The old downtown market in Belize City, at the south foot of the Swing Bridge
It was built in 1845 and replaced in 1993 and replaced with what is now the Commercial Center, Downtown Belize City. It is hard to say when this photo was taken, but a lot of pictures were taken of downtown around 1909 so I would say early 1900's.
That was the first place I proved my parents I was Responsible to leave home n return in record time with all expected from a verbal note book.
That is hiking a ride on Ramsey's mule n cart from in front Yabra cemetery. Michael Fisher
I love my old market,,That smell was to tell us that fresh fish was in. Those men used the river water to wash the stalls. The river was alive with living fish eating the guts and the pilicans. So tame, Yes in those days the turtles were gigantic. Poor creatures on the backs waiting for the slaughter, We had a beauty which defined us, Now we have just beauty. Bernadette Burns
I must confess that I never liked marketing (or any kind of shopping) and I still don't. I do, have the fondest memories of going to the old market with my mom as a small child in the late 40s. How I marvelled over those huge Green Turtles! I remember my mom being very careful to make sure the meat offered on stalls was Green, and not Loggerhead (lagrahead, was our native name.) Then, of course, there were the countless stops to exchange pleasantries with everyone. Rosenda McCulloch
I remember my grandmother taking me there in the early 90s. The smell is what I remember most. It is a pleasant memory. Tiffy Molina JP
Yes the good old market with its different smells it was fun going to the market. My mom would stop and talk to everybody at the market. Yvonne Burgess
My favorite part was the seafood section with those huge sea turtles under the concrete counters, and my grampa selling dry corn fish. Colin Gillett
Market Day: Memories of the Old Belize City Central Market
By Jerome Straughan
Between sleep and wake, it didn’t take me too long to recognize who was rustling in the dark and what it meant when I was a child growing up in Belize City. During the week, but more often on the weekend (Friday and Saturdays), my mother would get up early in the morning before the break of dawn, got dressed and prepared to go to the Belize Central Market at the foot of the Swing Bridge in downtown Belize City. In the dark or with little light for a few minutes, she rustled in the kitchen to get two or three straw or canvas bags she needed to carry produce, meat and fish. With rope handles the canvas bag that was taken to the market was what Belizean called a market bag. The youngest in my family, on hearing the commotion in the house as she moved from the bed room to the kitchen, I would get up and ask her if I could go to the market with her. The answer was always yes and I would hurriedly and excitedly put on my clothes to go to the market.
In the days when most of the residents of the city didn’t have a refrigerator in their home, going to market was more a part of the rhythms of daily life in the city. In the morning it was the opening of the market, the start of Radio Belize’s broadcast, the swinging of the Swing Bridge, and residents of Belize City going to school and work. Residents of the city went to the market to buy something for tea (Breakfast) and to buy something for the mid-day meal. It was still part of the rhythms of daily life in the city when more families were able to buy refrigerators. On the weekend residents, of the city would often go to the market to buy meat and vegetables for Sunday dinna. What they didn’t buy at market they bought at the many shops in the city, which didn’t sell fresh produce like the “plantain shops” around the city. Romacs and Brodies were the two main supermarkets in the city, and there was short-lived Ideal supermarket. But most city residents were not regular shoppers at the supermarkets like affluent residents of the city.
In small Belize City everyone went to the market. This was the place where rich and poor city residents converged on, where city residents of all ethnic persuasions interacted. There they jostled with others when some fruit, vegetable, meat or fish was scarce or in short supply/rare, they bargained for lower prices, and they met others they knew. The market was always a festive place, especially on Friday and Saturday, which were market days. If they didn’t go during the week, going to the market on a Saturday morning was something practiced by many Belizeans.
We often left at the break of dawn, and at that time the roosters are crowing and you can also hear birds singing and frogs chirping. At times before we left home my mother looked for a short and sturdy stick in our yard, in case we encountered any rabid stray dogs on our walk to the market. From our home on Tigris Street we walked two blocks up to South Street, and from South Street into Albert Street – the city’s main commercial street - towards the market. Along the route we would meet people, some also going to the market or going to work. Most would say good morning.
As we walked the narrow streets, depending on the time we left our house, we might hear early rising residents of the city tuned in to Radio Belize. On one trip to the market I heard one of the Radio Belize announcers announced the news of the breakup of the Beatles. It was also a time when I talked with my mother. I would ask her question about a range of issues. I would also ask her about her life, about Belize and Belizeans. She would tell me stories about Belize. My education continued in the market.
The original market built in the 19th century, the historically rich and culturally significant central market was just a plain nondescript structure when looking at it from Market Square. Entering the market was entering another environment, the sights, sounds and smells inside the market resulting in a memorable experience.
The market was laid out in a certain way. Divided into five sections one tended to experience the market and all its ambiance based what was being sold in each section. Shoppers entered the market through the main and two side entrances (with gates) of what I will call the north and south wings of the market. From the main entrance of the market a walkway led to the center of the market, where the butcher stalls were located, and on to the back of the market where the fish stall was located on the banks of the Haulover Creek. From the other two entrances of the north and south wings of the market, a walkway through these wings led to the back of the market as well.
With its low roof, the front of the market had two narrow walkways that connected the north and south wings of the market. The labyrinth of narrow pathways created either three or four rows of stalls in the front of the market, where produce was sold. (I am not sure if there was one or two rows of stalls between the two walkways). What seem like a dimly lit and often dingy area gave it a certain atmosphere when you walked through it.
Along with the narrow front section of the market, produce was sold in the two wings of the market. The north wing of the market, which was near the foot of the Swing Bridge, was divided into two sections. In the front section near the entrance there were at least three of what Belizeans call “cook shops,” where one could get their breakfast in the morning and dinner in the afternoon. In this section there was a large stall facing the Swing Bridge, and adjoining the butcher section of the market. The door to the center of the market was nearby, and in front of the stall there was a walkway that connected the front and back of the market. Many of the stalls in this area were smaller, nonpermanent stalls, which didn’t seem to be configured in rows. In contrast, there were four rows of stalls in the well-lit south wing of the market.
