SocietyPart IThe last time I went to a public market in the United States it had the feel of having been engineered according to the Walt Disney Public Market Conformity Code. All the beans were in order, the cauliflower was perfect, the cheeses wrapped in plastic, the corn yellow and clean and, if you will, all in apple-pie order.
The people who worked there smiled like they liked me and there was a Starbucks right around the corner. In one corner was a natural food store with forty-five different varieties of granola.
The last time I went to the public market in Puerto Perdido, there were wilted cabbage leaves all over the floor, the cauliflower looked like it had been born shortly after Pancho Villa, and the romaine may have dated from my own salad years. There were kids screaming and rolling on the floor laughing and a pack of dogs right next to the fruit section were humping a spotted bitch who looked as if she could care less.
There are, however, things we don't do at the Puerto Perdido public market. We don't go into the meat area. If you ever had doubts about the bloody origins of beef, pork and sausage, or unless you were born without a nose, you stay away. On the cross bars, there's always something hanging, a red stringy hunk with white striations and a blanket of flies. "That," you think, "is going to be someone's supper."
In the chicken area, amidst the dark yellow corpses, there's a tub on the counter that contains something dark and red and veinous that --- I swear, as sure as I am sitting here --- moves. We don't ask questions.
But the rest of the market has much to entertain and delight. My especial favorites are the ladies who lord over us all. All the vegetables and fruits are in tiered banks, and there she is --- usually plump and merry -- towering up there behind the cabbage and cilantro and carrots. My favorites are the banana lady, the cheese lady and the chocolate, spice & beans lady. The latter has a variety of dark Oaxacan chocolate, fresh and dried thyme, marjoram, rosemary, basil, mint, raisins, twenty-seven varieties of beans and two hundred or so varieties of peppers, including the little red and yellow ones that, when you bite down on them, make your eyes light up and your stomach say howdy.
One time I made the mistake of buying a handful of powerfully-scented fresh basil from the spice lady and I took it back to my place and sliced it up with the "tomates del campo" --- red-ribbed tiny tomatoes that taste like the ones that you and I ate when we were kids. I cut up some string cheese on top and added some olive oil and vinegar and set it out on the table for lunch with my Mexican friends. Delicious. But I noticed I was the only one that was eating.
Later, I asked them why, and they said that they didn't eat basil. Why? "Es solo para funerárias." It's only for funerals? "Sí --- por los muertos." Evidently they tie it in bunches and hang it around the corpse display room. Keeps out the bad spirits.