One of the greatest pleasures in my grandfather’s life was to visit the market in Cannes, to admire the variety and quality of the produce on offer and to chat to some of the stallholders. Covered markets in Spain are impressive. The food is less expensive, there is less variety and there is less knowledge of the products on display than there is in France, but the quality is fantastic. A market in India has a wide variety of products, many more prepared foods than in France or Spain, but suffers from a lack of hygiene. You get extra in India: gold leaf with your fudge, tamarind on your puffed rice, masala in your tea, hepatitis with your gulab jamun, Delhi belly with your salt lassi, cholera with your Limca nimbu; cockroaches running around your rice, weevils in your bread and beer in your teacup.
In Africa markets are like wells. You go to the well to rest from the fields, to stay in the shade, to sit together and talk and if someone comes along and gives you money for what took you so long to grow, you buy soap for your family, tea and sugar, school uniforms, beer for your man: love is renewed. In famine the chickens are thin and the eggs fit coldly into your palm, in feast the chickens are fat and the eggs are warm and match your fist and you learn the meaning of the word exuberance.
The most impressive markets in Japan are fish markets. All the coastal incursions into other countries’ territories, all the bribery and corruption of other countries’ fishing fleets seem worth it when you see the fleshy harvest, when you watch the speed at which the Japanese market workers labour, in relative silence, and observe how a large fish is dealt with by two knife-wielding fishmongers. The large animal is slashed and slashed into lunchbox sized portions. Chinese markets are deforming and fantastical. All edible protein and plant life is there. Crunchy spiders, a million glazed animals, there is dream-like plasticity of vegetable and meat, a moral to the story. Watch the House of the Spirits, how the parents gobble up the food of ghosts, Oh how many Chinese ghosts, and turn into pigs. The remedies for engorgement are disgorgement and loss.
But the best markets of all are Mexican markets. Let me tell you about Mexican markets. The reason why Mexican markets are the best is simple. The true greatness of Mexican culture wasn’t its vast pyramids and cities; some pyramids so big, like the pyramid of Cholula, that the Spanish built on them mistaking them for hills. Mexican greatness didn’t simply consist of its highly ordered, disciplined and meritocratic society, not its free schools and public services. It wasn’t demonstrated in calendars or through the windows of observatories. It wasn’t present in the supreme skill of its craftsmanship or even in the glory and gore of its wars and religion.
The greatness of Mexican culture spoke through plants. The arrival of the Spanish in Mexico was not a clash of civilisations, but a destructive collision. The Spanish conquerors burned tens of thousands of Mexican texts. They burned the equivalent of an Alexandrian Library full of Mexican knowledge, much of it agricultural knowledge. Later, they also orphaned Mexico’s agricultural achievements, a crime as black as the black legend. The Spanish appropriated Mexico’s agriculture and sent it parentless into the world. All of our ancestors fall back into the wilderness in times of hunger to look for nourishment. We know this. The crops fail, your herds die and it’s back to the roots and the grasses and the berries and the forest tree fruits. Take maize for example. In the beginning corn was simply a fatly seeded stalk. The Mexicans brought it out of the wild and tamed it and even ended up calling themselves after it. The children of the maize. Long before the buffalo were slaughtered and the prairies turned into corn fields, Mexican farmers had already created many varieties of corn, selected the maize for its colour and shape.
So read these names as you would ten thousand books: tomate, jitomate, aguacate, chocolate, chile, maiz, guayaba, papaya, hule, calabaza, frijol, vainilla, cacahuate, algodon, girasol, tuna, ajonjoli, jicama, mamey, chico zapote, cuitlacoche, pitaya, chaya, nopal, changunga, and so on. And there was, among the many million herbal remedies, even the cure for cancer. Lost forever. Precious medical knowledge destroyed by the footloose, ricocheting younger sons of the Christian Spanish empire. But, if you look, you can still buy “Gobernadora” in the market. Quietly, on the packet, it whispers in small letters “Against cancer”. And the power of this Mexican agricultural inheritance continues to bite in and spread: ambassador Poinsettia takes a decorative Mexican Christmas plant back to the US with bright red leaves. Mr Hass develops a new, creamier avocado. Mexican Peyote kick starts psychedelia and catalyses a cultural revolution. Lantana and jacaranda colonise whole countries and farmers attempt to eradicate these tenacious Mexican plants as if they were triffids. Mexican Aloe is now used in a hundred cosmetic products and the Koreans and Japanese have even learned to drink it (though they don’t know pulque). I am sure the the thieving drug companies will find many uses for the mysterious toloache.
Diego Rivera when he wanted to paint a mural on the glories of Mexico painted a picture. It was a mural of Tenochtitlan as market. You can go and see it in the Palacio Nacional in the Zocalo. And 600 years ago Nezohualcoyotl, and all the Nahuatl poets, thought of their poems as flowers. The highest Mexican poetic sentiment, higher than all the others was the symbol of flowering.
“They may tear off our fruit, They may cut off our branches, They may burn the trunk, But they will never be able to kill our roots.”
From the song of Netzahualcoyotl
On your feet! On your feet my friends
The princes are now paupers
Yes, I am Nezahualcoyotl
Yes, I am the singer
I’m that parrot with a big head
Go on! Pick up your flowers and your feathered fans
Go on! Dance with them
Because you are my son
You are Yoyontzin
Drink up your chocolate
The flower of the cocoa plant
Now, drink it down and ready
This isn’t our home
We shan’t be living here much longer
We must all leave soon.”
And when Netzahualcoyotl calls to his son Yoyontzin, to remember who he is, he tells him to drink chocolate, the flower of the cocoa plant, he knew what it was all worth. He knew what would happen, Yoyontzin, my son.
Phil Hall 2007
Phil Hall is a university lecturer working in the Middle East. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.