Butcher stalls were located in the center of the market. This section of the market was different from the other sections in that the building had a high cathedral like ceiling. The transparent roofing of the high arch bolted and welded steel structure made natural light shine through and created a well-lit space. Indeed, the lighting in the center of the market was better than the lighting in other sections of the market. With a spacious open space center, the butcher stalls were located along the walls. One could enter or exit this section of the market through one of its four doors that connected the front section, the fish (seafood) section in the back of the market, and the two wings of the market where produce was sold.
At the back of the market was the area where seafood (mostly fish) was sold, a door leading from the center of the market to the back. Taking up a narrow area of the market that ended at the water’s edge of the Haulover Creek, two cement counters ran the length of this section. Docking their boats in the creek and bringing in their catch, fishermen scaled and cleaned their fish on the counter and displayed it for sale with other seafood. A walkway in the front of the counter led to the north and south wings of the market.
At the market vendors displayed their produce and the butchers and fishmongers meat and fish; and shoppers hoped to get fresh produce, meat and fish at a cheaper price and good quality. It was only when some shoppers didn’t find what they were looking for at the market that they bought items like potatoes, rice, red kidney beans and pig tails (also pig snout, riblets and salt beef) at the many grocery shops in the city. The many “plantain shops” in the city also complemented the market serving a more localized need. In addition to selling vegetables like onions and bell peppers and of course fruits like plantains and bananas, some also sold small fruit snacks like kinep, sapra and seagrapes or other snacks like pepitos (pumpkin seeds). Some in the city went to one of the supermarkets for some fruits and vegetables but that was a small number of city residents.
Most stalls in the produce section of the market sold both vegetables and fruits, and I can remember the wide array of fresh fruits and vegetables that was available, which made for a colorful display. With sweet peppers (bell peppers) alone there were the colors of green and red and yellow. Many stalls had fruits like bananas, pineapples, and papayas to one side and vegetables like carrots, cabbage, cucumbers and corn to the other. Many also sold legumes like red kidney beans, black eyed peas, pinto beans, butter beans and lentils like yellow split peas. From sweet pepper to green beans and carrot, from coconut to avocado and breadfruit, from yam to cassava and pumpkin there was everything available and accessible for purchase at the market.
The varying smell of produce diffused through the air. There were the smells of fruits like ripe pineapples and guava, there was the smell of bulb vegetables like garlic and onions, and there were smells of herbs like cilantro and culantro. Smells from the meat and seafood sections of the market also mixed in with the smell of produce. But along with fragrant smells there was the unpleasant smells of the market like that of rotting potatoes and cabbage.
With many stalls all selling the same thing like onions, sweet peppers, lettuce, oranges, and bananas, what might distinguish one from the other was the size and/or greater variety of fruits and vegetables at one stall versus the other. Fruits like star fruit, cashew fruit, golden plum, or bukut may not have been available at the other stalls but this one stall had it. The same was true for vegetables like cauliflower, eggplant, celery, callaloo or okra. Also, what might distinguish one from the other was the price and quality of the product. Who the vendor was also mattered: some vendors more known, some with an engaging personality and some who made a more active effort to advertise and sell their produce. Of course some customers also had closer relationships to certain vendors and this often meant they had “first dibs” on produce.
The Belize of my childhood had tradition of tea, dinna, and tea - a tradition influenced by British colonization. Americans have breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Tea in the morning is equivalent to breakfast and dinna or the mid-day meal was the biggest and most important meal for the day. Dinna time for most people in Belize City was between 11:30Am and 1:00PM. Tea time in the evening was around 6:00PM.
On entering the market many shoppers looked for items to “drink tea” with. What they had for breakfast (the extent to which it was a heaty breakfast) often reflected their social class. They could have breakfast with spam, vienna sausage or sardines, dutch or kraft cheese they bought at a grocery shop, but those who could afford to bought longaniza, morcilla or bacon from a market vendor. They may also buy liver for evening tea. With their breakfast they could have fried breadfruit in addition to or instead of “pack bread,” johnny cake, fry jack or flour tortillas. They may also have fried beans. Avocado was also part of a hearty breakfast. Some also had fruits like papaya with their breakfast.
In the market shoppers also looked for meat and vegetables for the meal they wanted to cook for that day or another day. Some made a Belizean dish. Reflecting the country's history and diversity, Belizean cuisine has Afro-Caribbean, Mexican/Central America, Amerindian/Mayan, European influences, and has other influences as well (Indian being one of them). The main ingredients common in most Belizean dishes are rice, beans, onions, plantains, bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, corn (masa and tortillas), and coconut milk. Most Belizean dishes are made with chicken and fish, and the herbs and spices to season these dishes are garlic, recado, culantro, cilantro, and thyme. Lastly, the habanero pepper is an ingredient in many Belizean dishes. At times one or another of the ingredients like red beans, tomatoes or potatoes was scarce, but even when there was scarcity the market was the place expected to have these ingredients. In turn shoppers searched for that market stall which had what was scarce.
In my family what meal was cooked from one day to another (or if we ordered food) depended on whether it was a weekday or weekend. Weekdays were certainly not a day to prepare a dish like crab soup (or eat it), if land crabs were in season. Often, my mother didn’t cook on Saturdays (instead ordering food from a restaurant), but if she did it was a certain dish like boil up or sere (to my displeasure regular beef or chicken soup was often one of those dishes). Sunday was definitely a day when she cooked, and the meal was more of a grand meal. We never ate fish on Sundays unless it was something like a large snapper, which was baked. Lobster was definitely more than worthy to be on the Sunday menu. What cuts of meat or fish was in our refrigerator or what fresh cuts of meat or fish my mother was able to buy at the market help determine what she cooked. Often, it was more important than whether or not she wanted to cook Belizean food. Lastly, my mother was more cosmopolitan in her cooking. We often ate a dish like curried shrimp, and my mother often prepared something like a pork leg or beef tongue.
Saturday was the day when a dish like boil up was prepared. Of all the Belizean dishes, boil up is the dish requiring the most ingredients. While an ingredient like pig tail was often obtained at a shop, and flour to make boil cake, all of the ingredients for the dish could be obtained at the market. What Belizeans called ground food (ground provisions or root vegetables) like yam, cassava, coco and sweet potato needed for boil up were available at the market. Also available were ingredients like green bananas, cabbage, cho cho. At the market those making boil up tried to buy a certain type of fish for the dish like king fish. Lastly, coconut oil that was used to sauté onions and tomatoes for the boil up sauce was available. This made for a tasty sauce.
Then there was the traditional Sunday dinna. Often this was rice and beans, chicken and salad, the Creole dish that comes closest to the Belizean national dish. But chimole/relleno, also known as “black dinna,” is a dish that Belizean eat on Sundays. Reflecting the Mestizo influence on Belizean cuisine, the dish is a savory black soup, the black color coming from the use of what is called black recado, a paste made from a concoction of spices and roasted until black with ancho chili peppers. Other ingredients in the dish include: chicken, garlic, onion, sweet pepper, tomatoes, oregano, apasote, and salt and pepper. Relleno (stuffing) has additional ingredients like ground pork and eggs. There was also a recipe my mother got from an old “Spanish lady” called “white relleno,” which was not prepared by many in Belize City.
As for the rice and beans Sunday dinna, all the ingredients were obtained at the market. While many who made the dish may not worry as much about the quality of the rice, many worried about the quality of the red kidney beans to make rice and beans. This often meant patronizing a certain vendor who was known to have the best beans. Then one had to get a coconut, which was grated and the milk extracted from the grated coconut and used to make the rice and beans. Lastly, one also had to get thyme to season the rice and beans.
Chicken was sold at shops. For most Belizeans, if the chicken was stewed (and not baked) it had to be seasoned with red recado, a Yucatecan seasoning made from achiote paste (annatto seeds), which is combined with a blend of spices. At times beef, pork, or what Belizean called “game meat” (deer, peccary or gibnut) was served instead of chicken. When game meat was served it made the meal specially since game meat was not often available to at the market and could cost a fortune.
Rice and beans is served with potato salad and ripe fried or baked plantain. In a market that had a wide array of leafy green vegetables and other vegetables that were available, potato salad made with canned mixed vegetables (and British made Cross and Blackwell salad cream) bought at a shop was the extent to which the average Belizean ate a salad with their meal. At times some made coleslaw or a salad would be made with lettuce. But overall leafy green salads, steamed vegetables or sautéed vegetables was not a regular part of the diet of the average city resident. However, in rural area a leafy vegetable like callaloo was eaten regularly and many in the middle class often ate vegetables like cauliflower and zucchini.
A staple of the diet of most people in Mexico and Central America, corn was available in the market, and many of the ingredients to make what many Belizeans still call “Spanish food” were available as well. There were all the vegetables to put into tamales and season the cull with ingredients like cilantro, cilantro and recado. Banana leaves were also sold at the market to wrap tamales in. Fish was available to make panades (empanadas), onions, and the fiery hot habanero pepper to make onion sauce (with vinegar) to put on panades. Of the two soups, escabeche and chimole, escabeche was the simplest to make needing ingredients like chicken, onions (a major part of this dish), vinegar, oregano, thyme, black pepper, allspice, Jalapeno pepper and vinegar. Chimole (with chicken) needed more ingredients like the black seasonings and epazote, along with eggs, and ground pork. Salbutes needed more ingredients than garnarches. But what was not available at the market was masa and corn tortillas. Some of these dishes are made with masa and others served with tortillas. Anyone wishing to make Spanish food had to go to a tortilla shop (Tortilleria) to buy masa and tortillas.
Too numerous to mention all, a wide array of fruits (many tropical) were available at the market. The warm climate and sunny days in Belize mean many fruits are available year-round. In the market the fruits that were available year-round included bananas, oranges (and other citrus fruits like grapefruit, tangerines, limes and lemons), pineapple, watermelon, papaya and cantaloupe. Around April and definitely by summer, the seasonal and at times more exotic fruits started appearing on many of the stalls in the market. Of the seasonal fruits one of the most enjoyed were mangoes. During mango season a variety of mangoes were available in the market: haden, numba eleven, blue, slippers, air, common, judge wig and other kinds of mangoes. Other seasonal fruits include: soursop, custard apple, mamey, sapodilla, golden plum, may plum, craboo (nance), and kinep. No listing of the fruits that were available at the market would be complete without mentioning pod fruit bukut - smelly, sticky, “stinkin’ toe” bukut.
Many of these fruits are the main ingredients in juices, ice cream and desserts. Most basic was the refreshing lime juice, often made with brown sugar. Soaked in water, Belizean also made juice with the skin of the pineapple. Then there is sour tamarind from which juice is made and tambran sweet. (While not a fruit some Belizeans made a drink out of sorrel, especially in rural Belize District). Soursap, craboo and papaya made delicious ice cream. In terms of pastries, grated coconut was the main ingredient in coconut tart and coconut crust; and out of root vegetables Belizean make cassava pudding and potato (sweet potato) pone.
Even after the construction of the Belcan Bridge in 1971 providing the second link between the north and south side of Belize City, on or near the Belize City Swing Bridge in the heart of Belize City was where Belizeans crossed paths no matter their status or whether they were walking, riding a bicycle or a driver or passenger in a car or other vehicle. Helping to mark the rhythms of life in the city, those who lived on the north side crossed the bridge to the south side to go to work, to school or shop at the market and Albert Street. Those who lived on the south side of the city went to the north side to go to school, to work and to shop. Both north and south siders went to the other side of the city for other reasons such as going to church.
At the foot of the Swing Bridge in predominantly black and Creole Belize City, the old Central Market reflected the diversity of Belize, especially on market day. Vendors and shoppers were Creoles, Garifuna, Mestizos, Maya, East Indians and Mennonites. Occasionally, one would also see people who were white (not Mennonites), Middle Eastern or Chinese population in the market. In the 1970s the agrarian Mennonites became a more prominent presence in the market, many setting up temporary stalls in Court House Wharf.
