The summers I was 12 and 13, I took a job picking berries.
The owners of the fields hired us kids because the migrants couldn’t make enough at it to make it worth it. The sticky-hot sun beat down on our sunburned arms. My very best eight-hour day of picking, I earned $5. I averaged about $3.50, as did the other kids. If our berries got crushed by careless harvesting, our flat would be “wet” and we would have to pick out the berries with broken skin.
So when we strolled along the Freedom Trail in Boston and came across the Haymarket, I was astonished by what I found.
The Haymarket has been around as a central selling spot since the 17th century. About 170 years ago, merchants selling farm produce nudged aside the farmers selling plain old hay. Of course farmer’s markets have popped up in almost every city and town, but the Haymarket is still supreme.
It operates every Friday and Saturday, even in the winter. It’s not a traditional farmers’ market anymore, either. Vendors clear out unsold produce from supermarkets and other sellers and set up fruit stands in the Haymarket near historic Faneuil Hall.
Vendors are selling produce so fast that some divide bills with their fingers rather than rushing back and forth to a cash register. I stood agape for a moment, hardly believing my eyes where fresh blueberries were a dollar a pound! They were still firm and sweet, prime for eating. I bought a box, just to see if it was really true, and sure enough, he took my dollar and I took his box of blueberries. I popped a handful into my mouth like a famished 2-year-old and relished the bliss of nature’s candy.
Everywhere I looked, there were fresh, inviting fruits and vegetables. Peaches and sweet oranges were four for a dollar.
This was the third time I had traversed Boston’s Freedom Trail. Last time, we were laden with baby gear and a stroller and the day was meltingly hot. By the time we got to the Haymarket, all we wanted was to find a place to sit down and eat. We had a long way to go to Bunker Hill where the trail ends, so didn’t want to carry any extra weight.
But this time, I came prepared. I had my biggest purse, brought on this trip for that very purpose. I emptied out the unnecessary junk while I guessed how many pounds of fruit I could fit in the oversized bag.
Once I established that the prices were no mirage, I couldn’t help myself. Juicy, vine-ripened tomatoes sold three pounds for a dollar. The vendor threw in an extra tomato when the scale tipped slightly below three pounds. He didn’t want to bother to figure out change so it was a bonus.
Though we repeatedly reminded ourselves that we had to carry everything we bought, we couldn’t help ourselves. Another vendor sold blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, three pounds for $2. Who could resist? We bought some of each and then some more. Grapes were 50 cents a pound.
I bit into a fresh, ripe peach and felt saintly when I shared a couple bites with Jeff.
We forced ourselves to stop buying when we had gathered about 17 pounds of fruit, (including the tomatoes). We turned our eyes to the other shops around the Haymarket. For over 100 years, other vendors have surrounded the market, selling good things for little money. I didn’t dare go into the cheese or the cold cut shops. We strolled down to the Haymarket pizza place instead. It is on the fringe of the Italian section of town and it was lunch time too. $14 bought us a large, succulent three-topping pizza, oozing cheese over a hearty crust.
Yes, my purse full of tomatoes may have raised the eyebrows of the security agents at the USS Constitution further down the trail. But I helped heave the load of goodies back to our lodging with a sense of triumphant glee. For supper, we feasted on berries swimming in vanilla yogurt with a sense of gratitude not only for our ancestors’ sacrifices, but for their brilliant marketing strategies.
Only in America, God bless it.