"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: November 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Atlanta Farmers’ Market Where the World Meets Daily

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I was looking for food, fresh Nigerian food, and I ended up in a “united nations.” That’s the summation of my recent experience at Atlanta’s famous Your DeKalb Farmers’ Market, reputedly the world’s largest indoor farmers’ market where fresh food from most parts of the world is sold on a daily basis.

I had become truly sick of American food in the last couple of days. I wanted to eat Nigerian food so badly. My craving for Nigerian food became especially intensified because of the constant dreams I had had about eating my favorite Nigerian dishes.

Then I would wake up and find myself in Atlanta—condemned to contend with American foods, which I frankly find unbearably insipid. (Because gastronomy is all a matter of acquired taste, I imagine that Americans and people of other nations also find our food nasty).

But, for me, deficiency in taste or flavor or tang is not even the worst nightmare about eating American food. Every visit to an American restaurant exposes you to what one might call a gastronomical inquisition: For every food item you order, you will be presented with seemingly countless choices, and every choice has even more minor choices ad infinitum. You can’t go to a restaurant and simply ask for, say, a burger; you will have to answer a litany of irritating questions about how you want the burger to be.

One day I got angry and said, “Look, just give me the damn burger! I don’t care how you make it!” The waitress looked me in the face and calmly said she won’t serve me if I didn’t choose from the interminable options on offer over every bit of item in the burger. It was frustrating for me because, first off, I was not familiar with American food, much less the names and constitutive parts of the food. Second, the variety on offer didn’t always strike me as variety in reality. As far I was concerned, it was all bland, unfamiliar stuff that I would not eat if I had a choice, I mean a real choice.

After years of living here, I am getting used to American food—and acquiring the taste to enjoy it, although I am yet to get over the catechismal rigor to which I am always subjected when I want to buy food. And I have also not got over missing my Nigerian food.

Recently, I narrated my culinary frustrations to one of my American friends. And he said to me that I could actually get Nigerian food here in Atlanta. I had heard that many times in the past, but all attempts to find a Nigerian restaurant online have not been successful. My commitments here don’t give me the luxury of being able to go round town looking for Nigerians and Nigerian restaurants. I told my friend this.

“Have you ever been to the Your DeKalb Farmers’ Market?” he asked.

“Well, it’s not far from where I live, but I’ve never been there.”

“Oh, you should definitely check it out. All your culinary frustrations will be over!”

“But what in the world is a farmers’ market? I don’t see any farmers in America.”

“A farmers’ market is a place where fresh food is sold, and in the DeKalb Farmers’ Market fresh food is brought from every part of the world.”

This sounded good to me. So three weeks ago I decided to visit the farmers’ market. And what I saw exceeded my expectations. It’s an incredibly enormous agric market located in a serene and extravagantly lush environment.

As you enter the market, the first thing that strikes you is the array of national flags of all countries of the world artistically hung on the walls. As you can imagine, the first color I looked for— and found— was “Green, White, Green”—the color of the Nigerian flag.

And under this green-white-green flag were fresh foods and fruits from Nigeria, fresher, in fact, than you can get them in Nigeria! Best of all: for the first time since I have relocated to Atlanta from Louisiana over a year ago, I met Nigerians, real living Nigerians. They were busy shopping fresh Nigerian foods and speaking their local languages as loudly as Nigerians love to speak.

I joined them and spoke Nigerian Pidgin English since I couldn’t speak their native language. Speaking Pidgin English was my own way of connecting with them emotionally.

They were excited to see me, as I was to see them. Within that little space, we recreated Nigeria. They directed me to parts of the market where I could get other uniquely Nigerian culinary treats “wrongly” located under the flags of other African countries. I bought goat meat, semolina, okro (which Americans call okra), and a whole host of other tasty Nigerian delicacies.

I have been enjoying my Nigerian food for the past three or so weeks. A faithful reader of this column wrote to say that one of my columns in the past weeks was “gushingly lyrical.” Well, perhaps, I was inebriated by morsels of pounded yam lubricated with hot egusi soup and goat meat when I wrote it!

