What can I say about the Coronation Market. Even before I arrived in Kingston it was a place that captured my imagination. And – as is my tendency – that enticement only grew when people tried to discourage me from visiting it: “you’ll get ripped off,” they said. “It’s unsafe,” they warned. “It’s overwhelming and unattractive,” they whinged. “Why would you go there when you can shop in a super market?” they cajoled, having totally misunderstood what I’m here for. Here’s why I went to the Coronation Market, what impressions it left me with, and why I will go back frequently:

  • Every-changing smells of fresh produce & seafood, less fresh garbage, foods cooking over charcoal fires, humanity and exhaust.
  • A steady cacophony of hawkers, buyers, manufacturing stalls, families, and friends going about their business of creating, selling and buying.
  • Life is lived out at the market (at most city markets, in my opinion), in all it’s glorious messes.
  • Fish that twitch in their baskets, their milky eyes no longer seeing – once you pick the one you want, the fishmonger scales and cleans it so all there is to do is take it home and cook it.
  • Yams as big as my arm
  • Roasted bread fruit, hot off a charcoal fire (just down the way is the ‘charcoal department’ where people are creating the charcoal their neighbours use to cook their produce). I bought a small whole roasted breadfruit – enough starchy deliciousness for at least 4-6 meals, for a whopping JA$100.
  • Local, in season produce (though plenty of imported produce too, for those who need their carrots straight) from the agricultural areas of the island.
  • The vendor who said there’s no broccoli today, but it’ll be ready in two weeks. Try getting that from your supermarket.
  • Clothes, soaps, handmade pots and pans (not recommended as they are, apparently, the opposite of non-stick), ice cold drinks, games of chance, rugs, shoes … we only saw about 40% of the market, and still I can’t remember all the goodness.
  • The warmth of the vendors – their smiles and hellos when they saw my friend/guide Erin, questions after the friend she normally arrives with, helpfulness in choosing the best produce for our needs, making my roommate Deb and I feel as welcome as we could be.
  • Colourful racks of school uniforms – jumpers in royal blue and forest green and stacks of khaki pants

It is not picturesque, but there is a beautiful madness to it all. Handmade carts push past busy crowds, vehicles move as they can down the outer edge, and while the whole experience is that anything could go wrong, I imagine that it’s seldom anything actually does.

My JA$700 haul of spinach, oranges, watermelon, bammy, breadfruit and peppers.

In Canada – or at least on the west coast – we make a big deal about eating local and in season and avoiding modified foods, yet never before have I purchase oranges that were grown within a day’s drive. Mind you, never before have I bought oranges that are green. The lemons are also green. It made me wonder how much our food has been tampered with to have citrus in insanely neon colours. Not every vendor grows the food they sell, but for any imported goods there seemed to be a local option as well.

I went with the intention to take pictures. I even considered taking my big camera, though I wasn’t sure that would be safe. I would love to show you what a basket full of red snapper looks like, or how colourful a pile of scotch bonnet peppers is, or breadfruit steamy as it’s wrapped in newsprint. But if felt somehow inappropriate. This is no tourist attraction – it is a real market with real people. Yes, I could have asked Deb to take a picture of me buying my bag of local fresh spinach, but even that seemed to turn the transaction into something else.

Anthony Bourdain has been. He can probably tell you about it with more panache than I can: