There is, to my mind, no finer way to while away a few hours on a Sunday than strolling through a flea market. You're getting fresh air and a little exercise; you're viewing the detritus of popular culture in what amounts to a vast ephemeral museum; and you just might stumble across an object (or two, or 12) that you can't live without. (At a price you can live with.)
But until I moved to the Bay Area I didn't think of flea markets as places of gastronomic delight. (They're called marché aux puces, after all, not mangé aux puces!) I liked going to a restaurant after certain markets in L.A., where my friend Bill and I could unwrap and gloat over our finds in comfort, at Pie 'n Burger in Pasadena or Dale's Diner in Long Beach. There's something about buying food at flea markets that feels counterintuitive to me: Even if I've spent $150 on dinner the night before, spending five bucks on something that'll be gone in a couple of minutes when that same sum, applied a few steps away, can buy me a perfectly nice vase that will last forever (it's already been around for 50 or 60 years, anyway) seems extravagant. And handing over that five bucks without saying, “Would you take four?” feels wrong somehow. Which is why I also have difficulty with eBay: I'm used to offering less rather than more.
Another difficulty I had with eBay early on was fear that it would destroy the flea market as we know it. Why would people continue to box up their treasures, drive them miles away in the hours before dawn, unpack them, deal with the public for hours in sometimes unpleasant weather, and then haul back what was left at the end of the day, when they could scan a few photos into their computers and wait for the money to roll in from the millions rather than thousands of eyes able to view the stuff?
Luckily it turns out that there are dealers out there who enjoy human contact as much as flea market shoppers do. And there is no better showcase for their hardy kind than the excellent Alameda Point Antiques and Collectibles Faire (www.antiquesbythebay.net), familiarly known as the Alameda flea market, which takes place every Sunday at the Alameda Point Naval Air Station, a plot of land blessed with unlimited free parking and a singularly stunning view of San Francisco across the bay.
The first time I visited Alameda, I was too overwhelmed by the number of dealers and the depth of my own need (bookcases, end tables, maybe something that would serve as a TV stand) to do much more than take in the interesting array of food stands, lined up along one side of the market. The lines at the little huts were long, and I wanted to spend all my time shopping (even though I could tell they were moving along quickly, and I was a bit jealous of the happy shiny people strolling away with enormous, tempting-looking sausages or paper cartons piled with fried calamari). I was thrilled with the green-painted glass-topped deco table I found (which the dealers kindly delivered when it proved too big for the back seat I'd optimistically fancied it would fit into). Ron and I celebrated, after, with big egg breakfasts at Ole's Waffle House (“since 1927”), the kind of preserved-in-amber coffee shop that is not only a perfect example of its type, but is also great for continuing the timeless feeling induced by serious perusal of the leavings of decades past.
But on subsequent trips to the Faire, the lure of those sausages, that calamari, was too strong. And even though I'd just paid $5 for a sweet little green rocking chair (missing a splat), the same $5 didn't seem too much for the huge, almost obscene-looking smoked Dakota bratwurst on a bun that is the big attraction at the Lockeford Sausage stand. (The company manufactures 26 varieties of sausages at its main plant in Lockeford, in the Central Valley, and the bratwurst is a sterling example of its skill: nicely textured and bursting with juices under its crisply grilled casing.)
I was at the market another Sunday with Joyce, and she stood in line at the Indonesian stand, waiting for a $6 plate of pan-fried noodles, chicken satay, and the egg roll known as lumpia, while I was next door at Taylor's Seafood, trying to decide among deep-fried calamari, prawns, oysters, catfish, garlic fries, onion rings, mushrooms, and zucchini. Or tempting-looking crab salad and shrimp salad sandwiches. I ended up with a combination plate of oysters and prawns and, what the hell, threw in a shrimp sandwich. The large, bullet-shaped oysters were not a success (the thick coating seemed overdone, and the oysters inside oddly underdone), but everything else was delightful — especially the unusually good shrimp salad, a generous helping of the rosy beasts mixed with mayonnaise, chopped celery, diced red onion, and capers, stuffed inside a fresh bakery roll. It seemed an even bigger bargain than the green tile painted with bamboo I'd picked up for about the same amount. And we enjoyed sitting at one of the picnic tables overlooking the bay, discussing our purchases of both foodstuffs and other stuff with the folks dining alongside us.