In small Belize City the market was also a place where people from “all walks of life,” as my mother would say, met while shopping for produce, meat and fish. From the north side of the city and from the south side, rich and poor, known and unknown they went to market. It was not unusual to see someone who was important in Belizean society in the market, and it wasn’t unusual to see “Mr. or Ms. so and so” standing next to a person with little or no status in the market. In the market, in many ways, all residents of the city seem equal as all had to shop at the same place.
“Good morning Ms. Olivia, dah how yuh dih du?” one person ask a woman in the market after an exchange of pleasantries. “A nuh sih yuh wah lang time Missa Raymond. Dah weh yuh mih deh?” “Ah deh righ yah mamie” Mr. Raymond responds. “I mih think yuh gwan dah States.” “No, ah deh right yah” Mr. Raymond responds with a laugh. From people briefly greeting each other to engaging in conversations talk was a big part of the market experience, when there were interactions between customers and vendors and between customers. Often, a sense of camaraderie grew from one week to another. In small Belize City many shoppers (and vendors) knew each other outside of the market, some in the same social circles. Creole was the lingua franca of the market, with Spanish often spoken and at times Garifuna.
“How much fih dem custard apple miss?” a customer ask a vendor as he or she moved from one stall to another trying to get a good price and quality produce. “Dem deh dah two fih wah dalla” the vendor replies. Often there was bargaining for a better price or a potential customer telling the vendor that last week or the week before the produce they wanted to buy was cheaper. At times the vendor had the upper hand, especially when they had a fruit or vegetable that was not available elsewhere in the market or at a cheaper price; and at times the potential customer had the upper hand, and this is when the vendor tried to lower the price and sweeten the deal. Many shoppers knew the vendors and vendors knew shoppers. At times this meant that few shoppers got bargains from vendors they knew.
While some shoppers just exchanged pleasantries others had conversations about such things as politics and news not broadcasted on Radio Belize. In the extreme, with Belize City being a small city where many people knew each other (or of each other), few traded gossip about such things as affairs and relationships. And while it was not gossip at the market, what a middle or upper class person purchased in the market could be gossip. If they purchased something like tripe or the other part of the intestine called book then that could be the source of gossip. And if an upper or middle class man was seen drinking tea at one of the cook shops in the market that could be the source of gossip as well.
There is so much Belizeans of a certain age who lived in the city remembered about the market, and in the midst of writing about the market I had several conversations with older Belizeans about the market. Yes, I remember a lot about the old market, but there was a lot I didn’t remember. I asked them what they remembered about the market, if they remembered any of the vendors at the market, what was sold at the market and how they went about shopping at the market. I also asked them about the cook shop section of the market and who it catered to.
“Bwai, dah weh you gah bring that up fah” my friend Brian said after excitedly recalling his experiences at the market and the market leading to a nostalgic conversation. He remembered some of market vendors, some of the things that were sold at the market and being sent to the market to buy produce from a specific vendor. My friend Sophia also remembered the market, especially the fish market and the cook shops. After more than forty years, I also found out the name of one of the vendors at the market from one of my family members Kevin (my older brother’s bother in law).
Many of my memories of the market were similar to theirs, and things about the market that they remembered led to my addition to and/or revising some of the things I had already written about the market. Certainly, Belizean of a certain age all have memories of going to the market and whatever I write about the market will be incomplete. Nevertheless, while there are numerous pictures of the old market it is my hope that writing about it is a small part in preserving its history and preserving a part of the history of Belize City.
The chirping yellow baby chicks greeted one at the main entrance to the very congested and noisy market, and nearby chicken feed (growing mash etc) was sold. This was one of the visual and auditory snapshot of the market I will always remember from my childhood. I could not recall if the chicks were sold by Mr. Heinz, one of the few vendors in the produce section of the market who I knew by name. He had a large stall on entrance through the main front gate of the market and sold vegetables like most of the vendors. But it was the red kidney beans that he sold that I most remember. I would later learn that a man by the name of “Tunku” White was the vendor who sold the baby chicks at the entrance of the market. Along with the chicks he sold growing mash (made of corn)to feed the chickens.
I only remembered the names of three vendors in the produce section of the market, Mr Heinz and two I will mention shortly.In recalling his experiences going to the market my friend Brian mentioned several fishmongers in the fish section of the market and produce section of the market. He recalled being sent to the market at an early age and being given instructions on what vendor to buy from at the market and told where he or she was located in the market. “She would say don’t buy from that one but from this one” Brian recalled his mother saying. There was Mr. Felix from whom he bought Bell peppers from and there was Ms. Janice whom he was told to buy fresh thyme from. He also mentioned one Clement Major who sold fruits and vegetables in the south wing of the market. He noted that Mr. Major as not a farmer like most of the vendors at the market but a middle man who bought produce from wholesalers and resold it at the market for a profit. In contrast, there was another vendor who was a farmer, who made a living off his farm and sent all his children to school from what he earned at the market.
In a September 2nd 2010 “From the Publisher” column in the Belize Amandala newspaper Evan X Hyde wrote about his childhood in Belize as the oldest of nine children. He recalled as a young boy having to go to the Belize Central Market most weekday mornings to buy various foodstuffs. He went on to say:
The hardest transaction was always in the butcher’s section of the market, which was the market’s centerpiece, both physically and socially. The butchers were black men, and they were all “made” men, which is to say, they were sure of themselves and they were hard-nosed. It took me no time at all to realize that, little brown boy that I was, they saw me as a sucker.
The butcher’s game in the meat section was always pushing as much bone in your pound of meat as they could get away with. If you got loaded with too much bone, you would have to face your mother’s frustration when you got home. That hurt. After a while, I realized that there was one butcher, and he was brownish incidentally, who would give me a reasonable deal. I believe his name was Ernest Cattouse.
Hyde considered the experience of going to the market and dealing with the butchers stressful and cited one of his peers as not having to do that because his father “went to the market and reasoned with the butchers for a good deal.” Hyde went on to discuss his father not going to the market: “I suppose he had found some reason not to go to the market, and good old first born had to take the load. I believe my dad would have been frustrated with the games being played in the meat section.” Hyde went on to say: “I grew to believe that the meat section of the market was the single most important location in the capital city where the culture and socializing of roots black people were concerned. There was energy in the butcher’s section, there was pride there, and there were real men there.”
