Tag Archives: Markets

The Market as a Village

Blog editors’ note: This is the summer edition of the Latinx Foodways in North America series, which looks at different approaches scholars use to analyze foods and food production with Latinx communities. Latinx is broadly defined to include the United States and other regions in North America. If you would like to contribute or know of someone who does work in this area, please contact series editor, Sarah Fouts: sfouts@umbc.edu

Tiana Bakic Hayden

“This is like a village,” said Toño, a lime merchant in Mexico City’s main wholesale food terminal, La Central de Abasto. “Everyone knows everyone, everyone gossips.”

If La Central is like a village, it bears little resemblance to the pastoral imaginary of small houses dotting crop-covered hills and domesticated animals milling about. Inaugurated in 1982, La Central covers over 300 hectares of land in the southeastern Mexico City neighborhood of Iztapalapa. It is a sprawling, modernist complex of concrete warehouse and storehouse spaces, divided in grid-fashion by roads and alleys, which are invariably clogged by produce-laden cargo trucks. A purely commercial space, nobody lives—officially at least—in La Central, but the market is alive day and night, every day of the week, all year round. Inside, there are restaurants, shops of various kinds, banks, a day care, an art gallery, conference spaces, administrative buildings, garbage processing facilities, and much more. Daily, between 300,000-500,000 visitors are estimated to come to La Central, searching for the best deals on kilos or even tons of watermelons, blackberries, avocados, or dried spices.

mexico market

A street shot of La Central. Photo taken by author.

Food markets are often thought of and represented in largely visual and sensory terms, and indeed, La Central is a place that is striking for the senses. The sight of tons of fruits, jostling bodies passing money, an endless line of vehicles, the smell of putrefying produce mingling with exhaust are all part of La Central. But what interested me was the sorts of networks, informal rules, and vernacular mechanisms according to which the market worked. How, I wondered, were prices set? How was commerce regulated in a space where so many transactions—between employees and employers, buyers and sellers—were in cash and left little in the way of a paper trail? What sort of culture of commerce existed in La Central?

I quickly found that, while merchants and administrators were generally open to interviews, these tended to be stilted, bureaucratic affairs where I learned little in the way of how things actually worked. In a particularly memorable interview, the president of the produce wholesalers’ union UNCOFYL, simply read to me fragments of the market’s and the union’s Reglamentos (internal statues) in answer to my questions about the day-to-day operations of the market. Merchants were usually happy to complain at length about the administration, the nation’s political or economic climate, or share their ‘origin stories,’ but extremely reluctant to speak about who they bought produce from, how much they paid per kilo, or how they dealt with bureaucracy like paperwork and inspections.

Moreover, since wholesale food markets are centralizing nodes in larger commercial networks, communications with sellers in rural areas—large and small agricultural producers, packing plants, rural traders and brokers—are largely carried out over the phone or via email, and there was not much that could be observed. My questions about pricing were often answered in generalities about “supply and demand” and the “laws of the market”, or simply avoided altogether. Often, I would spend all day with a merchant, only to have him (for it was almost always a man) step away discretely to take phone calls, make deals with regular customers, or talk to the accountant working upstairs.

mexico market men

Merchants hanging outside of their storefront in the market. Photo taken by the author.

Slowly, I realized that my frustration around lack of access to information was in fact a reflection of my interlocutors’ own experiences as they navigated the market. Merchants had to gather and then piece together information from different sources, to come up with an understanding of the market’s potentials and risks. One banana merchant, for example, told me that he paid a monthly sum to a “runner” who would go around the terminal each morning and manually count the number of trucks carrying bananas and their state of origin. From this information—scribbled on a scrap of paper—the merchant would try to get a sense of how much his competitors were selling, from where they were sourcing their goods, and how much they would charge that week. Another regularly asked his employees to go and get gossip from the employees in other parts of the market to get a sense of how much their competitors were selling, about their health, and other goings on. Meanwhile, being too forthright with information could be seen as suspect. One day, while I was speaking to a watermelon merchant, his neighbor and competitor came over and started telling him about a shipment of watermelons he was waiting for which he had acquired for a good price from a new producer. When he left, my interlocutor was suspicious and kept making comments out loud, wondering why his competitor had told him what he had told him, asking himself why it might be so.

