Yesterday, on the final full day of my brother Matthew’s visit, I took him to one of my favorite DC spots—Eastern Market. Though a fire destroyed the historic hall that housed the heart of the market about a year ago, the market is still going strong. Every day of the week, you’ll find in the inside section (now housed in a temporary building), butchers, fishmongers, pasta makers, and bakers, serving up incredibly fresh products. It’s a treat just to walk through and see food without all the plastic wrap and labeling introduced by the grocery stores. On weekends, in the outdoor sections, you’ll find farm stands, artisans, and flea market booths. I love to meander through, sampling the produce, marveling at some of the flea market oddities, and wishing I had more money than I do so I could buy the jewelry, photographs, and other artworks on sale. In honor of my birthday, I went ahead and splurged yesterday and bought a necklace from one of my favorite vendors, Andrea Haffner. She casts dried flowers in resin to create gorgeous pendants. I’d bought them as gifts before, but never one for myself, and this time I just couldn’t resist.
The reasons I love Eastern Market are myriad, but what it really boils down to is its authenticity. It’s not packaged or produced, not really all that predictable. There’s never a guarantee that a certain vendor will be there, but there’s always a guarantee that I’ll find something interesting. In the permanent hall, the vendors are third and fourth generation. The people selling you slabs of beef, your Thanksgiving turkey, or a slice of cake know the history of this city and this market better than anyone. There are stories here. And though the stories at Eastern Market are the stories of DC, there are thousands of markets around the world with millions of stories to be told.
Just tonight, I put on an old episode of No Reservations. By random chance, I chose the Jamaica episode, and though I faded in and out of paying attention to the show, I was listening when Bourdain visited a market and noted that he thinks it is one of the first things you should do when you visit a city to really get a feel for the place. I wholeheartedly agree. In my travels, I love to seek out markets.
In Freiburg, Germany, a daily market took place right outside the cathedral. It was there that I first encountered white spargel, and I made many a lunch out of the wursts being cooked up on the spot. The aroma was impossible to resist. At Barcelona’s Mercat de la Boqueria, I had my first blood orange, beginning an addiction that I just can’t kick. And every Friday in Athens, I made my way to my neighborhood laiki (farmer’s market), a street full of tents where I bought the spinach I would use to make my first spanakopita and where my “tomato man” (see second picture below) helped me pick out the perfect cucumbers for tzatziki. I never felt more integrated into Greek society than when I was at the laiki. After just a few weeks, the vendors would recognize me, welcome me, and always, always, always sneak a little extra something into my bag after I’d already picked out and paid for what I wanted. It’s too bad my grocery store here doesn’t do that.
But it’s not only when I’m abroad that I seek out markets. In Philadelphia, we spent way more time than we had planned wandering around the Reading Terminal Market, and I always try to make it to the Bainbridge Island Farmer’s Market when we visit Jeff’s parents. If we have time, we also take a trip to Pike’s Place Market and maybe even the Ballard and Fremont neighborhood markets. Really, I never get tired of them.
And though I must admit that food markets are my favorite, I’m a sucker for any type of market. In Cairo, I loved getting lost in the alleys of Khan el-Khalili, bargaining for mother-of-pearl chess sets and inlaid plates. And I don’t think I ever went downtown in Athens, without visiting Monastiraki, where you never knew what you might find. Once, spread out on a blanket with dishes and toys was a dildo. Odd indeed. Another time, in a bowl of old coins was a brand new American quarter. Out of curiosity we asked the seller how much he wanted for it, and after studying it for a moment (obviously having no idea what it was), he asked us for 2 euro. We passed. Even in the days of decent exchange rates, an American quarter wasn’t worth that.
Once we set out on our big adventure, I’ll be on the lookout for great markets, and you can count on me narrating many a visit along with my first tastes of new fruits and vegetables or my super bargain purchases. So that I don’t miss any must-see markets, I’ve been doing a little research, and I came across this list from Food & Wine magazine, detailing 25 top food markets, including five that we may make it to: Singapore’s Kreta Ayer Wet Market; Old Delhi, India’s Chandni Chowk; Picsac, Peru’s Sunday Market; Santiago, Chile’s Mercado Central; and Manaus, Brazil’s Mercado Municipal. But I know there are more great markets out there.
So tell me, what’s your favorite market? Even if it’s not in a location we plan to visit on this trip, go ahead and let me know about it. I’ll start taking notes for our next go-round.