Black and white photo of a smiling woman at the market.
Juana Lomeli at Jamaica Market. Clemente Dadoo Lomeli

My Life Spent in Mexico City's Food Markets

The relationship between the writer and her food merchants is a familial one extending through generations, and beyond the hunt for that one perfect taco.

Mexico City, the “anarchically alive metropolis,” as described by the Guardian, has become the subject of travelers’ praise for a myriad of reasons. Among them: its Brutalist, art deco, and Francophile architecture; its dented streets that run through the city’s neighborhoods, affluent and poor (which sometimes sit side by side); quinceañeras, clad in their fondant-like dresses, who are frequently glimpsed posing in front of national monuments. And even though its perpetual traffic and infamous carbon emissions levels have been mitigated by the introduction of the metrobus and ecobici, there’s always a bit of dust, giving the city a gilded, cinematic quality.

The city’s great unifier and appeal is its cuisine, especially the street-food: corner quesadillas, fast food tents outside of subway stops, stews served over hand-made tortillas, deep fried chicken tacos, tacos topped with rice served from street stands or a make-shift diner in the back of a van. In Mexico City, one can find great food everywhere at any price-point and at any time of day.

I was born in the street of Amores, in the Colonia Del Valle to two food-obsessed parents. Both my mother and father were food researchers and writers, and exceptional cooks. Every Friday, Los Viernes de los Lomeli (Lomelí Fridays) took place in our cavernous living and dining area. It was an open house in which painters, filmmakers, musicians, and businessmen drank until the wee hours of the night and ate from big pots of delicious food prepared by my father. All of our shopping, and most of our meals, took place in a market, except for the occasional restaurant outing. On Sundays my father collected the market’s bounty and cooked a large meal for his four daughters.

Since I can remember, my life has revolved around good food and good consumer practices. My Jewish grandmother, a Lithuanian immigrant, cooked meals inspired by Ashkenazi Jewish and Mexican traditions. Of her grandchildren, I was the only one who followed her to markets and kept meticulous records of her recipes. Under my parents’ and grandmother’s guidance, I began to cook in my early teens, discerning and isolating flavors from herbs, spices, greens, meat, poultry, and fish. As I grew older, I continued to accompany my father on his weekly excursions to the market, each time playing a more decisive role in our purchases and lending my voice to his book on beans and his book on chiles.

Now, not a week goes by when I do not go to a market, so much so that my car perpetually smells like a mixture of chicharrón, herbs, flowers, and eucalyptus. Over time, I’ve developed a relationship with many of these merchants, some that were begun by my parents, but as an heir to my parents’ tradition, I have also nurtured new ones. For me, as it is for many chilangos (residents of Mexico City), visiting markets is an inter-generational pastime that has resulted in life-long relationships with merchants, butchers, and the one taco—equal parts firm, saucy, lip-stickingly fatty—that you can’t get anywhere else.

Many families spend an entire weekend morning visiting a single market. They will often begin their journey with a hearty breakfast—anything ranging from atole and juice, to tacos and pancita, cow stomach served in a guajillo-based broth*. Shopping follows, as does socializing, two practices that are entrenched in the relationship between a patron and a marchante. We share our life stories, love stories, or lack thereof, our family stories, our grief, our gains, and our losses.

My markets and my marchantes

Mercado de Jamaica

Jamaica Market is located close to the city’s downtown and was once linked to the Xochimilco market through water canals. It made the news a few years back when part of the market set on fire, as many do, during the holiday-Posada season. The cause: renegade firecrackers.

I used to go to Jamaica Market every Saturday morning between 8:00 and 9:00 and with my parents and children. Since my children left for school and the passing of my father, who introduced me to the multi-market ritual, now I go on a variety of days.

Charly

Charly is the owner of his eponymous pork butchery, Tocinería Charly at Jamaica Market. Perhaps 70-years old, he is still muscular and youthful. Manicured pork hands line his stand while ribs and the colossal round of compressed chicharrón prensado are an arm’s reach away. Chicharrón prensado is the blended mixture of Mexican bacon, fat, and compacted meat that is prepared in either a chili-based broth or stuffed in a corn paste to make gorditas. Charly’s chicharrón prensado is exceptional, as is most of his inventory. For this reason, I visit him every time I go to Jamaica and buy something from him whether I need it or not.

