It was noon on a Saturday in San Francisco when I found myself in heavy gloves, holding an oyster knife and attacking a pile of beautiful bivalves. The modest stall, packed with buckets of ice and unwavering smiles, blasted Latino pop — a bouncing beat that drifted into the bustling Ferry Building farmers market and blended with the squawk of seagulls, the sizzle of meat and the voices of a multitude of people who had descended to eat, shop and meet up on wooden benches that lined the sparkling San Francisco Bay.

I’d started my market excursion with a tamale, and then wove through stands that touted California’s bounty of produce, goods like tofu and kimchi and prepared foods — from Korean tacos to Nepalese dumplings to Arab flatbreads — before paying a mere $8 to shuck a half-dozen West Coast oysters, with the help of an expert. It was perfect. It was San Francisco. And that was exactly the idea.

Wherever I travel, I always try to find local markets because of their uncanny ability to take the pulse of a particular place. In Paris, they were a commentary on the way locals eat — I marveled at the breads, the cheeses, the tiny cherry tomatoes on perfect mini vines. When it rained, every scent felt amplified. In Italy, I pored over the seemingly flawless wares: exquisite handmade pastas, olive oils, wines. In Thailand and Cambodia, I felt the constant buzz, heard the excited haggling. The scents of garlic, sausages, burnt rice and coconut macerated into one. In Tokyo, I watched in awe as fish were sent airborne, tossed about with purpose and skill. Even in Minnesota, markets tell a story — the Hmong Village in St. Paul and the various farmers markets are fine examples.

Like elsewhere, they showcase a region, its production and its people. They encapsulate a massive place into a tangible feeling. And they offer a glimpse of ordinary life, at its most beautiful.

 

Amelia Rayno covers food and travel for the Star Tribune. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @AmeliaRayno