With meat or fish often scarce (or a great demand for certain cuts of meat or fish like snapper), many shoppers darted to the center and back of the market once they entered the main entrance of the market. My mother was no different, as her routine was to first go to the center of the market where the butchers were located then to the fish section, with the hope of getting good cuts of meat at a reasonable price and goods fish at a reasonable price as well.
On entering the market the market we would pass a number of food sellers with no stalls along the walkway. Their position near the entrance of the market tended to maximize their sales. On our short walk from the entrance of the market to the center my mother often bought few food items to “drink tea” with like morcilla (blood sausage), longaniza and johnny cake from vendors who often sold food from a pigtail bucket. Along with other food items like Dutch cheese and avocado this would be part of a hearty breakfast when we got home.
While I knew the names of few vendors in the produce section of the market, and would later remember only one in the fish section, in the middle of the market were the butchers were located I knew the names of several of the butchers: “Rooster,” “Raku” Craig, Walter Flowers, Mr. Belgrave, George August and Winston Smiling. I also remember these butchers by their distinct personalities. Walter and Mr. Belgrave were my mother’s two favorite butchers. When the doors of the meat section of the market swung open, it was not unusual to see the portly Walter Flowers sitting on a stool in or outside of his stall next to the door. The jolly butcher, Walter shared a stall with Mr. Belgrave – a man whom I remember for his locally cured and smoked hams and thick sliced bacon. Around Christmas time Mr. Belgave sold his local ham, and in the early 1970s my mother bought hams from him. But by the mid-1970s she started buying imported hams from Romacs or Brodies supermarkets. .
I didn’t know the name of the butcher on the other side of Walter and Mr. Belgrave’s stall (across from the front door), but I can remember when the stall drew a crowd because it had something the other stalls did not have. Across from Walter and Mr. Belgrave stall and near the back exit to the fish section was Winston Smiling’s stall. Mr. Smiling had the most organized stall and a wider array of meat and sausages, but I can’t recall my mother buying from him. She did buy meat from Rooster, especially when he had a prime cut of meat that the other stall didn’t have like steak.
The meat that was sold in the market reflected Belizean cuisine (culture) and overall diet. To some extent it also reflected the role social class in meat consumption. It is still true today that Belizeans eat more chicken and fish, than beef or pork. Back in the day chicken was affordable and fish as well for most residents of the city. But meat, especially certain prime cuts of meat, was not affordable for many shoppers at the market. It was a special occasion when the poor or working class bought better cuts of meat. Instead, many had to buy cheaper cuts of meat, often making a stew or a dish with lots of gravy. Many also had to buy entrails. Starting in the late 1960s into the 1970s many Belizeans who were poor and working class experienced mobility and this led to a greater consumption of meat.
When it came to cuts of beef like T-bone steak and sirloin steak, they were available in the market. But many residents of the city could not by these cuts of meat, or afford to buy these cuts of meat on a regular basis. They were able to beef entrails like liver, kidneys, heart, lungs (to make what was called lights), and intestines (tripe). Beef tongue was not as cheap, but it was affordable. They also bought oxtail and cow foot, cow foot soup being part of Belizean cuisine.
When it came to pork, a pork leg, spear ribs, or pork chops were available in the market but many residents of the city could not afford to buy these cuts or buy it regularly. Parts of the pig like salted and cured pig tail and pork snout are part of Belizean cuisine, part of dishes like boil up and split pea soup. Some Belizean also make pig’s feet soup. But the entrails of the pig were not sold in the market like the entrails of the cow. Belizeans eat beef tripe (and what is called book) but unlike black Americans they don’t eat chitterlings, made from the small intestines of the pig.
Starting in the late 1960s and by the early 1970s poor and working class Belizeans in the city could afford to eat chicken few times a week (they also ate eggs regularly), but for some that often meant eating what Belizean called neck-and-back, gizzards and liver (in the extreme fowl foot). These chicken parts were largely imported from the United States and sold at shops. By the mid to late 1970s chicken became cheaper when the Mennonites created large chicken farms and started to mass produce chickens for the local market. Whole frozen chicken was sold mainly at shops (also sold at the Mennonite Centre, as well as other Mennonite produced products like eggs, milk and cheese). I can’t recall chicken being sold by the butchers at the market but live chickens were always available. Live chickens were mainly sold at Court House Wharf, and occasionally ducks were sold as well. Around Christmas live turkeys were sold at the wharf as well. But by the 1970s more Belizeans got their ham and turkey from supermarkets like Romacs and Brodies, and others places to buy groceries.
A butcher often became more popular or made a small fortune when a certain kind of meat was scarce and he had a supply. There was often scarcity of beef or pork. A butcher’s stall became crowded and there were often pleas from customers clamoring for beef or pork. In great demand and with an advantage, the butcher often “chanced” some customers making up the purchase of one or more pounds of meat with a piece of bone. If one complained they would tersely respond “afta dih meat gah bone.”
The availability of others kinds of meat also made some butchers popular or in demand in the market. At times lamb and mutton was available and used to make special dishes like curry goat. Belizeans love their game meat - whether it's gibnut, pecarry, warri, armadillo, or deer. But the hunting of these animals in villages like Double Head Cabbage and Scotland Halfmoon meant that game meat (with the exception of iguana) was always in short supply and the only way some Belizeans had an opportunity to buy it is if they knew someone who lived in a village and/or had a game meat supplier in Belize City. In short, one had to have connections. At times game meat was sold in the market but it was most often a “hush hush” and under the counter sale. Regardless, while more expensive and in a limited quantity, game meat is a delicacy that many city residence were willing to pay a price for and it was served with rice and beans, stew beans and rice or just simply white rice.