Our conversations will mostly revolve around my father, how much Charly liked him and how much he misses him. Afterwards, he asks me how I plan to cook the meat. We are briefly interrupted by other patrons who stop by his shop, which he greets the same way he initially greeted me—Madrecita, que va a llevar hoy? (Madrecita, what are you going to take today?)

Las Claudias

Past the meat market and just before the large flower corridor, you’ll pass through the produce stands. Fruits are halved and quartered in the merchants’ hands, then offered to potential patrons. A sizeable altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe, encased in a powdered-blue case, bisects the main market’s quadrant composed of fruit (south), chiles (west), produce (east), and flowers (north). Las Claudias, mother and daughter, attend a small post in the produce section. As soon as they recognize me, they come out to welcome me with an affectionate hug. They always ask about my mother and my children. I buy garlic and herbs from them—coriander, mint, epazote and parsley—as well as nopal (cactus), cauliflower and broccoli. We’ll chat for a bit, laugh, and crack jokes. If my hands are full they’ll offer to hold my merchandise while I unload my first round of purchases in the car.

Juana Lomeli’s father, Arturo Lomeli Escalante, inspects a fish at a market; her daughter, Vita Dadoo Lomeli, at Mercado de Jamaica in 2003. (courtesy, Juana Lomeli)

Marisol and her orchard

Not far from the Claudias, Marisol’s stand is a host for all pre-cut vegetable dish varieties. Vegetable shelves full of different soup mixes, stir-fries, mire-poix, and salads cascade from the post. Marisol and her employees stand on top, chopping, bagging, and occasionally refurbishing the shelves.

Marisol has a poignant story. Her former husband was an oil engineer and spent a lot of time on oil rigs but with two children, they needed an additional source of income. She thought of renting a place in the market and offering combinations of vegetables to make shoppers’ lives easier. In huge baskets you will find: different types of salads, combinations of vegetable soups, stir fry, combinations of mushrooms, pumpkin flowers, etc. Many have tried to imitate her set-up with little success. Marisol is extremely hardworking and has successfully provided for her children.

Rafaela

Years ago, a little old lady who came from the state of Tlaxcala, Rafaela, arrived every Saturday morning with some beautiful, colorful baskets full of Oaxacan cheeses, cottage cheese, panela cheese, goat cheese and butter, which she and her family prepared, and laid them out in a bed of fresh plantain leaves. She died, but her children continue to delight us with their products.

I buy all local dairy products in Jamaica, usually a quarter pound of cream, a bit of requesón, and a ball of Oaxaca cheese.

Without fail, upon our arrival to the post, María Macrina gives us a piece of fresh bread or tostada with cream and topped with a small mountain of cheese. The ritual dairy snack, sprinkled with a bit of salt, prefaces the market feast, which is followed-up by either chicken-tripe tacos or cow-head tacos, and concluded with chileatole.

Mercado de San Juan

San Juan market, during the 1970s and until a few years ago, was the gourmet market, where you found the freshest and most varied fish and seafood, mutton, beef, tripe, beef hearts, rabbit, wild birds, snails and endless Spanish and “Oriental” delicatessens. It was frequented by the Spanish exile community, Jewish and Chinese immigrants, and anyone who enjoyed good, international food. Whenever they were in season, merchants offered Alaskan crab, crab legs as big as my hand, blue shrimp, prawns, barnacles with a few drops of lemon to open your palate.

The Port of Alvarado

El Puerto de Alvarado occupied three joined posts and was owned and run by a father and his two sons. The two brothers worked meticulously cleaning the fish and preparing ceviches for their pampered clients while an enormous cat called La manchas caressed you with her belly that was fat from eating so much fresh tuna. Julio, one of the brothers, waited for me on Fridays, the day in which they brought swordfish, that we cut it into sashimi for breakfast. After the father died, the brothers fell out and the Port of Alvarado dissolved into two separate posts. Carmen went into business with one of the brothers, and after the split, she would save shrimp for me on Fridays.

