“We must not look at goblin men, We must not buy their fruits: Who knows upon what soil they fed Their hungry thirsty roots?" - Christina Rossetti, "The Goblin Market"
The idea of the goblin market haunts me. Whether in the form of Christina Rossetti’s poem or the faery market in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, it seems to me a place where anything can be found among its motley booths and awnings – a place anything can happen and anyone can be encountered, where promise and nightmare meet, and you can never be quite sure which is which. That is why I can never resist a farmers’ market, and will even get up early on a Saturday to visit one.
True, these markets are pallid reflections of the goblin market. Many of the half dozen or so that have sprung up around the Vancouver area in the last five years are already starting to have all the same booths, so that they sometimes seem to be rapidly devolving into outdoor shopping malls. All the same, they continue to fascinate. An evolutionary psychologist might claim they appeal to the hunter-gatherer in us all, a Jungian that they evoke an archetype reinforced by school fairs and music festivals, a partial holiday from routine.
Foodies, no doubt, are attracted by their wish for the organic and a locally produced diet. Nor can I deny that’s part of the appeal. Show me fresh cloves of garlic, or multiple species of tomatoes of different shapes and colors that were on the vine a few hours ago, and my curiosity and intermittent sense that I should be eating better immediately get the better of me. Promise me alternative strains of corn bred for tastes other than sweetness, and I want to decide for myself how different they are. Show me an artisan displaying belts or handmade canes, and I have to slow to look.
Never mind that, at least half the time, my palate is too unrefined to detect enough difference to make the effort and extra cost worthwhile. Never mind that almost none of the artisans forge or cast their wares. I can tell myself that I’m too gullible and that next time I need to be more discerning in my efforts to separate the true from the false – and next week, I will be as careless as ever in my purchases.
Part of what makes a farmers’ market so irresistible is the personal touch. Maybe some people can trudge up and down the lines of booths without talking to those staffing them, but I” m not one of them (perhaps I need to get out more). I can’t just get out my wallet. Instead, before I buy, I find myself asking about what I’m buying, maybe passing a disparaging remark or two about what’s usually available in the supermarkets, and asking questions about small businesses that are now in their second or third generation. Then, ten or fifteen minutes later, I’m at another booth, starting a similar conversation. The experience is as far from the exchange of “How are you?” at the checkout stand as it could possibly be.
But the major appeal comes from the fact that even the worst farmers’ market offers alternatives. Most of these alternatives are not radical, but they are just different enough to trigger impulse buying – something I rarely allow myself, thanks to habits required in my days of poverty. Usually, I approach a market in much the same way as I would a casino: I give myself a spending limit of, say, $100, and stop buying when it’s gone. Often, that’s an easy habit to keep, because most vendors are not equipped to handle credit or debit cards, and I’m restricted to the cash I’m covering.
My habit is to circle the market once, then return to the booths I’ve marked for closer attention. What I buy remains remarkably consistent, too, generally consisting of random fresh vegetables and cheeses and various organic or at least artisanal foodstuffs.
This morning, for example, at the Burnaby Farmers’ Market, my purchases (in approximate order) were:
- Bantam corn, consisting of ears about eighteen centimeters long and four in diameter, promised by the vendor to be less sweet than most modern variants.
- Cloves of organic garlic
- A strong goat cheese made in the English way with embedded garlic and chives
- A blackberry and peach tart
- Half a dozen ears of normal sized corn, described to me as a local variant of Twilight
- A Neufchatel cheese
- Two lemon tarts with a cookie crust
- Whole wheat bread made with honey (a sort of Gentile’s challah, bought in part because the descriptions of the type of bread and some of their names made me wonder what pages of mild erotica were doing scattered among the loaves)
- A raspberry lemon concentrate
I would have gone on to see what the organic beef, chicken, and fish sellers were offering, but at this point I had spent my quota.
Strictly speaking, these purchases put a serious dent in my monthly food budget. But, by a rationalizing sleight of hand, I counted them as part of my discretionary funds. Of the items on this list, only the normal sized corn was actually on this week’s grocery list, but I know that I will enjoy all of them, sooner or later.
Then, sooner or later, when they are gone (or possibly a bit before), I will be headed to another farmers’ market, just as eager to beguiled and to buy with a child’s impulsivity as ever before, sure that, if I just look hard enough, I will find fresh moly salad or unicorn flank steak, just waiting for me to try.