The conversation ritual at the Organic Market of Gondomar

I use my body as a perceptive instrument, impregnated with memory and experience, to tell you about the Organic Market of Gondomar, suburbs of Porto. The market takes place on Saturday mornings, and I ended up being involved as a participant observer since I became an occasional vendor. If the researcher doesn’t strip himself of his subjectivity when he goes out into the field (“it doesn’t wash in bleach”, a methodology teacher often said), the contrary is also true. That is, the gaze never leaves us, even on a hurried trip to the bakery. This only reinforces what I have come here to demonstrate: the power of communication as communion. This is a feminist text, by someone who has never exactly positioned herself as a feminist.

At the Organic Market of Gondomar, I realized that the world is all wrong because female power is still subordinated to the mechanisms of male functioning. We, women, do this every single day, in the conquest of a professional place, for a balanced family, for a desired body. The wheel is moving and we don’t stop the gears. On the contrary, we jump, as if to catch a moving train. It was here that I heard the revealing statement: “We were fooled by the whole story of female empowerment”. And it fits well to speak of this because I want to bring into the discussion the founder of American Cultural Studies, James Carey, and the defense of a type of communication that has been neglected in academic research and considered insignificant by socio-economic hegemonization. Like female power. I am referring to ritual communication. At the market, and at Carey, we talk to put in common. The little market (there are three producers and a restricted community, less is more) is a space of communal gathering, for the preservation of society in time. At the market, our bodies register sounds, smells, textures, and everyday experiences. This is called kinesthesia. I want to emphasize the faces of the women who pass through there, carrying ancestral concerns.

A. is a grandmother of grandchildren and a mother of children. She abandoned a comfortable profession in the big city when she realized that her children were going to be raised by others, different from her. The radicalness of the life option she took should not be a predominant element in the analysis. I fixate on her words, the women who preceded her and whom she generated. I observe the eyes with which she selects the best vegetables. The bustle for food. There is a ritual (a mixture of religious and profane) in this of our daily bread. And, of course, it flies in the face of Durkheim, Weber (Carey’s references), as well as the construction of western society, which is based on the moralizing idea of work and religion. There will be no more expressive example of this action contrary to communication in space (transmission as heaven on earth) than this group of people, who buy and sell products while sharing two minutes of weekly conversation. Moreover, not only is this inter-relationship mediated by the body’s senses but also stimulated by the kinesthetic profusion of products all around.

Resembling laborious ants, the women gather around the bread, which has just arrived. This is the prevailing smell of the morning. The aroma of baked bread, still resonates, coming from a fermentation of “massa-mãe” (mother dough). Curious term. The feminine in kneaded wheat. Don’t men go shopping? Yes, they do. But the women are the ones who get my attention, fighting almost fiercely for the last coriander in the stall. For men, going to the market is a hobby. A parenthesis to evoke food as communication and culture, in the fashion of the American Cultural Studies thinker. Coriander is an aromatic affront to many northern inhabitants in Portugal. Not around here. Although parsley is widely sought after (not dogmatically).

Well, then, the women. They arrive well composed, some of them. Impeccably dressed, owners of the scene. They buy to take home (their own and those of others who have succeeded them). They whisper something about making turnip soup. They list the days of the week and the food that will be on the table. They comment on illnesses, looking for the elixir in the food. They are overwhelmed, others. Ritual communication does not exclude transmissive communication. It may be that they are complementary or that they conflict. The proof of what I have just stated is in the gestures of daily life (the ritual), directed almost entirely toward numbers, success, fact, efficiency, productivity, and transmission, in short. In the shopping, we share recipes and stress. Making lasagna is very close to cross-country racing. To your stations, get set, and go! The best execution time may be a glorious 50 minutes, with the meat already stewed, bechamel sauce made, and plates of fresh pasta bought. What to cook with hors d’oeuvres? And with age, which attacks muscle mass? Let’s see: cod with cream, gym, walking, house tidy, kids routed in school, relax or not relax. By the way, a gluten-free bread, to try. Everything is perfect, everything in its place, “yes, we can”. And what about the story of female emancipation? Yes, yes, it’s true. The home fairy woman is long gone, we are strong, we are good professionals, exemplary mothers. But then a spider comes to the house and we have to kill it with a stick. Who else? Hopefully, the roast didn’t burn in the oven in the meantime. Do you know those jugglers who spin an impressive amount of balls in the air? There you have it!

There are happy endings, too. Retired, self-assured, beautiful, fulfilled women. They survived! And young women with  children on their laps, full of their motherhood. You can see it in their skin. They pick apples. What signals do the colors and size of a fruit convey to our senses? What is the hierarchy with which we punctuate our choices? For babies, the sweetest, most tender apples. For snacks, pine nuts, and cashews. The beluga lentil (black on the outside and yellowish inside) attracts while arousing indecision. There are suckling pigs good for soup (wonder!). Within the larger tribe of biological aficionados, tribes circulate. They are the macrobiotics, the vegans, the anti-carbohydrates, honey fanatics, the curious, the open to difference, and the cloistered in beliefs.

That said, I have been doing nothing more than commenting on the symbolic side of an organic fair in the suburbs of Porto. Those who only see three stands, boxes of crooked carrots and the binomial profit/loss are mistaken. At the Organic Market of Gondomar, this idea becomes concrete: “Human beings create symbols to frame and communicate their thoughts and intentions and use these symbols to design practices, things, and institutions. In other words, they use symbols to build a culture in which they can live together.” (Adam, 2009, p. X) Apart from the products and bodies that circulate, there is little else that is tangible in this weekly quotidian, totally insignificant in the context of a globalized world. But these symbols that are spun here, week by week, create realities. As Filipa Subtil states, “in ritual communication is not only the transmission of information or messages but the co-creation and sharing of cultural activities that define reality” (Subtil, 2014, p.32).

If we look closely, the markets (this one I am talking about, but others spread out in different geographies, of course) are really the synthesis between productive activity (so strongly emphasized by the logic of transmission) and ritual. In these commercial outlets made up of concrete people, full of imperfections and nuances, there are smells, colors, and textures. But the fundamental element that unites them, perhaps, is in the verbiage that runs through them. Dialogue, orality, conversation, eye to eye, hand to hand. The polis. This reflection on the feminine condition that I have been observing every week since the end of the summer cannot be the fruit of chance. The conversation is critical. Co-creation is creative. Communication, thus seen, is agency. Neither hegemonic power nor histrionic counter-power. It is a slow and irreversible construction, like the waters of a river.

Text: Teresa Lima

Photos: João Nuno Barbosa


Adam, S. (2009). Foreword. In J. W. Carey (Ed.), Communication as culture, revised edition (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Subtil, F. (2014). A abordagem cultural da Comunicação de James W. Carey. Intercom: Revista Brasileira de Ciências da Comunicação, 37(1), 19-44.


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