Montreal·Point of View

As a kid, I resented Sunday trips to Jean Talon Market. Now, they connect me to my Italian-Montreal roots

In this love letter to the Jean Talon Market, Montreal writer Joey Bongiorno describes how his family traditions are interwoven with the market — and how the place is changing.

Condos and trendy stores are taking over from the 'nonni and famiglie' shops of my youth

Joe Bongiorno has been shopping at the Jean Talon Market since he was a child. His fondest memories are of his grandparents co-ordinating the family's annual tomato sauce-making tradition. (Photo by Anne Guay)

Jean-Talon Market is my backyard. Its passageways and stalls are mapped out in the part of my brain dedicated to cured meats, olives and funky cheeses.

But like me, the market has changed over the decades. The mustachioed nonnos in their flat caps and sweater vests have been replaced by tattooed and bearded millennials posting produce pictures to Instagram.

One by one, kiosks have closed — more this year than last. There are fewer and fewer shoppers.

"We used to come because we Italians lived in the nearby apartments," my mom explained. "But now, we live in houses with gardens." 

My parents are in St. Leonard now, and their trips to the market aren't weekly anymore. They go when they can.

The only time a trip to the market transcends regular grocery shopping is at the end of summer, when the San Marzano tomatoes are in season. With the arrival of the tomatoes comes a weekend-long sauce-making operation that serves as a sacred rite of passage for any Montrealer of Italian heritage.

Every year, tomato sauce season at the market takes me right back to being a kid, as if no time has passed at all.

A table sags under the weight of the 1985 tomato harvest. (City of Montreal archives)

Where my Italian and Canadian sides meshed

I can still hear Lasciatemi cantare (Let me sing) blaring from the radio cassette player of my nonno's brown 1986 Buick Skylark.

The car, which my grandfather gave my mom so she could practise her driving, was a lemon. Its engine regularly croaked at red lights, and the heating could never be turned off.

I remember being in the back seat, overheating and nodding off between static bursts in the song, recorded off CFMB 1280AM, Montreal's Italian radio station.

The trip to the market always followed the same routine: my dad would drop us off to go find parking, then he'd find us later. He'd be outfitted in his flat cap and lunchbox-sized man purse, stuffed with every receipt, bill, phone number and business card collected in the previous century.

As a kid, I didn't find the market exciting. My mom would bargain for the best price on asparagus. We'd get oranges, sometimes cheese or flowers, and fresh eggs from our favourite egg guy.

A farmer puts out produce in 1987. The market was built during the Depression as a municipal make-work project for unemployed workers. It was inaugurated by Mayor Camillien Houde in 1933. (City of Montreal archives)

I had no interest in eggs, Bartlett pears or eggplants. My ideal diet consisted of Pepsi and Doritos.

Where was the sweet fizzy stuff? 

How about ketchup-flavoured chips? 

I would usually end up with a bottle of fresh-pressed Quebec apple juice. Sometimes a maple cookie was thrown in.

Those were special moments. At the Jean Talon Market, my Italian and Canadian heritage fit together so naturally — like a kid holding a maple cookie in one hand and touching fresh tomatoes with the other.

Outside the market, things felt more complicated.

I was one of those kids whose parents sent him to school with rapini and trout for lunch. 

Even among other kids with Italian parents, my lunch was king in its Italian-ness — of the Sicilian mountain village variety.

My friends had mortadella and salami paninis, but I had chickpea and chicory minestrone, courtesy of generations-old recipes handed down to my parents from Cattolica Eraclea, population 4,000.

The Jean-Talon Market is still a popular destination, but not as central to the lives of Montreal's Italian community as it was a generation ago. (Radio-Canada)

Still the best place for pumamuri

More than two decades have passed since I had to be dragged to the Jean Talon Market on my parents' Sunday errand run.

As a kid, I didn't appreciate what was so special about it. Now I do.

As an adult, I move quickly, looking for the freshest ingredients to haul back to my car before the parking meter runs out. I manoeuvre around the tourists and weighed-down locals. I know where I'm going, and I make a beeline for my spots.

I get my meat from Zinman Poultry. Most of my fruit comes from the guy with the auctioneer voice in the heart of the market, and my mint and sage — when the potted plants on my balcony are insufficient — come from one of the stalls flanking Place du-Marché-du-Nord.

Bongiorno's grandparents were the driving force behind the family's annual tomato sauce production. (Submitted by Joe Bongiorno)

The market is still the best place in Montreal for pomodori (tomatoes) — or pumamuri as my parents say, in their Sicilian dialect. My grandparents always used to get them from whichever stall had the best-looking goods. Back then, there were many farmers to choose from, but now, there are just a few. 

When the time comes for the annual tomato sauce-making ritual, I head to Chez Michel. The family has been selling tomatoes at the market for 40 years, setting them out in bushel baskets.

On television, tomato sauce-making is depicted as a festive occasion with accordions, wine and operatic hand gestures. The real deal is serious business.

There's no time for a Tarantella dance or Andrea Bocelli singalong. It's a six- to eight-person job, and each task must be executed with diligence and dedication. 

Until he passed away about a decade ago, my nonno manned the electric food strainer — a position which my brother has inherited.

My father stirs the deep pot with a giant wooden spoon; my mother slices the tomatoes and sterilizes the jars.

As a kid, my job was to carefully set a single basil leaf into each mason jar. Once I grew up, I got a promotion: I now seal the jars and transport them to the folding table where they cool down before we put them in the cantina (basement).

The market is open year-round, and when the weather permits it, vendors set up tables outside. (Claire Loewen/CBC)

Even my French-Canadian girlfriend, Anne, now takes part in the production line.

In our heyday, my family used to pick up 10 bushels of San Marzano tomatoes, enough to yield about 170 jars of sauce. But with each coming year, the family sauce team has diminished in size, and so has the yield.

With my grandparents' passing, our operation lost its patriarch and its matriarch, and last season, we only made between 30 and 40 jars.

We still love coming together as a family for the tradition, but it's more about keeping it going than about the serious business of sauce-making, as it was in my grandparents' day.

Part of me shops at the market as a way to keep my connection with them.

When I'm there, I'm a kid again. Chain stores may be taking over, and fewer farmers are opening stalls, but I try to support the ones who are still there.

Trendy shops are springing up and well-heeled first time buyers are moving into the new condos that are overtaking where once lived the nonni and famiglie.

Trendy spots catering to the market's changing patronage are multiplying throughout the neighbourhood. (Claire Loewen/CBC)

All around the market, the people and places are changing.

But despite those changes, Jean Talon Market is still the best spot in town to get tomatoes.

It's also the only place I can imagine hearing the strains of Lasciatemi cantare emanating from a merchant's stall.

Sure, perhaps one day the fishmonger will give way to a soulless chain store, and the specialty mushroom shop will submit to Burger King. But for now, it's still my market.

About the Author

Bongiorno is a Montreal writer. His pieces have appeared in publications including Geist, Event, Freefall and Broken Pencil. He is currently working on a novel and a short story collection. Most importantly, he is the proud owner of a 1998 Toyota Camry.

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