As we left that day, laden with our finds, many people were stopping at the stand that features huge smoked turkey legs to pick up one or two for Sunday dinner. (Alas, I've heard that the turkey legs might not be available for a few months.) One aficionado told me that he always purchases a dozen homemade tamales to go from Rosie's Mexican stand, where I had an excellent carnitas burrito.
But the Alameda Faire takes place only one Sunday a month, and the hunter-gatherer instinct is strong, so I made my way out to the Alemany Flea Market, which takes place every Sunday. Alas, it proved to be more of a massive garage sale than a treasure hunt, with many items labeled from the school of wishful attribution and sellers whose sad collections of objects were reminiscent of what you might find in a market in the former U.S.S.R.: a broken radio, three chipped plates, a stained Pierre Cardin tie, two beetroots, and several sprouting potatoes. The jovial proprietor of one of the few stands that offered actual antiques and practiced the art of display, Absolutely Wonderful Antiques, had a paper-plateful of good-looking skewered meats, and he pointed me in the direction of Rita's catering truck, after I admired his bright-yellow suspenders printed to look like yardsticks (and not for sale). But I was waylaid by another truck, Dad's Dogs, where I succumbed to the lure of a grilled Hebrew National hot dog on a fresh seeded bun for $3. (The Alemany Espresso stand offers a steamed Hebrew National dog for $2, if you're interested in compare-and-contrast.)
I also succumbed to the lure of “one used videotape for $5, or 5 for $20,” since the getting-and-spending gene was not being satisfied. When I got home, I found that the Pinocchio video had once been in the collection of Sam Lamott (familiar to all readers of Anne Lamott or viewers of Bird by Bird; provenance is all, though I don't think 2-year-old Ben, for whom it is destined, will be impressed), but hadn't noticed that the Mars Attacks! one was in Spanish. Oh well, you win some and you lose some.
My big score that day was at the Panorama Baking Co. stand, where a large sign advertising “Brasilian pasteis” was surrounded by a knot of expatriates conversing in musical Portuguese and clutching steaming pastries. I bought one each of the three varieties on offer, and all were truly divine, the fragile fried pastry enclosing ground beef punched up with green olives, shredded chicken, or (my favorite) mild, soft, pully cheese. (Joyce is amazed that I missed the lady who plays a saw while her foot-pedal-operated cat marionette dances. That wouldn't necessarily draw me back. But the pasteis would.)
Divine would be the word, too, for the extraordinary meal I stumbled upon while parking near the Berkeley Flea Market (www.berkeleyfleamarket.com), which colonizes the northern corner of the Ashby BART parking lot on both Saturday and Sunday. This is the justly famed Sunday Thai brunch at Wat Mongkolratanaram, aka the Thai Buddhist Temple. My friend Peter had invited me to join him there a couple of times, curiously always on the first Sunday of the month, when I was Alameda-bound. But after visiting the Berkeley Flea — an odd amalgam of goods new and old, with a definite Afrocentric presence (there are stands devoted to black literature, black videos, and black music, and many selling African crafts, including beautiful striped woven carryalls perfect for toting fruits and vegetables home from the produce stands) — I was drawn to the Royal Thai brunch. There you exchange money for tokens ($1 each), and then, in a system that seems complicated but works well, exchange the tokens for fabulous fresh Thai dishes: papaya salad, fried chicken and sticky rice, and delicious little grilled patties of coconut milk, green onions, flour, and sugar (khanom krug) or coconut flakes, coconut milk, taro root, and sugar (khanom babin). There were wonderful-looking whole grilled fish, too big for me to order on my own. Extremely well-fed people were beaming over their well-filled plates, sitting everywhere — at the big communal tables lined up in the courtyard, or smaller ones set under potted trees between the temple and the Thai cultural center next door, or perched by a tent where Thai ceremonial dancers were performing. It was a blissful meal, a serendipitous gastronomic event that improved the day. As did the unexpectedly good shrimp salad sandwich and the freshly made pasteis on my previous junking expeditions, when not knowing what will turn up is the reason we go out.