I realized that merchants, while reluctant to speak of their own finances and dealings, were often eager to speculate and gossip about their competitors. La Central was indeed like a village in this sense; everyone was interested in everyone else’s business, and gossip was the only way to access this information, since there were no real official channels to do so, and since direct conversation was mistrusted. For merchants in a perishable food market, gossip is an essential resource for piecing together the contours of the commercial landscape in which they participate with partial knowledge. As Clifford Geertz wrote of another market in a different time and context:

…the search for information—laborious, uncertain, complex, and irregular—is the central experience of life in the bazaar. Every aspect of the bazaar economy reflects the fact that the primary problem facing its participants is…not balancing options but finding out what they are. Clifford Geertz (1978).

This is a useful insight for ethnographers doing research in food markets to keep in mind. Behind the conviviality of these spaces, their sensory pleasures, their photogenic qualities, food markets are spaces in which information circulates among many different channels. Following our interlocutors’ own struggles to navigate these networks is important, and gossip is a tool in piecing together knowledge which can only ever be partial, but which shapes the circulation of foods in the bazaar and beyond.

Reference

Geertz, Clifford. 1978. “The Bazaar Economy: Information and Search in Peasant Marketing.” The American Economic Review 68(2): 28–32.

Tiana Bakic Hayden is a researcher at the Instituto Gino Germani in Buenos Aires. She received her PhD in sociocultural anthropology from New York University in 2019. Her work is broadly concerned with understanding the interplay of political, sociocultural and technological factors in the production and regulation of urban food systems. She has conducted research in Mexico City and Buenos Aires on street food markets, wholesale food terminals, and the relationship between food security and everyday mobilities.

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, markets, Mexico

Out With The Old: Gentrifying Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market

 

By Markus Bell and Jieun Kim

In 1998 an article in Seoul’s Kyeonghyang newspaper described a visit to Seoul’s Noryanggin Fish Market as follows:

“Arriving in the Noryanggin Fish Market your timid heart will flutter like an excited fish in water. Whether you buy or not, simply strolling around the market will wash the sweaty odor from your body” (Sept. 5, 1998).

Noryangjin fish market is a cultural institution, and that’s why news of its relocation and ‘modernization’, following directives from the government cooperative, the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives (NFFC), has caused such a stir.

A fish market was established in 1927, during the Japanese colonial period, near Seoul central station. It moved to Noryangjin in 1971.

The recent relocation plans include replacing the market with a resort complex that includes hotels, entertainment facilities, and chain restaurants. But the NFFC and a determined group of market vendors are at odds over the move.

The vendors’ union insists that the government has ignored the voices of the merchants. They claim that the new building is unsuitable for trade, with less space and higher rent. As of late July this year, 321 of the 1,334 merchants – some 24% – were refusing to relocate.

Bell Protest banners at market

Banners protesting the relocation hang from the ceiling, photo by Markus Bell.

The state argues that the rent is reasonable, and claims that vendors are “illegally using private property.” Recently, violent clashes between vendors and the NFFC resulted in several injuries.

The market place relocation denotes a ‘qualia’ shift in Korea’s dining culture toward “cleanness.”

Nicholas Harkness (2013) noted a shift in contemporary soju drinking practices in Korea. Analyzing soju advertisements, he stressed that “softness” is analogically linked to other dimensions, such as femininity in soju consumption and representation. The qualia of the dining experience means a greater emphasis placed on “cleanness” – hygienically, visually, and in the relationship between the buyers and sellers.

During our visit to Noryangjin market, in the middle of an August heat wave, banners protesting the relocation hang from the ceiling and windows are boarded up. Listless middle-aged Korean women fan themselves atop up-turned beer crates, barely finding the energy to tout their wares.

Record heat or not, it’s business as usual. Huge containers are filled to the brim with everything from lobster to sea cucumber. The catch of the day is sea bass. We enter into negotiations with a fast-talking vendor.

Tossing a plump fish onto the concrete the fishmonger exacts a fatal blow on our chosen victim. Without hesitation, she guts it and strips the scales.

Bell Ocean to Chopping Board

From the ocean to the chopping board. Photo by Markus Bell.

