February 22, 2011

Foodents: Journey to the center of Maxwell Street Market

Please remember fun while reading this column. It was had.

A few days ago, Evan bought duck shoes. That’s not a brand. That’s not a style. These are literally shoes that are ducks. In particular, mallards.

Evan approached a rusty-dusty, brown paper bag-colored Plymouth minivan, ducks in hand.

“How much?” Evan asked.

“Three dollar,” said the withered crone.

“How about two?” Evan haggled.

“Aight,” replied the woman. Evan handed her his bills through her Plymouth’s window. She stuffed the bills in her pocket, as a squirrel would its nuts, and pulled out a mint and a plastic bag, which Evan refused.

What are you doing? What are you holding? Where are we?

Evan is looking for some wire cutters. Everyone sells wire cutters. Evan is eating a taco. Evan is looking at some shoes.

Ben is holding a 38x44 painting of Animalia, Chordata, Aves, Pelecaniformes, Pelecanidae, Pelecanus, P. occidentalis. But more like a flamingo than a pelican, really. Three of them.

This is the hemisphere of Maxwell Street Market. Consider this to understand where we are going—beyond the crust and into the center. The market is earthlike in character. Its outer rim is filled with points of interest and extreme variation. Duck footwear closer to Canal Street, N64 controllers near the Dan Ryan, and pelicans on Taylor. These hemispheres surround the inside of Chicago, protecting it as they would the earth’s vital innards. Passionfruit. Dental wax. Igneous processes—all are seen as we pass into the core.

Where are you? What is your stomach doing? What is that smell? What are those signs? People yell at you to visit, to taste their wares. The language is foreign but not alien, and the attitude is forceful but not mean.

“Do you want it in a cup?” Yes. And so it was buttered, becheesed, salted, and bepeppered. Fresh from the grill, the corn sizzled, and spooned tenderly into Evan’s mouth it was. Little parcels of warm brass, an ooze of pleasure falling and sliding down. Delicious, yes, and two dollars for the prize.

Ben and Evan arrived at last at the market-in-the-market, the Hivemarket, the Marketmind, the Übermarché.

“What’ll you have?” bellowed a staunch group of Hispanic chefs.

Ben responded.

“Want a wire clipper with that?” hollered back the troupe.

“No, thanks!” said Evan.

A quiet man opened up a fresh bucket of tongue. A long piece of pork rotated in epicyclical motion on a spit, dripping juices into the machine. A long knife was produced and plunged into the shank. A small woman fashioning tortillas got one there just in time for dollops of slivered meat to fall into it. Cheese rained and so did vegetables and so did sauces. Evan was given a ticket. He and Ben stood waiting, while Evan finished his corn in a cup, scooping the last nuggets out from a lone sour cream dollop.

And then they called. “One steak taco, one marinated pork quesadilla, one tongue taco in green sauce, and one marinated pork Huarache.” And then we ate. Lips to teeth to tongue to mouth to back of the mouth to esophagus to stomach. All sorts of people eat around you, each with their own tankard of green sauce/red sauce and their own grinning faces. Little boys and big girls scuttle past, tortillas being passed from person to person like checks in pneumatic tubes

Upon rising, we were weighted with the new gravity given to us by the many marinated meats we had just recently masticated. Stall after stall, trying to offer us tamales, plantains, and more meats wrapped in corn, faded suddenly as we arrived back to the crust of stands offering wire cutters and antediluvian video game implements. A horse galloped by and a man laughed. Horses had sold out in the morning; after all, Evan and Ben got there rather late in the day. Evan tried to buy scarves as a gift but found that they, too, were covered in corn. People munch everywhere here on the crust, taking their goods from the core to the surface, filled with a new vitality and need to buy.

Farewell, stay well, eat well.