Indigenous Culture, Oaxaca life

Lining up for Cheese: The Delights of Shopping outside the Supermarket

By Kim Groves

I had my orange market bag tucked under my arm, and a few 10 peso coins jingling ready in my hand. I think I was flicking idly through a newspaper that someone had left on the counter. A woman of about 40 years sidled up beside me and raised her eyebrows to me in question. I thought the question was “Are you in line?” and so I nodded a polite “Yes” with my eyes. She took a few quick steps and cut in front of me. At first I was annoyed— I think it was an old default response that flared up—but then I sighed, I actually smiled, and I settled back to waiting. After all, I was new to lining up for cheese, and this woman had years on me, I had to respect that. 


I learn a lot about people and local rhythms from hanging about in markets. Everyone knows that I am loyal to the organic market at Xochimilco, but I do have another faithful here in Oaxaca, the Sánchez Pascuas. Walk 7 blocks north of the Zócolo on Porfirio Diaz and when you run into a beautiful big laurel tree, you will have found this little market that was founded in 1972. Let me take you for a tour… 

Near the top entrance there is the mother and daughter duo who sell wonderful fruit and vegetables. Every time it is: “What can I get you, guerita?” I grin; everyone knows that the mother gives cheaper prices. Sometimes she will really indulge me by slipping in a new sort of fruit that she knows I’ve never tasted. I like lingering in the aisle. I love that sometimes the most challenging part of my morning is to pick the perfect rock melon (or as the Americans say “cantaloupe”) (by the way, this word makes me think of an animal with antlers).


Keep walking; there is a grinding noise coming from the left. Colourful fruit is flying in and out of blenders at a dizzying rate. I love this juice place. Who knew that throwing spinach in with pineapple and oranges would turn out to be so delicious? It is called Popeye, that combination, just so you know what to order.


What a treat, we have arrived early enough for tamales. They usually sell out by about 8:30 in the morning. Mole Negro, steaming hot; I burn my tongue. Tamales are perfect paired with atole de maiz; like a warm hug as you drink it down. It is served from an amazing terracotta jar that seems to hold the heat of some distant fire.

The women who sell tortillas set themselves up together in the lower walkway, and they call to us now. They are competing for business, but all seem to get along as if they were family. I love the way the warm pressed corn steams up the plastic bag that they give me. Across from the tortillas are the avocados. How delightful that the women categorises’ them by their ripeness – “eat today” and “eat tomorrow”. 

Are you hungry? I’ve been going to the comedores here since the first week I arrived in Oaxaca. You are guaranteed to find a nourishing plate of rice and beans, a spicy chile relleno, or a giant Tlayuda to suit your mood. It’s a constant in my life, a comfort, just like home cooking. 

There is the husband and wife team with the best melon flavoured water. They have a pet bird who sings out to me from its cage as I eat. It’s a lovebird, and sometimes the man talks and croons to it. I wonder if it’s the bird or the man who always insists on playing The Beatles on the stereo.

“Where are you from?” asked one of my companions at the big communal dining table one afternoon. He laughed with a tone of surprise at my answer; “I thought all people from Australia were fat”. That was definitely a new one. I’ve got the kangaroos, the sharks, and even the rugby, but the being fat? That had me pretty much choking on my entomatadas with delight.

As I leave by the back entrance the old woman who calls me Reina is busy stirring a great pot of soup. The woman, who once warned me to be careful with my things as a suspicious looking man passed me, is back at her spot with her herbs spread all about her like a great luscious lawn…

I dreaded grocery shopping, back at home. The supermarkets always made me anxious and tired. I tried to get in and out of them as quickly as possible. Here in Oaxaca, I hardly step foot in such places. Instead I have found little havens like the Sánchez Pascuas market where I go not just toshop, but to be. Go on, spend a morning or two there, build it into your routine, and you will see that shopping, even lining up for cheese, can be an absolute delight.

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