Clutching polystyrene dishes of finely sliced raw fish, we dance our way around puddles of stagnant water to the doors of the on-site restaurant.

“Oe-seo-o-seyo!” the staff welcome, ushering us to our table. Several groups of Chinese tourists have set up camp at tables strewn with beer bottles and an afternoon’s worth of shelled crustacean. A red-faced man is slumped in the corner; chin on chest he defies the efforts of his party to wake him.

We peel off slice after slice of sashimi with metal chopsticks, coat it in soy sauce and wasabi, and wrap it in sesame leaves. It has a bite that can only be chased by Korea’s green-eyed monster – soju.

As the afternoon bleeds into the evening the table groans under the weight of empty bottles.

Bell Post afternoon consumption table

The table groans under an afternoon’s consumption. Photo by Markus Bell.

The man in the corner suddenly awakes and the waitress scuttles over to help carry him out.

Noryangjin fish market has a visceral feel that’s disappearing from Seoul’s street scene. It’s a piece of history that, once gone, all the Starbucks in the world won’t bring back.

It’s the odor, frenetic energy, auditory, visual, and somatic sensuality of the market that can’t be replicated. This is the life energy of Seoul’s working class, which transverses the history of modernizing Korea.

Bell Boarded up Market windows

Windows boarded up around the market. Photo by Markus Bell.

It won’t be long until the relocation is complete. Most vendors will move, displaced by regulated hours, American chain stores, and serious men in serious suits. The Noryangjin controversy will be forgotten.

The market will be mourned by people who remember what it was like to haggle for a mackerel, or to have their fingers clamped between the claws of a dissenting crab.

 

Markus Bell is a lecturer in the University of Sheffield’s School of East Asian Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @mpsbell

Jieun Kim is a PhD candidate at Seoul National University. She can be contacted at: jminor@snu.ac.kr

Leave a comment

Filed under anthropology, anthropology of food, fish, Food Studies, markets

AAA 2011: Montreal Markets!

by Amy Trubek
University of Vermont

Atwater Market, click the picture to visit the market's web site.

Living in rural Vermont, there are many food related pleasures available to me on any given day. Our vibrant artisan food movement means that I can procure delectable farmstead cheese, crusty slow-fermented breads, and grass-fed beef easily and often. However, there are many foods that are difficult to find, especially those that represent cuisines less bland and less focused on wheat, dairy, and beef. Our Yankee heritage remains. And so what to do? For my husband and I, and many of our friends, the solution is to go to our nearest metropolitan center, Montreal, and shop at the two amazing year-round indoor/outdoor markets: Atwater and Jean Talon. Anyone interested in food and food culture should definitely make a visit to one or both of these markets when you are in Montreal for the AAAs!

Atwater Market is in the English-speaking Western part of Montreal. The Lachine Canal bike path goes to the market. Atwater is the smaller of the two markets and specializes in fresh meats, prepared meats and charcuterie. Paté et Terrine is especially good. Another great find at Atwater is Les Douceurs du Marché which stocks amazing olive oils, European and Canadian cheeses, and much more. Of course there is a stand that sells sirop d’erable, or maple syrup, and many maple syrup based products!

Description and directions: http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/What-To-Do/Shopping/atwater-market and http://www.marchespublics-mtl.com/English/Atwater/.

Jean Talon Market photo

Jean Talon Market, from montrealfood.com

Jean Talon is larger, located in Little Italy, north of downtown off of Rue Saint Laurent. There is a Jean Talon stop on the metro. Jean Talon is the largest outdoor public market in North America. Jean Talon has a huge array of fresh produce, much of it from Quebec, although some is also imported from the United States and beyond. There are a number of fascinating small stands right near the produce section, including Jardin Sauvage that sells locally sourced foraged foods, especially mushrooms. The outdoor market also has several stands selling maple syrup (in Canada sold in cans) and maple syrup products.  In the neighborhood around Jean Talon are numerous ethnic specialty stores, including Maya which sells wonderful corn and flour tortillas.

Click here for a photoessay on Jean Talon in Cuizine, an ejournal about Canadian food culture. For further description and directions, visit: http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/What-To-Do/Shopping/jean-talon-market

 

Leave a comment

Filed under AAA 2011 Montreal, markets, SAFN Member Research