After chatting with Walter and Mr. Belgrave, and the purchase of several cuts of meat, my mother headed for the partially enclosed seafood section at the back of the market. Outside of the door a walkway lead to the north and south wings of the market. With a turn to the left one looked towards the Swing Bridge and with a turn to the right one looked towards the mouth of the Haulover Creek. On the other side of the walk way two concrete counters ran the length of the section (and almost parallel to the creek), and was just about three feet from the waterside where fishermen anchored their boats and brought their catch to the stalls to be cleaned and sold. Sail boats docked in the Haulover Creek served as a backdrop for activities. This section of the market was always crowded, noisy, damp and messy. It was often the most lively and entertaining section of the market.
I remembered fishmongers in the fish section of the market because some of them were real characters, and often entertaining as such. But unlike the butchers at the market I didn’t remember any of them personally much less their name. I also don’t recall my mother talking to any of them at the market to the extent that I would have remembered their names. “You remember ‘Big Hand’?” my friend Brian asked when I told him I didn’t know the names of any of the fishermen. After he mentioned the name of the fisherman who was a fixture at the market, I did remember someone being called that name. But I can’t recall what “Big Hand” looked like. Brian also remembered going to the market to buy fish in the evenings. My friend Sophia also mentioned several of the fishmongers at the market, her fisherman father being one of them.
On days when there was a good catch for most of the fishermen, there was a variety of fish like snapper, jack, barracuda, kingfish, tarpon, grunt, jewfish, sheephead and even shark. At times, some of the fish that were huge and some that were exotic looking caught my attention (and at times drew a crowd). Some still flapping on the counter, fishermen cleaned the fish, scaling and gutting them, which increased their sale price. The gills and guts were thrown into the creek causing a feeding frenzy among the hundreds of catfish fluttering in the creek. The fishermen became conductors of what was the quite entertaining and unforgettable fish ballet. Some fish were sold whole. Some of the larger fish like grouper were often filleted, which increased their price. At times fish roe, a delicacy, was available.
At times conch to make conch soup and conch fritters was available at the market, the conch taken out of their shell, partially cleaned and displayed in small piles on the concrete slabs. They were never in abundance, most likely because conch was sold to the two fishing cooperatives on the Haulover Creek. Also, in its effort at conservation the government imposed a conch season that resulted conch being sold for a certain number of months.
Lobster and crab were not frequently sold in the fish section. Like conch, lobster was sold to the fishermen cooperative and there was a lobster season. I didn’t remember lobster being sold in the market, but my friend remembered that it was sold. When lobster was available it was most often undersized lobster. The undersized lobsters were most often sold under the counter (when asked for). The lobster rejected by the fishermen cooperative was sold on the counter and the head of the lobster after the tail was extracted. I never saw shrimp being sold in the seafood section of the market, although I am sure it was available sometimes.
In the seafood section of the market customers observed what was available that day on the counter, customers at times jostling to get an up close look if the stall drew a crowd. A fish like snapper or grouper was much desired while a fish like grunt was not. For some shoppers it was all about what dish they wanted to make with the fish or use it in, like sere, boil-up, fish balls or fish tea, and whether it was going to be fried, boiled, stewed or baked. If a fish like skip jack was available they were going to make sere with it, buying other ingredients for the dish at the market like green plantains, a coconut (coconut milk extracted from a grated coconut), and okra. If conch was available they bought for boilup or to make conch coup or conch fritters. As stated, lobster was a rarity. My friend Brian who remembered lobster being sold at the market also remembered his father buying the head of the lobster at the market and his family having “lobster” dinner made with the head.
Then there was the haggling for fish as the fishmongers continued to clean the fish. Regardless of what was affordable to whom, what social class a customer was and whether a person was well known all tried to get the fisherman’s attention, especially of a crowded market day. “Missa Johnny please give mih two pounds ah dah skip jack nuh” one woman pleads with the fish monger. “Ah deh yah long time dih wait.”
Many Belizeans remember the experience of going to the market to buy fish. Indeed many remember that experience more that the publisher of the Amandala newspaper going to the market to buy meat. Growing up in the city I remember my eldest brother Michael telling stories of going to the market and one was of being sent to the market to buy fish, and told not to buy a fish like grunt. While writing this essay on the market I came across a picture of fish being sold at the old Central Market on the website ambergriscaye.com. The photo of the day brought back memories for someone who described himself as a “Belmopan born boy.” He remembered him and his grandmother getting up by 5:00AM to go and buy fish at the market. “This is one of the experiences I will cherish he went on to say about going to the market with his mother where he watched fish and turtle. “When I was big enough, she sent me to buy fish, alone” he went on to say it was a bit of a rite of passage for him. Lastly, my friend Brian remembered as a child going to the market in the evening to buy fish waiting as the fishermen came in.
On the second concrete counter in the fish section of the market (going towards the Swing Bridge) turtle meat - a delicacy for some Belizeans - was occasionally sold. Other kinds of meat were sold on the counter as well in this area of the fish section. This side most often was not buzzing with activity as much as the other side of the counter (starting at the door of the butcher section), but occasionally live Hicatee turtles (at least partly aquatic) and the larger Loggerhead turtles were brought to the market for sale. They were turned over and placed on their shell to prevent movement. At times, also available in this section were live iguanas, which were tied up.
I can’t recall any permanent vendors being around the area at the back of the north wing of the market (at the end of the fish section) near the waterside, but on market day on Fridays or Saturdays my mother walked away from the fish section of the market and went to see those she considered her Freetown Sibun people, who on the weekend set up stalls in the north wing of the market. She had known many of the vendors for decades, going back to when she was a young teacher in rural Belize district, teaching in villages like Freetown Sibun, Gales Point and Mullins River. For some of them she was “Teecha.” A leafy green that is cooked and served exactly like spinach, she always bought callaloo from one of the Sibun vendors. At times she would buy cerasee. This was also the area to buy other bush medicines (herbs and barks) like billy web bark, gumbo limbo, senna and jackass bitters. Before leaving the area, my mother would stop and talk with Mista Gussie and Mista Simon. The day after Mista Simon was appointed JP by Premier George Price he proudly went about his business at the market wearing a big ten gallon hat. (In my conversation about the market with my friend Brian I found out much more about the Sibun group, including the surnames of Mista Simon and Mista Gussie).