The first person I saw in the farmer’s market was a Sierra Leonean who looked so Nigerian, so Yoruba to be precise, that the first thing I said to him was “ba wo ni!” (“how are you” in Yoruba). “I am actually Sierra Leonean, but every Nigerian I have met here has mistaken me for a Nigerian Yoruba,” he said. Well, the ancestral roots of most Sierra Leoneans are located in Nigeria. This man could very have been descended from some Odua ancestor.

Every, well most, nationalities in the world are represented in this market. I saw people from all over the world buying their national delicacies and speaking their native languages with gusto. I suspect that people come to this market not just to buy fresh food but to cure their homesickness, to meet people who speak their languages and with whom they can discuss common topics, and to nurture their nostalgia for home. This place is more than a market; it’s also a united nations, a united nations unmediated by bureaucracy.

The market's employees also come from different parts of the world, although it would appear that Ethiopians are overly represented here. Every employee speaks at least two languages—English and another national language. Some speak more than two languages. On all employees’ name tags are inscribed their name, nationality, and the languages they speak. This makes national identification easy. It also helps first timers to know whom to ask questions about the location of their national delicacies in this vast market.

Besides a massive and assorted green grocery section catering to all nations of the world, Your DeKalb Farmers’ Market also has a truly gorgeous panoply of fresh and live seafood, a cornucopia of meat, on-premises bakery, flower shops, a fruit bar, pastry, fresh coffee shops and a casual restaurant, featuring much of the exotic produce offered for sale.

Founded in 1977 as a small produce stand, the current market covers 140,000 square feet. Produce is shipped in fresh daily from every part of the world.

The Nigerians I met at the market told me that since they discovered this market, they have never eaten American food. They are having the best of both worlds. All other non-Americans I spoke to in the market said the same. They all come to this market to undertake psychological, emotional, and culinary journeys to their homelands.

Globalization has truly shrunk the world and dislocated our habitual perceptions of territorialization, deterritorialization and reterritorialization. The globe has been “villagized” as much as the village has been globalized. Globalization theorists call this phenomenon “glocalization.” It is a portmanteau word that encapsulates the fusion of the global and the local.

It is customary for people to assert that the world is now a global village. That’s no longer accurate. The world is actually now a “glocal” hamlet!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Voyage to America’s Most Patriotic Town (III)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I knew I was in a different part of the United States when we passed the state of Maryland and got into the “New England” states. The phrase “New England,” in case you didn’t know, is shorthand for the northeastern states of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

Traditionally, the term excludes the neighboring northeastern states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, although in everyday speech it is usual to conflate “northeastern states,” which include all the states in northeastern United States, with “New England” states. My colleague here who is originally from Boston (the largest city in the state of Massachusetts and in New England) told me that New York (which was originally Dutch) and New Jersey are often called “Greater New England,” that is, extensions of New England.

The states are called New England perhaps because their origins are directly traceable to English migrants who consciously nourished their English ways upon arriving in the “new world.” Most of the cities, towns, and villages here are named after older cities, towns, and villages in England. Bristol, for instance, where I attended the conference, is named after a city by the same name in England. Where names of towns are not directly transplanted from England, “new” is often prefixed to them, as in “New” York, “New” Hampshire, etc. And it is often said that should the United States disintegrate, the New England states are likely to remain as a country because of their immense historical and cultural affinities.

This is clearly a distinct part of the United States by every standard. The people here are still very European or, to be sure, English in their ways—at least in more ways than is the case for the other parts of the United States. They are ruggedly individualistic, distant, brisk, even brusque. They are the people Americans call Yankees, although non-Americans apply this name to all Americans.

New England is said to be the most urban, most liberal, and most WASPish part of America. (WASP stands for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”). And it is in many ways the cultural and educational pacesetter of America.

It is home to four of the Ivy League universities, America’s first universities. If we consider New York and New Jersey as part of New England, it means New England is home to all but one of the Ivy League universities.

Brown University, which one of the conference organizers was kind enough to take me to, is in the state of Rhode Island; Yale University is in the state of Connecticut; Harvard University is in the state of Massachusetts; and Dartmouth College is in the state of New Hampshire. Princeton University is in the state of New Jersey, while Columbia and Cornell universities are in New York. The University of Pennsylvania, in the state of Pennsylvania, is the only Ivy League university outside of New England. I passed through and stopped over in all these states, except Pennsylvania.

