the market ladies grabbed my shoulder, stopping me in mid-air. “Glace, glace [ice, ice],“ she kept saying, scurrying to get an empty, frayed basket lined with yellowed, dry, curling banana leaves. Together we poured the ice cubes from the cooler into the basket.
Chastened, I realized these women probably rarely ever enjoyed or tasted ice. How could they? No refrigerators, no money to buy iced Cokes in a restaurant, in short, no ice ever. After that day, I gave the ladies my leftover ice on market days. If this was not a lesson in hospitality, and humility, I don’t know what else would have yanked me into wakefulness.
With that gesture, I became – in a small way – a part of the community, because I was giving something as well as receiving something. Money played no role.
And now, years and miles away from Haiti as I am, certain smells bring back memories of that open-air market. An aromatic chopped hot green pepper from my container garden or the perfume of crushed cilantro leaves intermingled with the ambrosial odor of a juicy canary-yellow pineapple, that’s all it takes to transport my mind back to a place where I don’t go anymore. A place where people loved commerce, yes, but they saw something Divine in everyone who came into their presence, to banter with, dance with, be with.
Wandering through the world’s street markets, inhaling the aroma of just-baked bread or sizzling brochettes, tasting freshness in farm-produced mozzarella shared by a smiling vendor, sniffing a plump cantaloupe for tonight’s simple dinner, well, every time this brings home to me the fragile thread tying us all to the earth, that we’re all together on this orbiting mass of fire and rock and water and air.
Food truly forms our bodies and our lives. And even our souls. Everything we do happens so we can feed ourselves. And others.
Practicing hospitality however possible is vital for healthy communities.
Books about Markets and Street Food:
Grant, Rose. Street Food. Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1988.
Gutierrez, Sandra. Latin American Street Food. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
Katona, Nisha. Mowgli Street Food. London: Nourish, 2018.
Long, Dixon and Ruth Ann. Markets of Paris: Food, Antiques, Artisanal Crafts, Books & More. New York: The Little Bookroom, 2006.
Sheffer, Nelli and Mimi Sheridan. Food Markets of the World. New York: Abrams, 1997.
Thompson, David. Thai Street Food. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, 2010.
*Definition from Oxford Languages