In this section of the market, just a few steps west of a large fruits and vegetables stall, there was an area were about two kitchens, or what Belizeans would call “cook shops” were located. Several tables and chairs were arranged near these cook shops like a food court. But where the cook shops were located was not an area shoppers like my mother went to, and they seem to serve a specific clientele. And so we bought from the fruits and vegetables stall in the area but we never bought anything from the cook shops, which at that time of the morning made popular breakfast foods like johnny cakes, fry jacks, eggs (hard boiled, scrambled or sunyside) and refried beans. They were also open for the midday meal and I am sure they served dishes like rice and beans and fried fish.
The visual I have of the cook shop area is one of largely working class males eating breakfast before they went to work. Others seem to be individual who were down on their luck. In wanting to know more about people’s market experience I also wanted to know more about who patronized the cook shops. My friend Brian told me many of the patrons were waterfront workers (stevedores) who worked around the clock. Another friend Sophia suggested they were patronized by mainly men (some drunks), most of whom patronized the bars of Regent Street West. She also mentioned one neighbor, who was a lady of the night, patronized the cook shops. “We knew it was there but it was not a place we went” she went on to say. Lastly, my friend Roger had the impression that these cook shops were unsanitary. “It wasn’t clean” he stated when I asked him about the cook shops.
Others who went to the market had a different view of the cook shops where they had eaten. “I recall eating a delicious breakfast there!” the Belmopan born stated on the ambergriscaye.com website, when he wrote nostalgically about going to the market to buy fish as a boy. My relative Kevin also remembered eating breakfast at one of the cook shops as well, part of his breakfast consisting of john cake and cheese. He had good things to say about eating breakfast at the cook shops before he went to school.
From the wing of the market near the Swing Bridge we usually made our way to the front of the market, and while doing so would look at the produce at several stalls. If there was something the other stalls did have and was of good quality and an affordable price we would buy it. We then went from the front entrance of the market to the south wing of the market where there were more fruit and vegetable stalls. On many occasions we were able to get fruits and/or vegetables in this section of the market that were not available in the other sections of the market. One memory of this section of the market was my mother buying custard apples from a Mestizo vendor.
There are two sides to most markets, the inside and the outside, and a trip at the market would not be complete, especially on market day, unless one went to check out the many vendors outside the market. From the entrance of the market near the Swing Bridge vendors often lined Regent Street outside of the market going past the site where the building of the legendary Capt’n Foot was located and passed Presbyterian Scots Kirk Church left into Court House Wharf.
Some of the fruits and vegetable available inside the market were also sold outside, but one could often get deals outside of the market. In Court House Wharf some vendors sold fruits like oranges, grapefruit, watermelon, musk melon, papayas, green coconuts and sugar cane from temporary stalls or from truck. A fruit like watermelon took up a lot of space and so it was better selling it outside. The outside vendors often had first dibs on shoppers and there was often just as much selling of produce outside of the market as in the inside But vendors outside of the market were prone to heat and rain and had to protect their produce from other weather conditions.
While some vendors were regulars outside the market, others just came on market day. Then the number of vendors outside the market increased significantly, because many farmers (and retailers) came from all over the country to sell their produce at the market. Some from what many city folks once called the “outdistricts” even came all the way from southernmost district of Toledo and this increased the diversity of vendors. Aside from the greater number of Mestizo and Maya vendors, Mennonite vendors (tall and white) were most visible wearing their straw hat and denim overalls. None had a permanent stall in the market but some could be seen at the entrance of the market selling such things as peanuts.
One of two memorable market experiences that occurred in Court House Wharf related to the diversity. “Iso, dah weh dem people come fram” I curiously asked my mother (by the name we called her) on seeing a very short woman barefoot and in traditional dress in Court House Wharf. She was sitting in the back of a truck and produce was sold in front. “She is a Maya Jerry” my mother responded. I had never been to my father’s home district of Toledo, and so while I knew about the Mayas (and knew some like the Mopan Maya Mr. Manuel) I had never saw such a person, what I now suspect was a Kekchi Maya. Mid-day when school dismissed for the mid-day break, I saw the woman and a man walking down Albert Street, perhaps exploring Belize City. It made for an interesting sight.
There were often three modes of transportation in Court House Wharf. Early in the morning the mule and cart was often used to bring some produce to the market like sacks of rice, beans, sugar and potatoes. Trucks were also a fixture at Court House Wharf farmers bringing their produce to market in trucks, and as stated many selling from the truck. On market day when more farmers came to the city to sell their produce more trucks parked in Court House Wharf. Then there were the bicycle carts or carrier bikes, which were used mainly by shoppers to transport what they bought from the market home. Shoppers also used taxis to transport what they bought at the market home, the taxi stand located not too far away outside Central Park on Albert Street.
The other memorable event in Court House Wharf related to sexual orientation and a bicycle cart man by the name of Cattouse my mother had hired to carry to our home what we bought at the market. On this market day on a Saturday morning two of my older brothers accompanied my mother to the market. Often my mother would take a taxi back home with what we had bought in the market or hire a bicycle cart to take it to our house. Whenever she hired a bicycle cart she would ask me or my older brother if we wanted to ride in the cart and go home with what we bought at the market. On this say I can recall her buying a large watermelon so transportation was needed.
After my mother hired Mr. Cattouse aka “Catate” to transport what we bought at the market home, I got ready to compete with my older brother to ride in the cart. An older brother called him aside near Scots Kirk Church and informed him that the bicycle cart man was Catate the battyman. At that age I was aware who a battyman was, and while I didn’t know what Catate looked like I knew of his supposed reputation. My older brother passed on riding in the cart but I made a snap decision and volunteered to ride in the cart so. Perhaps I was being competitive. “Mr. Cattouse why is one of my sons saying something about you being a something?” my mother asked in the Queens English she often spoke. She was puzzled. “Me no know ma, some ah dem bwai like tease mih” Catate looked away towards Scot-Kirk Church and innocently responded.
Now somewhat concerned, I got in Catate’s cart and went home with the market bags and a large watermelon. I precariously held on to the sides of the cart (prepared to jump out) and rode in the cart not wanting to be seen in Cata’s cart, and concerned he might try to do something. “You ride eena Cata cart” older brother Joel stated with a rueful smile when he got home and he would repeat that a number of times.
