This is market day, the day I go to my favorite farmers' market, a high point on my weekly calendar. It is also the middle of Ramadan, a time of great importance to all of Islam, a time of self-purification through fasting, prayer and particular focus on self-restraint. The month of Ramadan began about ten days ago.
Usually, I drive across Monterey from Pacific Grove, traveling around the curve that borders The Defense Language Institute, passing through the tunnel underneath the Custom House Plaza, along Del Monte Avenue, then past El Estero Park to Monterey Peninsula College where the market is held every Friday from 10 to 2. It is a very simple but beautiful route across town that showcases some of Monterey's best public areas including the wharf, the harbor, a pretty lake, avenues lined with leafy trees and distant views of oak- and pine-covered hills.
Monterey is often a feast for the eyes, a lively town in certain ways, and has inspired exuberant expression in artists, writers, and visitors all through time. Today, I took in the views as I drove to the market where I planned to fill my shopping bag with all sorts of delicious goods. Quiet contemplation was not on my mind nor was I interested in subduing my impulse to savor and sample wares. No, shopping at the market is all about taking tastes of fruits bursting with sweet juicy flavor and trying baked goods or seafood concoctions or condiments made from summer herbs and seasonings.
As expected, the market was busy with buyers and sellers talking about the goods on display. Flowers were appraised carefully by those hosting parties or dinners over the coming weekend. A few women discussed the various ways gerber daisies, proteus, flox, statis, and other summer blooms could be combined in beautiful ways. A fiddler played lively tunes next to his open fiddle case. Everywhere I could turn I saw fresh flavorful things in stall after stall.
At the far west end of the market, I came to Zena Foods, a stall new to this marketplace. A man with a middle Eastern accent and wearing a blue shirt was busy handing out samples of Mediterranean foods. A cluster of women leaned in, asking questions, intent on learning about his products. His energy was high and his smile was quick. He was selling hummus, pita chips, pita bread, tabhouli salad, carrot dip, olive spread and other delicacies I was hoping to try. His prices were very good.
"What do you recommend? What is this? What is your favorite?" Were the questions from the curious shoppers.
"Today I have no favorites. It's Ramadan, and I am fasting. I am smelling all of it, and I cannot eat any." He looked down at all of the food spread on his tables in stacks and rows. "Everyone, take samples and try this. It is very good, very pure food."
"Fasting? Not any of this? What about water?" It seemed remarkable. No one seemed remotely ready to fast, especially considering the bounty tempting them right under their noses. The shift of interest from feast to fast was immediate, and the contrast was surprising to many. Certainly one of the most difficult things to do is carry out a fasting meditation while selling piles of goodies to women waving money under your nose, asking for fragrant samples all day long.
"Ramadan goes from dawn to dusk, every day for a month." I had to stop and think about what might be similar in the Catholic tradition. Lent, maybe, was vaguely similar. Years ago I had to abstain from eating meat on Fridays as a young Catholic, but denying myself food and water every day for a month was impressive in comparison.
I introduced myself. He shook my hand warmly. "My name is Ahmed. I love this, to meet my customers, to talk with people here." Then, just like that he was off to help the next customer waiting with hands full. Clearly, he was a happy man, a good ambassador for his faith and his business. His prices and fine quality were attracting steady customers and endless questions, all of which he answered one after another, far better than I would if I had been fasting.
Ahmed, a newer citizen of our nation, was still busy with his work as I drove back home. He had offered a glimpse into a belief system native to him but foreign to me. Ramadan will continue on for three more weeks or so, and I probably will have little or no other contact with it that I will be aware of. It's the way things go in life. Whole communities within this community come and go, live and celebrate in discrete places and ways that do not require a spotlight or trumpeting to remain holy or significant.
A marketplace brought hundreds of people from all parts of the Peninsula, a random mix of beliefs, interests, ideas, all as fascinating to try in different combinations as the flowers and vegetables that were displayed in their full splendor at every turn.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way