Stylocycle’s Blog

November 23, 2008, 3:42 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Today’s post is not about biking, but about another cherished part of my regular life: shopping for groceries at the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto. I’m not actually from Toronto; I was born on the West coast and lived there until I was 7. However, when my father moved me back with him to Toronto, the first thing he did to console me for my loss of mountains and sea was to take me to the St. Lawrence Market, and he explained to me that his grandfather had sold his farm produce there, and that during the depression it had been my dad’s job to accompany his mother to the market because as the most efficient packer he would get the most out of the “all you can put in a bushel basket for $1” deal. My father’s family was not poor in the depression, but he had aunts, uncles and cousins who were poor, and so it was my father’s family who took care of feeding the rest. Thus I came to learn about the market and its place in the sustenance of families. It’s not something the local mega grocery-chain can ever fulfill.

I admit that back in the mid-70’s it was a rather less chic and a rather more malodorous place, but I still had a fondness for the market, not least of all because it was where I learned that the grocers had long memories. My father was unforgotten to the man in the green apron who exclaimed when we first arrived back, “Well! If that isn’t little Jackie Cowan, I’ll be damned!” That we will not be forgotten as we move away, and perhaps back again has seemed like a terribly valuable thing to me ever since. It gave me comfort through over 22 moves, between two countries, three provinces, several cities, and well more than a dozen schools… that maybe I would not be forgotten either.

And so it was that about 17 years ago, when my Dear Spouse began his MA in Toronto and we moved back to the city from the small town we’d been in for 5 years, that I insisted that we had to start shopping at the St. Lawrence. It was there that in the visible stages of pregnancy a grocer thrust a 6-litre basket of plums into my arms and insisted I take them free of charge because I’d need them more than he did. And it was there that we met our butchers at Mano’s meats. They knew our son before he was born, knew we were in grad school, and knew that we had a very tight budget of not more than $100 a month for all our meats (in 1992 $) for the three of us, and that we spent every penny of that budget in their shop. And so it was that with every order we would find a little extra something had been thrown in at the end. Maybe some sausages, maybe some bacon, maybe some souvlaki… always something that said, “We appreciate your business, and we like you.”

When we moved to Waterloo we really tried to adopt the local markets, but they just aren’t the same. We find them touristy, pushy, and crowded, full of annoying people who would as soon shove you and step on you as anything else. And the ‘farmers’ stalls’ that are supposed to be about local harvests and local employment are selling pineapples and using badly exploited migrant labour. We gave up trying after almost 5 years, and returned to Mano’s and to the St. Lawrence market. What convinced us that it was the right decision for us to drive into the city once a month was not just the quality of the meat, or the prices, or the family run business, but that when we walked up the the counter, the woman who had always served us was there and she recognized us immediately. “Oh my goodness!” she said when she saw us, her thick Greek accent filled with a warm welcome, “How’s you boy?” she asked us, and proceeded to try to recall which small town we had moved away to some years before. That we had been remembered made tears stream down my face.

For the month that followed, we ate with pleasure, and could hardly wait to go again. It’s become a monthly ritual, a kind of ‘date’ for us. Each time we’d arrive at the counter, the woman would present us with 2 coffees (and something for the boy if he came along), and then we would begin: “3 whole chicken breasts, a nice roasting chicken, some butterfly chops…”. So we would continue through their selection from chicken through the pork, beef, and lamb to the bacon, and at the end of wrapping each package the woman would come back to us, smiling, and say, expectantly, “OK. Something else?”

We last went to market in September. October was so busy that we didn’t eat at home as much, and our shopping lasted us an extra long time. Today we made the journey in, and I began, as always, on the ground floor at the bakery while Dear Spouse parked the car. We agreed that we would meet at Mano’s after I’d been to the artisanal cheese maker in the North Market. However, Dear Spouse ended up getting me at the North Market.

“Did you come up the main floor way?” Dear Spouse asked me.

“No, why?”

“Honey, I don’t know how to tell you… but the Mano’s people are gone. They retired, sold the business, and the whole family has gone to Greece for a month. I don’t think we’ll see the lady again, but the old man will be in the store working in December.”

And so it was that I found myself, tears streaming down my face again, standing in front of Mano’s in the main Market building. My boy is over 6’2″ in part because they made sure we could afford to feed him well as he was growing. And, together, we were all part of the collective memory of the market. It was just in September when we were leaving that I remarked to Dear Spouse that I had never managed to learn the woman’s name, but that I cared for her like an old friend, and had to find out what her name was.

Now I will just have to write a letter to the whole Mano’s family, and hope that the woman knows that we will always remember her.

I hope the new owners will honour the name of the business, but it won’t ever be the same.

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