By Steven Méthot
Our earliest memories are often a jumble of feelings and senses, nothing quite as organized and concrete as those of adulthood. These snippets of memory often arise unbiddenly; a scent on the breeze can carry us back to childhood with an experience so vivid, so real, that we can be rooted, transfixed in a time decades ago and half a world away.
One Sunday this summer I spent pleasant hours at the Cedar Farmers Market passing the time away from the pressing tasks of moving into and renovating our new home. I did not expect to be overwhelmed by memory while passing a booth, nor did I think that this lightning strike of recollection would affirm all of our hopes and dreams for our move to Vancouver Island.
For a moment in passing between two booths I caught a scent of something, maybe berries, maybe radishes, but whatever it was landed me back in time, a toddler in a pram at the Lachine Public Market with the overwhelming sense that all was right in the world.
I grew up within walking distance of the oldest market on the island of Montréal. The market was a long awninged building with space for trucks under the roof to serve as impromptu booths. Fresh produce was brought in twice weekly and daily during the late summer and autumn. A visit to the market formed part of my routine as my grandmother lived even closer to the market than we did, and it was convenient to stop off either coming or going to purchase fresh fruit or vegetables for supper.
I do recall being pushed in a stroller through the market stalls, the stacks of produce heaped impossibly high from a toddler’s perspective, the smells of fruit, vegetables, herbs, and spices were intoxicating and somehow comforting. As Mom or Dad would negotiate with the vendors, I would inevitably find myself munching on a snap pea, or a carrot, or – joy of joys – a McIntosh apple. While I may have at times grown impatient with my parents for lingering to chat with merchants, friends, or neighbours, it was clear to me even then that the market was a special place, a place to meet and share not only the fruit of the land and the work of human hands but also a sharing in the news of families and the neighbourhood. I couldn’t put it into words then, but deep down I knew that the market was a place for food for both the body and the spirit.
As I grew, I developed a relationship with an apple farmer. I was often entrusted with the errand of buying a bushel for pies or for eating. The farmer would bag the apples and would always hand me an extra apple with a nod or a wink, “Don’t tell your mom!”. Years later at another Montréal market, I recognized the family name on a stall and discovered that the vendor was this man’s son. I started to tell him the story of the free apples, but he interrupted me and finished my story with a laugh. “You don’t know how many times I have heard that story from people around this town. It is funny how an apple farmer could be such a part of so many people’s memories from childhood!”
Apples weren’t the only things passed on to me by farmers at the market, there were lessons too. In my teen years, I became the local paperboy for an English paper in a very French neighborhood. My customers were widely dispersed, my route was long and I had to rise at an ungodly hour to finish deliveries in time to get to school. One of my Saturday customers was a market gardener who would often be setting up his stall as I trudged home in the first light. I enjoyed the work of delivering papers and I didn’t really mind the early hours nor the whims of the weather, and I found in the gardener a bit of a kindred spirit. We’d spend a couple of minutes in conversation and I learned the obvious lesson that our food was the product of hard work and long hours. More than that message though was what I gained from the light in his eyes in those pre-dawn hours. There was joy there, a simple honest joy.
We’d both be yawning to greet the sun, but it was clear that he had a passion for what he did and a love for the work of the garden that made the fatigue worthwhile.
“Love what you do, kid!” he’d tell me, “Love whatever it is you do, then the hours will fly by.”
I wasn’t about to make a vocation out of delivering papers, but I knew that whatever work I chose I wanted to have that light in my eyes as I faced the day.
The French word for a crossroads, “Carrefour” is often used to describe markets. This is not surprising as markets were often situated at crossroads at the heart of settlements or where the great roads met. Today all markets stand at an intersection of sorts. One road is the road of history, a history that isn’t just the great impersonal march of time but our own personal history, our past, and memories and hopes for the future. Another road is that of sustainability and growth, again both universal and personal. At that intersection where past, present, and future, sustainability and growth meet, is the ground where community is found and built.
Building community sounds a rather grand task for a simple Farmers Market, and perhaps rather heavy an expectation to place on vendors who are just trying to get by in the world. And yet in pondering the role of the farmers market I keep revisiting the realms of memory and returning with snippets from my own journeys and encounters with markets both here and abroad. Everywhere I have traveled markets work a very human magic and are at the heart of what brings us together and what enriches our lives.
There was the village much too small for a full market that insisted that they needed one and worked together to maintain one. And so, produce merchants would set up on one day, fishmongers on the next, beef and poultry on another day, all to ensure that the life of the community was sustained.
There was the baker who shook his head at a customer wanting only two baguettes. “No, I know your wife, she’ll want another half for the weekend.” The customer laughingly agreed.
There was the cheesemonger who patiently waited on an elderly woman who claimed that she had forgotten the type of cheese she had bought last week, and so she tasted her way through all of the samples the merchant offered. “That’s nice, but not what you sold me last week.” The merchant saw me waiting and winked, and I realized that this exchange with his customer was an established tradition. As she eventually toddled off smiling with her cherished cheese, I knew that she would return to visit the merchant to continue writing their story.
And this summer, fresh on the heels of our move to Ladysmith, we discovered the Cedar Farmers Market. We came looking for berries but also in hopes of finding sustainable sources of food and crafts. We wanted and needed to make contact and establish links in the community. We needed to find a sense of place.
Sure enough, our visit resulted in our finding a local supplier of eggs, a contact with people interested in hiking local trails, someone who gave us invaluable advice on growing Elderflowers, oh and the tasty treats and even tastier music. Food for body and spirit.
We return to the Cedar Farmers Market regularly, not just because we need items but also for the people we meet and in appreciation for finding a place we can truly call home. From the perspective of this aging observer, there is joy in the realization that many of the people behind the counters, the farmers, the craftspeople, the merchants are younger than we are, often with their own younglings in tow. The dance of the farmers market will continue.
And if you find me there at the market, rooted, transfixed, and gazing off into the distance, it might be because the scent of something or other has sent me back in time to munch on a “secret” apple. Just as likely, I may be spellbound in delight at the sight of a toddler pulling her dad to a booth to encourage him to buy some “yummy” fruit, reveling in the delight of fresh food. Or I may be gripped by simple gratitude, thankful for finding a home and for markets that help root us in community, ground us in history, and yet help us to navigate our way together to a sustainable future.