Ceci

Just by the original fish stand, Ceci runs her own family’s Catalan post. She and her mother prepare Catalan sausages daily: morcilla, sobreasada, fuet, jamón serrano, and delicious coffee. For a long time, my children and I would have a dual breakfast feast, featuring ceviche and sobreasada served over warm bread.

Juana and Ceci catching up. (Courtesy, Juana Lomeli)

Rogelio

Though Jamaica offers a generous inventory of meat products and sellers, San Juan is still famous for its specialty cuts.

Rogelio’s post is in the back of the market. His veal is known for being the whitest and cleanest in the market. Sometimes clients will bring a complete deer in a container, to be cleaned and divided. Rogelio is one of the few merchants that continues to do this type of work.

Mercado de la del Valle, Lazaro Cardenas

El Mercado de la del Valle, formally known as Mercado de Lázaro Cárdenas, was the market of my childhood. This is the market my father took us when school was out for break, to celebrate with carnitas and barbacoa tacos. They treated us as if we were family and were very impressed when my sister ate 25 tacos in one sitting during a fit of hunger. My father, always in a suit and tie, asked for two carnitas tacos and a rib of barbecue. I would get the crispy and huge barbacoa flautas with cream and cheese, which we seasoned with green sauce and salsa borracha.

Only Juanita, the lady who still wakes up before dawn to prepare handmade tortillas, is still selling food at the market. However, in recent years, a new stand opened, boasting one of the best coffee roasters in the city: Passmar. Owned by Salvador Benitez, Passmar is a fairly large, multi-leveled stand that serve and sell perfect coffee blends as well as Mexican breakfasts. This is where I usually buy my coffee and, if I’m with a family member, we still accompany our cappuccinos with a side of tacos.

Mercado de Medellín

The Medellín market was my mother’s favorite. She, like many Jewish immigrants that lived in the Condesa-Roma neighborhood, would visit it often. It was a typical neighborhood market, resplendent with groceries, produce, veal, and fish butchers, as well as variety food-stands. These days, el Mercado de Medellin specializes in Cuban, Venezuelan, and Colombian specialties. You can also find specialty products from Yucatan, Oaxacan cheeses, moles, crickets, and tlayudas. It has a large offering of loncherías that serve traditional Mexican lunch food, fish, seafood, juices, and flavored waters.

Helados Palmeiro

Though I will come to Medellin to pick up a few things for my mother, I invariably stop in Palmeiro, a Cuban ice-cream, creamery, and malt shake post. Owned by an engineer in astrophysics who fled the Castro regime, Palmeiro fashions the authentic Cuban ice cream, made exclusively with creamed milk.

We are a market culture

Among the hundreds of markets in Mexico, every person finds the one best attuned to their needs and desires. In 52 years, I have visited my markets hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. In that time, my father passed away, as did the fisherman from the now defunct El Barco in San Juan, and, recently, the woman, who sold me lush, grainy yellow morel mushrooms. When I told my daughter about her passing, she too felt a pang in her heart. She can crystalize her image from memory; the tight, white braids, the rebozo she used to lay out the mushrooms and the fact that if those mushrooms made their way into our supper, she knew exactly where they came from. I courteously called her “La señora” for so many years that I now question if I knew her name to begin with.

Not long ago, I returned to the markets with my children. Some merchants gasp in disbelief when I tell them that the 20-something adults next to me are my children. Others re-tell the story of my once two-year old daughter slurping the base of the chileatole—the green, spicy broth that’s mixed with kernels of White corn. They’ve been telling this story for as long as my daughter can remember and perhaps will continue to do so until we all stop remembering altogether.

This article was translated from Spanish by Vita Dadoo Lomeli.

*Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece said that pancita had a tomato broth, rather than a guajillo-based broth.

This piece is part of our series, "Finding Community." We want to hear your stories. Have you found space in your city to meet people you might not otherwise encounter? Is there something that binds your community, including the most vulnerable? What in these communities has delighted, dismayed, and transformed you? Send your idea to pitches@citylab.com.

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