The Carmel Market shuk in Tel Aviv that so many travelers love — the idyllic market which people see as representative of the simpler way vegetables and other foodstuffs were once sold — is actually the source of so much frustration for me.
Aside from the problem that all of the produce is fully conventional, I spend most of my time there yelling at vendors, being bumped (and bumping back) and trying my best not to be cheated.
While my blood pressure rises and I suffer the consequences of a thick American accent, I wax nostalgic about the farmers markets I frequented in Providence, Rhode Island, before I moved to Tel Aviv.
Now those are markets.
The vendors are usually the farmers themselves or their workers (or the people they hire to sell their stuff), and people are nice to you. They even smile. In fact, rather than the dog eat dog milieu of the shuk, the farmers market represents an eating community where people all respect each other for their role in this chain, from the grower to the cook to the consumer, etc.
In so many ways I saw the shuk as a symbol of Israel, with all its frustrations, and the farmers market a symbol of my beloved America, in all its splendor, and in comparing the two I observed just how irreconcilable they were.
Then, on behalf of the Jewish harvest festival, Shavuot, Tel Aviv had to go ahead and start a Slow Food inspired farmers market…and further confound my already uncertain identity issues around food in Israel. When my neighbor told me about this new market I was jubilant; I actually canceled all my plans for Friday afternoon. I biked with my neighbor to what I hoped would be the very bridge between my old home and new home. It wasn’t.
I spent two hours there and left with new questions and two conflicting feelings. The first was that it felt like home, both for better and worse. There were artisanal meats and cheeses, fair trade olive oils and vinegars and coffees, loads of incredible looking fresh and mostly organic fruits and vegetables, as well as some of the farmers themselves.
People knew about their food and products and could have intelligent conversations about farming methods and fair trade policies. I felt like part of the farmers market community I had felt a part of in Providence. It was a beautiful sight as well because the market was held at the old Tel Aviv port, with the Mediterranean as an uncanny backdrop. And it just felt nice to be shopping with a backpack and a tote, not guarding myself or my money as I do in the shuk, just casually tasting cherries and blueberries, wines and olives.
And yet, the other feeling I had was one of disappointment with Israel. While it’s just a start to the movement here, this farmers market just did some things plain wrong and contrary to so many of my own values and those that I attribute to the farmers markets of home.
For starters, the meat wasn’t kosher and I couldn’t eat it. When this happens in the US I understand it, but if there’s one place I should be able to buy kosher home-prepared pastrami I’d expect it to be this particular venue. There were also coffee stations where fair trade organic coffees were being sold in disposable plastic cups, with plastic lids and straws.
A pickle vendor (the only one) sold lacto-fermented pickles in cheap plastic containers which certainly leached plastic into the brine and probably the pickles as well. I asked the man why he didn’t use glass and he said, with disdain, “this is what we have.” Then I inquired about his lemonade (also sold in wasteful plastic cups) and it cost ten shekels a pop, with no promise of it being organic or low sugar or anything special. As thirsty as I was I would not pay a fortune for a few sips of lemonade when at the shuk fresh lemonade, which is not too sweet, costs two shekels.
In fact, this farmers market was so ridiculously expensive as compared to the shuk that I only bought purple potatoes and blackberries and then left after sampling all the free foods I could. The choice to hold the market at the port, in the North of Tel Aviv, pretty much shows the kind of constituency they’re hoping to develop: yuppie Tel Aviv types.
Had they held the market more in the center of the city perhaps the ideals would spread. Instead I was surrounded by iphone carrying Israelis enjoying a luxury market. At first this upset me because our farmers markets in the US are for everyone, right? And then I remembered that that’s not exactly true.
While the class differences at this Israeli farmers market (and in Israel in general) are more greatly exaggerated, the Providence Farmers markets were mostly serving the East Side citizens who believed in its mission and college students who felt similarly.
I thus left the farmers market dissatisfied with the start of the movement in Israel, and mostly, I believe, because I can see the class distinctions of the movement more clearly in Tel Aviv than I could in Providence where I was more a part of society and less of an observer. I’m happy that such a market exists in Tel Aviv and in time it will hopefully improve, and I will do what I can to help it along. In the meantime, though, I think I’m just going to follow-through with a CSA I’ve been researching and spend less money on good veggies so I can cook them up in my kitchen without dealing with the harsh reality that not everyone can eat the way I eat.