America speaks with a symphony of accents in the well-traveled corner of West Palm Beach known as Foodtown.
America soars like the mountain of ginger root rising from a produce bin, where on any given day one might find a Jamaican shopper rummaging through the root pile beside a Pakistani shopper in a hijab headscarf.
It shines like a ripe lychee’s heart, warms like Thai chili paste, soothes like Guatemalan crema and delights like sweet Caribbean plantains.
America hums and sparkles in the chockablock aisles of Foodtown, where the concept of variety is explored in macro and micro terms. The macro: There are a zillion spices from all over the planet here. The micro: There’s at least a million kinds of soy sauce alone.
It was the formerly local chef Roy Villacrusis who introduced me to the supermarket, which sits at the intersection of Military Trail and 45th Street, in the spring of 2012. The Filipino-born chef, who has since moved to Las Vegas, allowed us to shadow him on a hunt for Asian ingredients along Military Trail’s spice corridor, an eclectic commercial patch where local chefs shop for more obscure culinary products.
I remember how the sheer variety of mushrooms – the enokis and royal trumpets and shimeji clusters – caught his eye and imagination. Around him swirled a produce department like none other in the area, with bins overflowing with fruits and vegetables that are as exotic to some shoppers as they are deeply familiar to others.
Since then, the market has become one of my favorite places for slow-browsing aisles of fascinating products, some I didn’t know existed. The well-stocked shelves of Japanese, Thai, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese products are the slowest to navigate for me, as I try to discern ingredients and potential flavors. (Where are you when we need you, Chef?)
My pace picks up in aisles fills with Latin American and Caribbean goods, where Peruvian chile pastes and Puerto Rican pigeon peas and Jamaican hot sauces beckon like old friends.
We’ll try not to think about the fact that Foodtown also sells live frogs, crabs and eels, whole frozen beef heads, burnt goat heads, jelly fish skin, beef testicles and duck tongues. We’ll focus instead on the pea shoots and flowering garlic, the bok choy varieties and guava, the Jamaican ginger beer and Mexican lager, the Dominican cassava bread and oodles of noodles.
These visits yield a wildly diverse haul of groceries and inspire Sunday suppers. On a recent Sunday, that inspiration rendered a steaming pot of Mexican-style caldo de res (beef and veggie soup) served alongside fresh tortillas, Mexican queso fresco (semi-soft white cheese), Guatemalan crema, a good heap of cilantro and lime and Mexican Victoria beer.
But there’s more to this market than the prospect of finding fixings for a soulful supper. There’s the prospect of finding something more soulful than supper: a snapshot of finding a vibrant sliver of America where immigrant dreams come to life. Foodtown is no ordinary ethnic market, where one can tap into the essence of any one community or geographical region. It’s the United Nations of supermarkets.
A concerto of languages drifts in and out, aisle to aisle, followed by a wide-ranging pageant of distinctive garments. But it’s the wordless vignettes that tell the story best: the young Asian boy blissfully asleep in a cart as his mother pores over a bin of limes; the two families from the Indian subcontinent surprised to find one another in an aisle of curries; the Cuban daughter directing her mother to the Latin foods aisle.
The curious cook in me wants to interrogate every shopper whose cart is loaded with intriguing items. “What are you cooking? How do you make it?”
I return to this market for such cooking inspiration. But on a deeper level, I come back for the experience. One can trace the universal threads that unite individual stories of cultural pride, celebration and coexistence.
At a time when there seems to be extraordinary power and profit in polarization, this is a beautiful thing to see at a thriving food market:
Harmony lived at the ginger bin.
5335 N. Military Trl, West Palm Beach; 561-242-1100; FoodtownFlorida.com