Unchained Melody: An ode to Newtown Market

By Melody Thomas

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With the cost of food soaring, and more families struggling to put good, fresh kai on the table, Melody Thomas puts forward a case for buying direct from the growers at your local vegetable market. If you can handle it.

Every Saturday, unless I’m away or unwell, you’ll find me at Newtown Fruit and Vegetable Market. Me and my beat-up purple trolley, half collapsed and teetering on a dodgy wheel, doing a careful assessment from the periphery before diving into the throng.

I imagine this is some people’s idea of hell: strangers, friends, long-forgotten one-night stands and politicians pushing for a vote, all crushed into the Newtown School courts, hustling for the week’s best deal. The humanity! The exposure to the elements! The overwhelming array of produce! The Newtown Fruit and Vegetable Market is a timesucking vortex packed with distractions, blocked aisles and blatant disrespect for the laws of queueing, and I can’t get enough of it.

When I was a student, the waterfront markets in town were my local. After we’d bought our tomatoes and potatoes, we’d amble over to the covered section and do the rounds, sampling goat’s cheese, preserved meats and olives, never once purchasing a thing. Over the years I stopped going, opting for the convenience of the supermarket, with its chilly aisles and too-bright lights.

And then I had children. Suddenly, the idea of taking longer away from the house held some appeal. Plus fresh food seemed to be getting more expensive;  and this was a couple of years ago, when $5 for a cauliflower seemed too much. Boy was I in for a surprise!

“Perhaps…” I suggested to my husband “… I should return to the market?” Far too trusting and completely oblivious to my skiving motives, he agreed.

And so began my love affair with Newtown Market.

O Newtown Market! With your $2 coriander and Chinese doughnuts!

O Newtown Market! Where you can leave your trolley and pretty much never be robbed!

O Newtown Market! With your incredible playground! So parents can shop without children! And children can play without parents!!!

At Newtown Market, I have learned to look for bunches of grandmothers, gathered around a single crate. Over time, they’ve taught me their ways: pointing out the creamy yellow field spot on a watermelon; directing me to press gently on the ‘button’ on the avocado; discreetly slipping a mandarin segment under the tongue and giving a thumbs-up for sweetness. I’ve learned that the best citrus and avocados come from the Gisborne guys with the free-range eggs, that the stall nearest the playground has the freshest, leafiest greens and herbs, and that it’s impossible to be grumpy about rain or queues when faced with the unfalteringly cheery vendor by the hospital gate (l love you, vendor).

Choosing the market over the supermarket comes with many advantages, but there are also risks. You will inevitably buy fruit that turns overripe the moment you get it to your car. You’ll think you’ve found a bargain, only to find that same thing cheaper, looking fresher, at a different stall. You will find so many great deals – on spinach, spring onions, coriander, apples – that you will never again buy these things happily from the supermarket, at two or three times the price.

And of course the market operates in its own time zone, which must be respected. Try to hurry and you’ll inevitably find yourself in line behind a bulk-buying restaurant owner, or someone who’s doing all their shopping at the one stall (amateur!) One time the then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed up, on her birthday! Are you telling me you could have hurried off, skipping the very New Zealand-opportunity to bellow happy birthday to the PM? Doubtful. 

Plus half your friends are here. You can’t go by without saying hello! There’s Stan by the tofu stand, buying fishcakes for the whānau. Grayson and little Billie with their arms full of greens. Amber who runs a taco truck and always has the intel on top produce (jazz apples for the win!) You haven’t lived till you’ve tried to catch up with a friend next to the duelling buskers, who could have set up at opposite sides of the market but somehow, inexplicably, choose to play very different songs at max volume side by side.

Recently, something terrible happened. My husband suggested we get a vegetable box subscription. Sure, he allowed, they’re more expensive, but if you account for the time and petrol saved, maybe the difference wouldn’t be too much?

It’s sound reasoning, but it doesn’t take into account one thing: my happiness.

Without the Newtown Market on Saturdays, I’d have to, what, clean!? Play with the children?! (Mostly joking). What about that feeling I get afterwards, when the fruit bowls are overflowing with colour and scent, like all is OK because the family has been provided for (a feeling so many people are currently missing out on, even though it should be a human right – especially when it comes to children and our elderly).

