A Cathedral of Things to Eat

Nearly thirty years after the Eiffel Tower had been constructed and unveiled to the world in the Exposition of 1889, the civic leaders of Valencia, a major port on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, decided to demonstrate that their city was just as wealthy as the city of Paris. And so, in 1914, they began building El Mercado Central, the Central Market. Their claim of money and power was not a fantasy: since the Romans founded the city more than 2,100 years ago, the Coast of The Orange Blossoms, (La Costa del Azahar) and Valencia, its capitol, have stocked kitchens and pantries all over the world with ceramics, rice, pomegranates, artichokes, plums and of course, their most famous export, oranges.

Although the horizontally-designed Mercado Central and the vertical Eiffel Tower seem to have little in common, both structures share a material integral to their construction. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wrought iron was used for manufacturing everything from horseshoes to rails for trains and streetcars. Many architectects and engineers regarded it as the perfect material for creating “modern” architecture.

El Mercado Central, Valencia. From a postcard, c. 1960.

For many years, I have wondered: why do certain structures welcome us, and others repel us? Part of the answer is that most official architecture, that is, government and corporation architecture, has little to do with real human beings. It is designed instead to reinforce the power of those who rule and own us. The monumental scale of pyramids and temples in ancient Egypt, office buildings in Washington and Brasilia and corporation headquarters throughout the world from Manhattan to Beijing is inhuman. It is designed to reduce the scale of us mere human beings to that of mere insects at the mercy of those above. In contrast, El Mercado Central is a human-sized version of the United Nations. It opens its arms to the world, and the world has welcomed the market’s embrace.

How long do you think you would  have to wander through the Mercados aisles before you could hear almost every language spoken on this earth?  Not very long. Why are Belgians and Hawaiians here? Not to mention Chinese, Chileans, Swedes, Australians, Algierians and Japanese? Let’s not forget a few Scots, Cambodians, Argentines and South Africans. They come here to buy almonds and cucumbers, hams, ceramic plates, bread, olives, chocolate, garlic, wine and tomatoes. Americans accustomed to buying chicken breasts and thighs wrapped in supermarket plastic can instead buy the same parts– or the whole bird– from women butchers in blood-spattered aprons. Imagine conical pyramids of paprika; kiosks with dozens of varieties of cheese; green peppers and cherries and lettuce harvested this morning along with mint and oregano right from the farm; more varieties of olives than you ever thought existed; orange juice squeezed on the spot from real oranges, not juice from Florida concentrates; a paquet of saffron that  weighs no more than a handful of leaves but costs as much as half a kilo of bacon. Would you like to roast a rabbit or a goat for dinner tonight? You’re in the right place to buy one. In more than 900 kiosks that fill up more than 87,000 square feet of the Mercado, you can purchase whatever food will make you happy. And if you get hungry or thirsty from shopping, there’s a bar on the west side of the Mercado where you can enjoy a tapa and a glass of wine.

Oh sorry,  I haven’t mentioned the huge section of the market devoted to food from the sea. Here’s my friend Paco pondering what we’ll have for our afternoon meal. (Look closely at the bottom left of the photo and you’ll get an idea of the fishmonger’s sense of humour.)

If trout, mackerel or tuna don’t fit your appetite, you can purchase oysters, crayfish, mussels, prawns, crabs, cockles, squid, clams, scallops, cuttlefish, octopus and other creatures of the sea. Adventurous diners sometimes select eels which writhe in pails and whose heads the fishmongers will cut off so you don’t have to do it yourself at home.

As a painter, what intrigues me most about the market are the colors, and especially the light that saturates the place. I think it is the light that makes the market feel so welcoming. However, creating a feeling of that light was definitely the most difficult challenge of painting the canvas because there’s not only natural light from the dome and windows, but also flourescent light, and all those lights reflect off every surface, including clothing, plastic, stainless steel, ceramic tiles, the floor, the food, and the wrought iron of the structure itself.

El Mercado Central – Oil/canvas – 40 x 60 inches

My friend Richard felt so welcomed by the Mercado that he commissioned this painting. I don’t remember what the name of the kiosk on the left of the aisle was, but to honor him, I changed it to Ricardo so that, in name, and in this painting, he will always feel embraced by a beautiful island of peace that has welcomed so many people from every corner of our troubled world.

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