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As an American living in Toronto for much of his adult life, silly as it sounds, I have never felt completely at home here.
On the one hand, I am entirely sold on Canadian ideas such as the collective good (it’s not always about the individual), universal health care (don’t knock it until you try it) and higher taxes (you get what you pay for).
On the other, my bones ache if I go too long without inhaling that heady, New York mixture of salt air and ambition. Or am denied the thickened, east coast light of my childhood.
Maybe this is why the farmers’ market I go to in Toronto has come to mean so much to me. Sure, it is a celebration of the local and organic. And of course there are plenty of Canadian delights to be found there: peameal bacon, extra dark maple syrup, Montreal bagels.
But a market can also be a great leveller of culture. After all, everyone has to eat. No one cares what culture you are from or if you know the difference between a cheddar from Vermont or P.E.I. I can stop being The Transplanted New Yorker or The Newly Minted Dual Citizen and simply be a guy buying vegetables. It is all just food.
Or so I thought.
A vendor there, Rube, sells me rice and grains. There are versions of Rube at markets the world over: old-timers who’ve been there forever, adored by everyone, a touchstone on shopping day. A city institution.
Rube is like the old wise rabbi of our market. He knows the history of the place (part of his store was once the town jail). He can tell you which vendors get along with other vendors, or who has the best honeycrisp apples. (He buys one most Saturdays).
And over the years, I get to know him a bit.
He gently offers his opinions on everything from the pecan rice (“the fancy stuff”) to his granola (“I make it myself”) to the aged basmati (“it’s the most fragrant”).
And like he does with many of his regulars, he shares personal stories with me. His late wife was “the brains in the family.” Her answer to his worry about having a sixth child? “We’ll just add more water to the soup.” Of the organic oatmeal he says, “A certain kind of person buys that oatmeal. Some of my customers come in just for that.”
Each year he stays up all night to make coleslaw for Passover. Other holidays he is responsible for the mashed potatoes. He talks and tallies, taking his time. Customers wait patiently. He never rushes.
Even when I am not at the market, Rube is often in my thoughts. I save the little brown paper bags I bring the rice home in (on the outside of the bag, Rube’s handwritten addition neatly lined up in black or green Sharpie). When I go to my son’s hockey games, I put warm, roasted chestnuts inside the bags and bring them along.
There I sit – the dumb American who cannot even skate – freezing in a cavernous arena on countless Saturday nights watching my son skate like the Canadian he is, my hands warm around Rube’s wrinkled brown paper bag.
Rube also shares some family matters. About a relative: “When he calls I ask, ‘How much?’” About a granddaughter studying psychology: “She’s a real genius.” There is also the heartbreaking loss of a son to cancer.
Despite his grieving in the weeks after that loss, I am struck by how quickly he seems to bounce back. A few months later I ask how he is. “A-1,” he says. A classic Rube response: upbeat, hopeful, no complaints. It is also how I knew he is back on track. Living in the moment. Keeping busy. Fully present.
This has stayed with me. Not just his grace in the face of adversity. But to an American endlessly struggling to feel at home in a thriving Canadian culture, here is a man who knows the lay of the land – his home – and simply accepts what comes.
Several years ago, Rube started slowing down. He showed up later and later. Then he had trouble doing the tallying. Then he fell on the bus. When he turned 90 the market had a party for him, but by then he was coming to the market less and less. Then not at all. And finally, a little while ago, Rube died.
His daughter Amy has taken over the business. And I still go to the market. But it is different. Or is it me? Lately all I feel when I am there is the 20 years I have been going there.
It is as if Rube’s absence is silently reaffirming all the time I have invested at the market, and in Canada. As if he is telling me: This is your home too.
I no longer think of farmers’ markets for just the localness of the food. They are about the localness of the people too. People who – if you are lucky – might show you how culture and home are not simply about where you come from or even where you live, but what you learn, wherever you are.
One grain of rice at a time.
Mark Krause divides his time between Toronto and New York.