So, on Saturdays – almost without fail – you will still find me at the Newtown Fruit and Vegetable Market. I will still be bopping around with my sweet market playlist on my headphones, smiling and chatting with friends. I’ll still tail the grandmas to the mandarins, chat with the Gisborne orange boy about our matching Bolivian sweaters. And when I’m done, I’ll make my way up to the playground, and collect my children from where I have left them.

It’s only fair.

What I’m reading

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

It’s been a long time since I fell head over heels for a character, but I can’t stop thinking about Damon Fields – aka Demon Copperhead – the protagonist of Kingsolver’s modern rewrite of David Copperfield. Instead of Dickensian England, the book is set in the Appalachians, where Demon is born to a drug-using solo Mum in a Virginia trailer. Though I love Dickens, I haven’t read David Copperfield (I now plan to!) but from what I’ve heard, the story arc is faithfully mirrored (with modern twists and updates), and the themes of ambition, social mobility and abuse of the weak and helpless by those in power are certainly all present.

The story is pretty heartbreaking. Demon is a smart, loving and resilient kid, who could have had a real shot at making something of himself if he were born into different circumstances. He suffers through extreme poverty, neglect and intergenerational trauma, resulting from both ineptitude and outright exploitation at the hands of the state and other ‘carers’; and he inevitably steps into an opioid addiction that, in the story and in many real towns across the US, seems near-compulsory, given how little else is on offer (though if you’re lucky you might get out on a military ticket.)

Despite the hard subject matter, Demon’s voice and heart easily carried me through. He is an astute and hilarious narrator, and I’m sad to have lost his company now that I’ve finished the book.

And in case you needed any further convincing of its greatness, it has just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2023.

What I’m cooking

Turmeric Chicken Soup and Feijoa Fizz

I’ve recommended Feijoa Fizz before, but it would be a crime not to do so again when the season is upon us. It’s sooooo gooooood, plus it’s super easy, and it uses a part of the feijoa you usually throw away. Get on it!

I have a real thing for a hearty chicken soup, especially when I’m run down or the weather is cold, and this version is my new favourite – plus the kids love it, when (weirdly) they don’t get into the Ottolenghi or Nigella versions. (OK the Nigella one isn’t strictly soup but it hits the same spot). It’s quick, yum and nourishing, and you can upgrade with fresh turmeric from Moshim’s at the market.

What I’m up to

New Zealand International Comedy Festival

Ever since Taskmaster NZ won us over, our whānau have fallen for local comedy in a big way. Was there always this much talent in Aotearoa? Or are we going through a surge? Who knows, but this year’s Comedy Festival is a great time to sample some of what’s on offer (plus it’s getting cold, which is sad, so why not take the opportunity to laugh).

We snapped up tickets to see Chris Parker immediately, and if you want to see him I recommend getting in fast. If you’ve somehow missed the Chris Parker wave and aren’t a stan yet, follow him on Instagram, where he posts regular, hilarious stories.

I’m reuniting with my Wellington Girls’ 4th form class to support our alum Kura Forrester, but even if we hadn’t bonded through the hellish years of early high school I’d attend this one, coz Kura is crack-up and a delight.

Anyone who watched the second season of Taskmaster will have the image of naked David Correos atop a table burned into their mind (also there was the time he absolutely lost it,  while writing a diss rap, as well as many other incredible moments). Correos in action is a beautiful thing to witness, he’s undoubtedly my #1 contestant of all time, and I can’t wait to see it all irl.

I also really like Laura Daniels, and I’m cautiously open to the idea of musical comedy (!!), so I’m off to see Two Hearts, where Laura and her irl husband Joseph Moore renew their recent vows via pop songs.

Others I’d absolutely go to see if I had no budgetary or time restrictions: Guy Montgomery (whose Guy Mont Spelling Bee is one of my favourite shows – watch here if you like spelling and also absurdity), Taskmaster sweetheart Brynley Stent, the whipsmart James Nokise, and the “classic Kiwi taste” of Melanie Bracewell.


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