True Romance

Owen Franken/Corbis

It helped that Signore Carciofo sold all my favorite foods: artichokes, asparagus, tiny sweet peas, and all the early spring vegetables that are available for a few weeks until, around the same time as the strawberry blossoms, they disappear for another year. It helped that the market where Signore Carciofo sold these things was in one of the world's most romantic places: San Gimignano, the medieval Italian city famous for its impressive towers that rise above the rolling Tuscan plain. It helped that he was handsome. It helped that he spoke no English and that my Italian was limited to the names of the most common proteins, vegetables, and carbohydrates. It probably even helped that I never knew his real name and thought of him only as Signore Carciofo, or Mister Artichoke.

This was in 1989. My husband, our two sons, and I were on our way home from a long stay, on a fellowship, in what was then still called Yugoslavia. The plan was that we would stop in Italy for a month to decompress before returning to face our ordinary lives. This was just before Tuscany became the international tourist mecca that it is today. We walked into a real estate office and rented a house overlooking a vineyard for a price that even a young arty family like ours could afford.

We had our own kitchen, for the first time in months. And you can imagine how a Tuscan market looked to us after several months of Eastern Bloc restaurant food.

Anyone who has ever shopped in an Italian market—or in most markets, really—knows how much nerve it takes to wade into the crowds surrounding the most popular stalls. But the size and the raptness of the crowd surrounding Signore Carciofo's vegetable stand made you feel that you really had no choice but to join it.

All these years later, I can hardly remember what Mister Artichoke looked like. What I do recall is the concentrated attention he gave each customer, a level of focus I've since heard attributed to Bill Clinton and certain religious leaders. When at last it was my turn, we looked at each other, and the rest of the world disappeared. I forgot even the few Italian words I knew. I pointed uncertainly at the green-
purple artichokes, still on their stalks.

"Carciofo?" I asked hesitantly.

"Bravo. Carciofo."

And the romance was on. From then on I bought all our vegetables from him. It was hardly a secret affair, nor was it exclusive. I shared Mister Artichoke with half the women in San Gimignano. When my husband and sons were with me, the flirtation included everyone, and everyone was enchanted. My family was there when I first discovered agretti, the grasslike Italian vegetable that, sauteed with garlic and olive oil, tastes of lemon and seaweed. And the next time I went to the market, telling Mister Carciofo how good the agretti was and somehow getting him to understand what I meant, ours was a conversation charged with all the enraptured discovery of a mutual passion.

Market love—the attraction between a shopper and the person from whom that shopper buys meat or cheese, lemons or shrimp—is in many ways so romantic that it borders on the erotic. Like other kinds of love, it is based on an affection for a single person who (or whose goods) we desire above all others. When we walk into the market, we and "our" seller of spices or beans are aware of each other's presence, just as we are physically conscious of where a lover is standing at a crowded party. Questions of fidelity arise (did you buy from someone else?) and of competition: Will our affections be stolen by another? There is, in our exchanges, pleasure and flattery: the implied faith that this person's arugula is the tastiest that can be had. Each meeting builds on the last, until we and "our" seller of eggplants or onions have a shared past.

My romance with Mister Artichoke ended as such affairs often do: I moved away, moved on. I moved on to the tortilla maker in Merida, the mushroom guy in Aix-en-Provence, on to the butchers in New York City's Little Italy, to the father and sons who ran the Mohican Market in Kingston, New York, where for years I bought vegetables. I moved on to all the subsequent objects of my market love, men and women on whom I patterned the hero in my novel Household Saints: a handsome butcher whom all the neighborhood women adore, even though (or perhaps because) he ritually cheats them, pressing his thumb on the scale.

Who doesn't love the butcher? Like all those who sell us food, he is so often more reliable than most ordinary lovers. Our market loves are there for us. They remember what we like. They save us the choicest cuts, the best apples, the freshest lettuce. All those tricky issues (finances, loyalty, family) that cloud most relationships are blessedly transparent. And, unlike so many other kinds of romance, these love affairs not only withstand familiarity but can be renewed and revived from day to day. They culminate each evening in the pleasure of dinner and resume anew, in the bright fresh morning, when the market reopens for business. —Francine Prose, author of  _Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife (HarperCollins, 2009)_