Storied Food: the Marketplace of the Old Normal and the Circle of Grace

Since the start of lockdown in March, there’s been a recurring theme in the game-playing I’ve engaged in with my two young daughters. It started with Salmon in a Rockpool. This was a fish Bolognese dish I’d often make at lunchtime, where the sauce – tinned fish with tinned tomatoes, oregano, garlic, olive oil, olives and capers cooked and then blended – is placed in the middle of the dish, with the pasta in a circle around it, representing a rock pool. Sometimes I would add extras – strands of dried edible seaweed, prawns, pickled cockles, even mussels in their shells. Sometimes we would actually play a rock-pooling game beforehand. I would operate the plastic toy crab; they’d lower a line and try to catch it.

More recently the game has morphed into Shellfish Shack. I set up a pretend stall, complete with the toy cash register, and then place on the counter of the stall little pots of prawns, squid, smoked salmon or somesuch, plus condiments and cocktail sticks, then charge them pretend money to come and buy them. Partly it’s down to the times when I become freed from homeworking to play with them during the day – meal times – but there’s more to it.

These games recreate the sense of story and poetry around food that is lost when things are delivered to your door ready-packed. Is it just a slab of white protein in a plastic pack? No, it’s a fish that got here because a fisherman went out in the early hours onto the wine-dark sea, tossed about on the waves far from the shore, returning to the cobbled harbour as the dawn sunlight glinted on the waves.

And setting up the Shellfish Shack recreates a sense of the exchange you get from a market. Markets have a long history. Thousands of years ago farmers, fisherman and other local producers and artisans brought their wares into the town for market day and set up their stalls. The market is absolutely central to the Greco-Roman culture package that has continued to the present day, sometimes in a completely unbroken line. The marketplace had its own divinity – Hermes-Mercury – the god of trade, the god of the exchange. You make an exchange with the guy or gal who grew the vegetables. Today we try to recapture some of that with photos of the pig farmer on the sausage packet, but though we might see his or her face, he doesn’t see ours, so it’s not a true exchange. It doesn’t activate the sense of giving and receiving that you get from a marketplace. That circulation is the true currency of the Universe: the joy of Giving Your Gift, the joy of Receiving Abundance and the joy of completing the circle by Expressing Your Gratitude. This is the Circle of the Three Graces. It would be a shame if – once the pandemic is properly over – we don’t return to the Old Normal of the actual, physical marketplace.