Monday, February 16, 2009

The market diaries: monetising tomatoes

I am drawn back to the wholesale market, the one I've been visiting for six years now, on the south bank of the river. It is not a short cycle for me, perhaps even an hour. I wonder if it is nostalgia that draws me back there; or the search for continuity, while my life is changing.

But there are simpler reasons, as my fridge is empty of vegetables, and the distance is hardly an excuse - what is an hour's cycling compared to hours of Internet-procrastination. As I am currently out of paid work, filling the larder with free fruits and vegetables is something I look forward to.

As I am cycling through the city, and then on Southwark bridge, I enjoying to see London, the familiar beast groaning with traffic. I am following the little rituals I developed over the last few years. Yet as I get closer to the market, I am starting to think: what if the security guard kick me out?

I start the tour and find boxes of Brazilian lime in one of the silver-metal bins. I love limes and these ones look fine, even perhaps organic? (small and non-standard shapes). I also find some basil (UK). But then the Market Authority car stops next to me. I don't look at them. They sound the horn; I look up, and the guard, in a tired gesture, motions to me to get out and get lost. I feel the anger building up in me. What harm am I doing by collecting rejected fruits and vegetables that were flown here from the other side of the world only to be dumped? But I nod. As they drive away, I continue my tour, my decision made: they would have to do more than this to throw me out.

In truth, in dozens of visits to the market, I never returned home empty-handed. I was kicked out a few times. Twice - in six years - they ordered me to empty my bags of the produce I had collected from the floor and the bins, but even then I managed to get out of the situation while keeping most of my booty. The risk is low, but it is always there. I used to accept it, in return to free food. But now I feel a new kind of impatient anger. Perhaps it is the fact that I cycled from the other side of town; and perhaps it is because I am out of work, not out of my own choice, that I feel my standing is stronger. But is it? at the end of the day, good food going to waste is wrong, and salvaging it is good, regardless if you are unemployed by choice or not.

No doubt, things have changed in my head since I gradually went back to the money economy over the last two years. I starting thinking in costs and savings. Before, I rarely bought fruit and veg in the supermarket; I had little idea how things cost and I didn't care. But now, as I am cycling between the bins, trying to keep a low profile (to postpone the encounter with the guards as long as possible), I think of the monetary value of my finding. Onions are cheap, lemongrass, expensive; organic cherry tomatoes, very expensive. Inevitably, I am thinking how much I saved by picking this food; how much it would have cost if I had bought it at the Turkish veg-shop where I otherwise get my produce from. It is a useless calculation, simply because I would never buy 1gk of limes, and a giant bunch of parsley (tabule salad forever). I would not get 12 oranges, and 4 radiccios. The experience of the market is abundance, plenty, and madness, it cannot be compared to the conventional shop-and-save experience. It is the dark side of capitalism; the malign side of growth, the irrational side of the profit logic; the big loophole, which I am so happy to travel through once more.

It is after 11am and the market is quietening down, the traffic of forklifts, vans and trucks becomes slower. I somehow manage to avoid the security, or perhaps they avoid me. Finally it is time to leave, with two full and heavy panniers. Mission accomplished: strangely, the only thing I didn't find were the usually-ubiquitous bananas. I cycle away by the river, my blood sugar dropping, my spirit wandering.

On the visit to the market I found:

mint (Israel)
limes (brazil)
Organic lemon; organic capsicuoums; organic cherry tomatoes
cooking apples

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