We have two types of salt dispenser in our house. One is the traditional one with holes in the top, which you shake over your food, the other is a small pot with a lid and a tiny wooden spoon on the side. I call the first one our working class salt, the other our middle class. I am fully aware of the madness of this categorisation, which I am sure has not been part of any analysis of social stratification. However, when it comes to food more generally, the divisions in class are legion. Getting beyond the vital mushy peas/mashed avocado debate, food is political in many ways. But it always seems that it is the working class whose eating habits are under scrutiny and held as being essentially unhealthy. In recent times, the fat-tongued mockney Jamie Oliver (who I concede did a good job when it came to school dinners), decided to highlight the ‘poor’ diets of the poor, suggesting they get creative with stale bread.
One point I did agree with him on though was, “going to your local market, which is cheaper anyway, but also they don’t dictate the size.” The supermarkets have recently been criticised for the convoluted way they price their ‘offers’. But like a lot of big capital, supermarkets are winning the day, and local markets are in decline (setting aside the rise in higher priced farmer’s markets, which the supermarkets have cottoned on to). And with that decline comes a loss of community cohesion; a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that markets were a significant site for social interaction of communities and could play a role in promoting social inclusion and healthy eating.
Catherine Graham’s poem Market Scene, Northern Town evokes this scene of bustling activity and its mix of goods: “The lidded stalls are laden with everything/from home-made cakes to hand-me-downs.” This is a tradition that is woven into daily activities: “They’ve/spilled out from early morning mass,/freshly blessed and raring to bag a bargain,/scudding across the cobbles, like shipyard workers/knocking off.” And from the food bought, you will “smell the pearl barley,/carrots, potatoes and onions, the stock bubbling/nicely in the pot.” We shouldn’t be too doom laden when it comes to the decline in markets, because they haven’t died out altogether, and I’m not sure they will. I for one would miss the market trader shouting, ‘Come ‘an ‘av a look. Pand a bowl!’
Catherine Graham grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne where she still lives. Her poems have been published in magazines and anthologies in the UK, USA and Ireland as well as online. Catherine’s first full collection “Things I Will Put In My Mother’s Pocket” was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2013. The featured poem Market Scene, Northern Town is taken from Catherine’s pamphlet Like A Fish Out Of Batter, ‘Poems that bring Lowry’s paintings to life,‘ also published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2016.
Market Scene, Northern Town
The lidded stalls are laden with everything
from home-made cakes to hand-me-downs.
Just gone eight bells and the church clock
grinds to a tock. It must be Sunday,
women are wearing hats. They’ve
spilled out from early morning mass,
freshly blessed and raring to bag a bargain,
scudding across the cobbles, like shipyard workers
knocking off. One woman bends over to take
a closer look; holier than thou, she’ll pinch the goods
between finger and thumb in gloves she has
worn in bed since that night on her honeymoon.
Note how ‘the hats’ keep their backs to the woman
in the shawl. Martha, mother, sister,
miracle worker; she can turn bones into broth.
Walk by The Dwellings tomorrow and you will know
her home: the polished letter box, sash windows,
open just enough to let you smell the pearl barley,
carrots, potatoes and onions, the stock bubbling
nicely in the pot; steam rising up like a prayer.