While my mother went to market early in the morning, my father went just before mid-day if he was at home and not on a boat trip. A man who loved food dearly, he would stop off at market on his way home from work and if there was fish to his linking like barrow (barracuda) that was being sold in the market or meat like pork chops he bought it and took it home to cook with some vegetables. His mid-day cooking was a big relief for my school teacher mother, who barely had time to cook mid-day meals. We would arrive home from school greeted by the smell of food being cooked by the man we called the “Stew Cook,” because whether he bought fish or meat at the market it was often going to be stewed with tomato paste, recardo and other seasonings. This was served with rice. The four burners of the butane stove blazing my father sweating in his undershirt in the humid kitchen made a very spicy meal out of the produce and meat or fish he bought at the market.
In the early 1970s the government built another market on the south side of Belize City. The Queen Square Market was located on West Canal Street facing the heavily trafficked Dean Street Bridge. Nearby was the slaughterhouse and Rogers Stadium. After the market was inaugurated people didn’t go to the new market in significant numbers, and for many years the market was underutilized. Correspondingly, there were few vendors in the market, and because there was little offered at the market it attracted few shoppers.
I recall going to the market several times, and on at least one Saturday I did so with two of my neighbors, whose grandfather had a stall in the market. A staunch supporter of the then ruling People United Party, he probably believed so greatly in the government’s market project that he moved his stall from the bustling central market to the Queen Square. While at the Queen Square Market for over an hour a small number of shoppers came in the market. The market remained open but it was never a place where my mother shopped for produce.
In 1979 a second market was built on the north side of the city at the foot of the Belcan Bridge. Located near the Haulover Creek and a major thoroughfare, the designation as a farmers market meant that the market was for farmers to bring their produce by the river or by road and sell it at the market. The market was located at a good place in a growing area of the city. While the market seems to have had a better start than the Queen Square Market, again shoppers did flock to the market. There were a number of businesses in the market, but it could barely be called a farmers market because little produce was sold in the market.
By the late 1970s residents of the city had more places to buy fish such at a pier at the entrance of Barracks on the north side of the city and on the south side at what would become the Vernon Street Fish Market in the area called Conch Shell Bay (near where West Canal flows into the Haulover Creek). There were other options to buy fish in Belize City and this meant many were less reliant on the central market. While my mother and father still went to buy fish at the market, by the early 1970s our fish often came from the Huesner family, and we had a greater variety of seafood.
When I left Belize in 1981, the year Belize got its independence, the Central Market was still the busiest market in the city. There was some life in the farmers market. A number of vendors were located in the market but few sold produce as the market was intended to do (there was a butcher shop). Nevertheless, there were more people who shopped at the farmers market. Unlike the farmers market which I passed almost every day riding up or down Belcan Bridge, I only occasionally passed the Queen Square Market, which was located down the street from one of my uncle’s property. The market was still being used but I didn’t get the sense that it was a thriving.
In 1989 when I returned to the city after being away for 8 years the central market was still thriving and going to the market brought back a lot of nostalgia. Produce in the market was bountifully displayed at stalls in the market. As expected, there were many new vendors in the market. Most were Spanish speakers whom I suspected were recent Central American immigrants namely from El Salvador, who went to Belize in the early 1980s. In terms of agriculture, they had contributed greatly to Belize, much like the Mennonites who continued to be a presence in the market. In the early 1990s I returned to Belize City on several occasions and the old market was still going. But like the swing Bridge the market was in need of repairs.
The decrepit old Central Market was torn down in the early 1990s to make way for a new and more modern structure. This was part of a number of ambitious government projects in Belize City. While the market was being constructed, the old Queens Bond warehouse in the Fort George area of the north side was converted into a market and some of the vendors from the old market relocated to the Queens Bond warehouse. Other vendors went to the Queen Square Market. While construction was occurring at the site of the old central market, I would observe shoppers leaving Queens Bond; and while I never went into the temporary market, walking on North Front Street I did see activity in the market. But perhaps because it wasn’t in the heart of the city I sense it never attracted even half the number of shoppers as the old central market. In contrast, with the relocation of some vendors from the old market the Queen Square market began to thrive.
By the mid-1990s the new building where the old central market was once located was completed and the two story structure was called the commercial center indicating that it wasn’t just going to be a market. While nostalgic for the old market, I welcomed the new center with the hope that it would be a modern centerpiece to downtown Belize City. The building looked impressive in its size and aesthetically it was more pleasing to look at than the nondescript structure that was the old market.
After the commercial center was opened some vendors from the old market went back. But some who may have wanted to return did not do so because they could not afford the cost of renting a stall at the new building. Even if more vendors wanted to return the space for setting up stalls to sell produce, meat and fish seem limited (on the first floor), when compared to the old central market. With a limited number of vendors and lacking a certain ambiance and the vibe of the old central market, the center did not attract as many shoppers as it should have. The building was eventually repurposed.
My nostalgia for the old Central Market was brought back when on a trip to Jamaican in the late 1990s I had a chance to visit the old central market in downtown Kingston. A new market was being built near the market and the old market was going to be torn down shortly. Walking through the market reminded me so much of the old Belize City central market. In time while exploring the vibrant market, I soon realize that while it was bigger than the old Belize City Central Market the market was of a similar design and build, the steel structure looking almost identical.
By the mid to late 1990s the Queens Square Market became the main market of Belize City, and a bustling one at that. In the mid-1990s an increasing number of vendors set up stalls on a strip of land across the street from the main Queen Square Market building. It was where the old slaughter house had been located. This made the Queen Square Market to some extent a large open-air market. Many also set up makeshift stalls along West Canal Street.
While the Queen Square Market is now a thriving produce market, and now renamed the Michael Finnegan Market, the farmers market never became the farmers market it was to be. It was anything but a farmers market when I last visited Belize, many of the businesses such as a shop, pharmacist and restaurant, reflected other businesses in the growing business district in the area.
Photograph courtesy The Belize City House of Culture and Downtown Rejuvenation Project
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