I bought the makings of my lunch today at the Jewish shuk in central Jerusalem, Shuk Machaneh Yehudah, named for the brother of one of the three founders of the market in the 1880s. (Thank you, Wikipedia, for answering a question no tourist guide has been able to answer: who was Yehuda?) I had a rectangle of creamy Brie cheese and a slice of smoked something cheese from Tzidkiyahu, half of a long, skinny, whole wheat “everything” baguette from Russell’s, and slices of orange and yellow peppers, kohlrabi, radish, fennel and turnip from one of the myriad vegetable stalls. Pretty much the spectrum of the rainbow. And so crispy and tasty. I was able to differentiate among the all the vegetable flavors, perhaps because they had been picked only a day or days before arriving to market. That’s one advantage of living in a small country.
The Pereg herb guy urged me, as usual, to taste some of his concoctions: pistachios and cranberries and dried onion mixed together as an additive to rice (“But only after you cook the rice!”). I ended up buying a latke spice mix that tasted divine, but regrettably I forgot to buy a zucchini, which is a key ingredient for making the pancake. Guess I’ll just have to go back.
I am a little saddened by the gradual transformation of the shuk, even since just last year. Ten months ago, I asked my twelve year old grandson to come marketing with me. “Eeeeuuw! There are flies all over the food. Eeeeuuw.” Well, yes, the flies are part of the beauty of the experience. (What, you don’t think you’re breathing in fly doody all day? Sorry, kid.) They contribute to the authenticity, along with the vendors hawking their wares and the shopping carts running over your toes and the carcasses hanging on hooks and the cumin fragrance wafting from the spice stalls.
My grandson would be very pleased this year. I don’t think I saw a single fly. Much of the meat is packaged in Styrofoam. The cakes are enveloped in cellophane. There are now a few jewelry and fashion boutiques. My bread place still has the loaves out on the shelves but it is immaculate and well lit, with painted white shelves and room to maneuver. (I say immaculate like it’s a bad thing, eh?) If I am not mistaken, the prices are going up commensurate with the cleanliness. That is a real problem for the truly impoverished segment of the population that shops there specifically to find lower pricing.
The romantic in me bridles at the gentrification, probably because I have an iron stomach and the level of sanitation has never affected me. I still love going there. I love the mess of humanity, the tehina place that has a huge boulder grinding the sesame seeds on the spot, the rice cake place that pops the grains right in front of your eyes, the Halvah King who wears a paper gold crown as he hands out samples, looking the other way as you keep coming back for more. It just feels so genuine and exotic, and increasingly rare.
I will continue patronizing the shuk until the entire market becomes a mini-mall. I hope that does not happen for many years, if ever. I need a place that temporarily takes me back in time without resorting just to my paltry imagination. As my grandson would say, it’s magniv (cool!).