Every Saturday morning, an elderly but sprightly Chinese woman wearing a floppy hat would drive down our street in her white station wagon. The back would be full of grey egg cartons, made of porous cardboard and she would blow her horn and stop outside one of the houses lower down.
“Egg lady!” someone would shout, and I would trot out to buy. It was one of my chores, and I liked doing it. Home deliveries were not quite as sophisticated as they are now, but vendors came with their wares on a fairly regular basis. Station wagons would pull up and the backs would open, revealing a range of kitchen gadgets and tea towels, haberdashery, lengths of cloth, ornaments, and other gaudy trinkets. Sometimes a jeweller would turn up with black suede trays, glistening with chunky gold and silver bracelets, earrings and necklaces. It was not service on demand, we were just customers on their routes.
The fish man was the most vociferous. Not only did he pump his rubber horn incessantly, but he accompanied it with unamplified shouts of his inventory; no need for a megaphone.
“Fish! Fish! Moonshine! Carite! Kingfish!” He would have little ones too, fry-dry, and sometimes shrimp. It was exciting, but I was not entrusted with fish purchases, because one had to have good judgment for quality and prices. He appeared more regularly, often during the week.
When the egg lady came, I used to make a show of selecting eggs carefully, making sure there were no cracked ones or any that seemed off. I had no clue what I was supposedly looking for, and the real basis of my choice of carton was how clean the eggs looked. Those covered with sticky bits of hay or dirt were immediately rejected.
Still, out of the carton, a bad egg would occasionally turn up. Once cracked, it would yield something discoloured and runny and smelly. It was how we learned to crack eggs singly into a bowl before adding to the total. I’ve rarely encountered those stinkers since, but recently, I’ve noticed them turning up more frequently.
You crack an egg, and even if it doesn’t look or smell bad, there is something slightly off, maybe in the texture, and because you know how quickly an egg can turn venomous, you just discard it. Not long ago, I bought a dozen eggs from one of the large supermarkets, and about a week after, I cracked one, and out came a streaky looking yolk that raised a little flag. I was planning to use two, and I carelessly broke the other into the bowl. Out slithered a completely black mess that reeked. I got rid of them, and started afresh. But the texture of the next one didn’t feel right. My daughter suggested that I just crack the rest and make a quiche with what seemed okay. I decided I would just crack and see. The next one was black and runny, and I could not get past it. I could not bear to repeat that experience, so I got rid of them.
On my last trip to the grocery, I thought of buying some more, but couldn’t. The memory was too raw and I think it will take some time for me to not associate eggs with black, smelly, gooey messes.
It’s occurred to me that these eggs were probably stored for a long time, and perhaps at temperatures that fluctuated. It’s something I’ve been noticing generally, and I cannot really ascertain the cause, but generally I feel more distrustful of the quality of perishables, not just from supermarkets, but even from the stalls of vendors, where I do most of my purchasing.
I can’t tell you when was the last time I saw a thriving, vibrant bundle of chives. They all look limp, yellowing and water-logged. Worse, the price is alarming. Seven dollars, a man told me; six, said another. I generally cut off the roots when I buy and stick them in the earth, where I can at least get one harvest from them. I could not see myself paying so much for chives, so I am using different herbs from my little garden as substitutes. I did buy some from the plant shop, but they look very wispy and I don’t have high hopes. In the meantime, I am exploring different flavour combinations, always interesting to me.
I don’t know whether the lower quality of fruits and vegetables on the market is because of slower turnover, or whether produce has been suffering from the erratic weather. I heard one farmer describing the impact it has had on his sweet peppers. Another told me one of the large supermarkets pays $10 for a hundred cucumbers. That’s 10 cents for one, and the retail price is scandalously higher. It’s not worth it for him. Tomatoes, melongene, cucumbers, greens, everything looks squingy and sad. I bought some lettuce the other day, and as I was washing the leaves, a small African snail emerged. I have been seeing them in growing numbers in my yard, and have been trying to find something to repel them. The Ministry of Agriculture has identified their malevolent qualities and areas of infestation: Aranjuez and Mt Lambert are among the sites.
Locusts, snails, unhealthy crops, high prices; are they effects of both Covid and climate change? The connections might be more intimate than we think.