Quarters and Sweet Corn

There’s nothing quite like an English market, especially the one we attended the most in the old market town of Bury St. Edmunds. I would often visit Bury to do a bit of shopping, stroll the cobblestoned streets on market day, or visit my favorite cafe, Gastrono-me, for their towering, incomparable Breakfast Hash. I’d park at the cheapest place, down the hill, behind the Vauxhall dealership, then cut through the pub car park and make my way slowly into town through the beautiful Abbey Gardens. The gardens themselves are worth a visit: beautiful landscaping, over-friendly squirrels, play areas, a small aviary, my favorite solitary ginkgo tree, ice cream, plenty of benches, and – of course – the abbey ruins. Bury St Edmunds may be most well known because the Magna Carta was maybe, possibly, probably, provisionally drafted there in 1214 (it depends on who you ask or what you’re reading). The gardens are home to the remains of the 10th century abbey, and you can walk through much of the skeletal walls, imagining how arched ceilings would have towered overhead, blocking the bright English summer sun (or – probably, more likely – sheltering you from the rain).

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

All of this led to Bury St Edmunds being one of my favorite towns to visit, but I must admit, I had a love/hate relationship with that dang market. The Bury market was by far the largest one near us, with row after row of colorful, patchwork stalls hawking vegetables, sheepskins, international food, fresh flowers, crusty bread, and local eggs. Also, if you have a strange need for old magazines, American junk food, cheap bras and undies, and an endless variety of cell phone cases, the Bury market will not disappoint. I loved the people watching, but as a fast walker I hated trying to weave through the walkers (most of whom, had no concept of flow of traffic or awareness of their current trajectory, which just about aggravated Sam and me to death). I appreciated the variety of vegetables, the ability to get my desired amount at the best price with no packaging. I even loved how the vendors would shout their best deals in a loud but generally muddled voice with an accent that I’ve honestly only ever heard at that volume level and in that situation:

“1 FOR £5, 3 FOR £10! PICK AND MIX!”

But I hated, absolutely hated, how hard it usually was to actually get the vendor’s attention and pay for your goods. At first, I would wait and stare – produce in one hand, coins in the other, outstretched – absolutely willing the vendor to look my way next. As much as the English love to queue, it’s all out the window when it comes to cheap veg. Pensioners would push past, a pram would roll over my foot, all as I’m standing there thinkshouting, “JUST TAKE MY MONEY.” Eventually, I allowed my “American confidence” (a term I heard a few times in England) to surface, and I would squeeze and maybe slightly elbow my way to the front, sticking my exact change in the vendor’s hand with a small smile, a tilt and lift of my purchase, and a quick “cheers!” As I walked away, sighing quietly to myself, I’d hear their unaffected echo of, “Cheers, love!”

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Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

Moving somewhere new is a great opportunity to develop new habits. In England, I began walking to the grocery store and shopping more at markets, trying to purchase local, ethically-sourced products if possible. But now, back stateside, I’m trying to maintain those habits if I can (sadly, there’s no grocery store within close walking distance and also NO SIDEWALKS, but I’ll save that for another day). So, I’m also trying to do some of my weekly grocery shop at local farmers’ markets, and also eat more seasonally. Before moving to England, I didn’t do much shopping at markets, so I wasn’t sure what to expect back here in Ohio. The farmers’ markets here are much different from the official weekly markets we saw in England. Here in the midwest, it’s not out of the ordinary to see a mini van with the side or back door flung open, a table set up next to it, and just a box or two of large tomatoes and homegrown peppers for sale. In the height of summer you’ll probably even see an impromptu “market” consisting of a flatbed truck piled high with ears of corn at the edge of a superstore parking lot.

I’ve been to a handful of local markets recently and I’ve truly enjoyed the hodgepodge of homegrowers, local farmers, ranchers, and bakers. For the most part, they’ve been eager to strike up a conversation, taking the time to chat and tell me about what they’re selling or talk about the day – a stark contrast to my English market experience. Maybe that’s just Ohio friendliness that I forgot about, but it never fails to make me smile. Just the other day I was buying some homemade cereal from a Mennonite merchant. She was very quiet at first, dressed in her plain clothes and bonnet. As I went to pay, I smiled politely and apologized for the handful of quarters I was using. With a sudden wide grin that reached to her clear, mascara-less eyes, she laughed and said, “Oh, no problem! Just the other day I took my car through the car wash and it spit out my change – $10! – all in quarters. What can ya do?!” I grabbed my cereal, agreed with a chuckle, thanked her, and walked away. But for the rest of the day I thought of that interaction and laughed. When I saw her bun and bonnet, her plain blue dress, I’m ashamed to admit that I immediately thought “What could we possibly have in common?” But then, there we were just moments later, laughing together.

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Photo by Bianka Csenki on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I visited another market down the road. As I peeled back the husks of some bi-color sweet corn – checking the freshness and looking for bugs – the farmer said in a slow drawl, “It’s the strangest thing, we haven’t found any worms this year. Don’t know why, but no worms.” I commented that I didn’t see any, and that anyways, I think I was checking more out of old habit, muscle memory from my childhood, than any other reason. Shucking corn, pulling away the stubborn strands of silk, always reminds me of my Meme and Papaw. I spent hours as a kid doing just that on their back porch steps. The farmer agreed, and the vendor next store – selling local honey – said it was such a part of her upbringing as well, that it’s funny how it reminds us of grandparents. She mentioned a friend of hers who recently had boxes of extra ears of corn. After wondering what to do with it, she called up a local senior citizens’ home and asked if she could bring it to them for an activity. She said that for hours the elderly men and women sat and shucked the corn; some silently pulling at the husks, others tapping toes and singing songs from long ago in a circle as they worked. Wrinkled, tired hands held the ears firm, peeling back the layers.

As I get to know this area again, as I drive down the roads I once knew so well, as I take my son to the library that my Meme once took me, I realize I’m constantly remembering, relearning. After years of living abroad, often keeping our identities quiet when we traveled, I’m remembering slowly how to be a friendly Ohioan, making small talk with people passing by and not being immediately suspicious of those I don’t know. I’m reminding myself that first impressions are usually inaccurate or at least that they’re never the full picture. That we as humans have so much more in common with each other than we first believe. As we do, we’re meeting neighbors who reveal that they grew up in England. Bumping into couples at church who’s parents live near ours. Finding out strangers have mutual friends. Cashiers with similar interests. And little by little, as we peel back the layers, we remember and reenter community.

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