Our summer blog series “Perspectives from Anthropology of Food” presents work written by the students in the summer Anthropology of Food class (ML 641) in which they reflect on current issues, discuss assignments they have worked on, or address topics of particular interest to them. Today’s post is from Gastronomy student Marina Starkey.
When the Boston Public Market (BPM) finally opened in the summer of 2015, locals rejoiced. Touting a roster of popular New England vendors like Union Square Donuts, Crescent Ridge Dairy, and Stillmans Farm, foodies everywhere anticipated new, easy access to highly sought-after products.
There’s no doubting that BPM is a marvel. I have spent a fair number of hours roaming the aisles admiring the colorful, brightly-lit, organized displays full of expertly-branded products and produce. I’ve wondered which vendor was more worthy of the small amount of money I had to spend on lunch or a sweet treat. It always came down to who treated me with the most kindness and where I felt most comfortable, or how badly I was craving the macaroni and cheese at Jasper Hill (an absolutely gooey must).
Despite how much I love the place, I still can barely afford anything within it. It’s nice to browse, but I often find myself gawking at the prices: $6 for a bunch of small asparagus, $4 for a doughnut, $12 for an 8 ounce bottle of designer vinegar. BPM is popular among tourists for this very reason; when you’re traveling you’re more likely to splurge and purchase specialty items, because it isn’t everyday you’re in Boston. While the weekend turns tourists and families out in droves, during the week you’re more likely to see a lunch crowd of locals looking for a quick bite. Despite these few midday hours, you would be hard pressed to find Boston regulars at BPM religiously, every Sunday, purchasing what they need to feed their families.
This is where I think BPM fails to meet its lofty goals of making local, sustainable food & products more accessible. While these types of vendors all value these initiatives, their accessibility rests within the wealthiest people in Boston, despite many locals being students, people just starting their careers, and young families. While it’s nice to have these local products around, I find BPM functions more as a symbol of the elite.
An authentically local experience actually exists right around the corner from the BPM at Haymarket. Nestled between tourist centers the North End and Faneuil Hall, Haymarket hosts dozens of produce and seafood vendors in an open-air setting. And the character is colorfully local.
You’ll hear it first. If it’s not the Frank Sinatra blaring from the central fish vendor, it’s the almost constant yelling and bartering that goes on between the rows and rows of produce from all over the world. Here you’ll find demographics as diverse as the fruits and vegetables: vendors from Italian, Hispanic and Asian descent, and consumers from every part of Boston and beyond. While it’s a bit more difficult to find out exactly from where your apples and oranges traveled, they’re cheaper than you’ll find in any supermarket. That same bunch of asparagus that I saw in the BPM? $2 for a bunch.
While you won’t find brown butter doughnuts or homemade vinegars, the character of Haymarket is lively and everyone feels welcome. Well, that is if you can deal with a few vendors yelling at you to get out of the way and make room for people actually making purchases. The atmosphere isn’t conducive to browsing or admiration. People are here to purchase produce to feed their families for the week at the lowest price possible. Regulars exist almost exclusively, and it’s not any place that would be of particular appeal to any tourist runoff.
So if you’re looking for an authentic local experience, it might not exist in the places that are immediately obvious. Sometimes you have to look in between the cracks of the city to find its liveliest, most authentic character.