The architecture of New England homes is also different from the rest of America. I used to think that the American architectural landscape was boringly homogenous. All American big cities, to me, looked alike. Same for the towns and villages. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen all—or so I thought. Until I had a chance to visit here. The architectural designs of houses in New England states strike me as closer to European patterns than they are to other parts of America I have been to.

Similarly, the demotic accent here is closer to British accent than it is to mainstream American accent. New Englanders are largely non-rhotic speakers. In English pronunciation, it is customary to distinguish between rhotic accent and non-rhotic accent. In rhotic accents, such as mainstream American accent, the “r” is often articulated in words; in non-rhotic accents, such as standard British pronunciation, the “r” is silent, except where it appears at the beginning of words.

While the rest of America is rhotic, New Englanders tend to be non-rhotic. People here don’t roll their “r” in the same way that other Americans do. For instance, they don’t articulate the “r” in “learn,” or “water” as forcefully as other Americans do. (The standard American accent used in broadcasting and in schools is derived from the accent of Midwestern Americans, perhaps because their accent reconciles the phonological extremes of southern and northern accents).

And unlike in the South, it is hard to differentiate between the accents of black and white Americans here. At least, that was the impression I came away with. They all sounded the same to me. In the South, black American accent is markedly different from white American accent. Of course, for historical reasons, they are fewer blacks in the North than there are in the South.

One man from the University of Wales, United Kingdom, who presented a paper at the conference I attended, told me that Rhode Island—and the whole of New England— felt like old England in many ways. And he was visiting here for the first time, too. “The weather is very English. The people are very English, even their buildings—except for all the dunkin’ donuts I see around,” he said.

No one smiles to strangers here. And if you are lost for directions, don’t count on anybody to be of any help. The people are as cold as their weather. And this is as true of white people as it is of black people. The bus driver who drove me from New York to Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, was the coldest, meanest creature I ever encountered. And he was black. I didn’t encounter a lot of warmth from the people here. Perhaps, the coldness of the weather has made people emotionally frigid too.

While these notions were registering in me, I was self-conscious that I was probably being impressionistic—and therefore probably wrong. You can’t judge the character of a people based on a few days’ episodic encounters with a few of them. However, a professor whom I got friendly with at the conference said to me that my impressions were largely accurate. He added, though, that when I am able to penetrate the cold surfaces of New Englanders, I will find warm, friendly and truly complaisant human beings.

Southerners, he said, smile even when they are at war. “So don’t be deceived by the smiling faces,” he said half joking and half serious. That’s not difficult to believe. The South, in spite of its legendary hospitality and mild manners, is a less racially tolerant society than the North.

One other thing: the people here are not nearly as beautiful as people in the South. New Englanders themselves don’t contest this fact. The American South has way more beautiful people than any part of the United States—well, except perhaps California, which is in the west.

New Englanders are also very formal and inflexible with time, unlike in the South. For instance, on my way back to Boston from Providence, I missed my bus by only a minute because of heavy traffic between Bristol and Providence. By the time I arrived at the station, the bus had lef. In the South, there would have been a delay of two or there, maybe even five, minutes.

Our Greyhound coaches from Atlanta to New York never left the bus station at exactly the times indicated on our tickets. There were always a few minutes’ delay. All that changed from New York. Drivers kept to the time schedule with what seemed like mechanical exactitude.

In spite of the rather cold reception I got from New Englanders generally, Rhode Island, which other Americans like to call the smallest state with the longest name, seemed a little friendlier. The people at Roger Williams University in Bristol where the conference was held were especially such a comforting contrast to the cold souls I encountered earlier.

In Bristol, I lodged at a quaintly idyllic and historic farm house called Mount Hope Farm, very close to the Roger Williams University. It was expensive, but well worth it. The landscape is rich with wildlife, handcrafted stone walls, terraces, flowers, mature shrubs and indigenous trees, with cows grazing in the background and exotic birds chirping beautifully day and night. The environment is serene with breathtakingly expansive water views and the people I met there were incredibly nice.

The place is also replete with history, having been first built in1745. The buildings are still retained from that period. That’s why it’s designated as a National Register Historic landmark. And knowing that I was passing the night in such a historic place redounded to my excitement.

Although the journey was long and hectic, I am glad I undertook it.


Related Articles
1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (I)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (II)