A Lost Tradition

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At my stage in life change is inevitable. Very little that we experience stays exactly the same, and in most cases that is a good thing. Sometimes, however, we become accustomed to certain aspects of doing things that they become a kind of tradition, something that we take for granted. In my case going to Canino’s Farmers’ Market on Airline Drive was one of those things. For sixty years the Canino Family offered fresh local produce at incredibly good prices in an open air market that literally hummed with life. It’s mounds of tomatoes, greens of every variety, oranges and apples were alluring enough to me that I traveled there from the other side of town, braving the traffic on Interstate 45 in the knowledge that my long drive would be rewarded with a glorious shopping experience.

I depended on Canino’s for items that I might otherwise have never found in my local stores. One area of the market featured bulk bags of beans of every possible variety, including the yellow split peas that I cook into a golden soup each New Year’s Day according to the family recipe that my mother-in-law shared with me. Most stores sell the green variety, but not the yellow ones. I never worried because I was always able to find a fresh bag of yellow split peas at Canino’s.

I have associated tangerines with fall and my birthday for all of my life. My grandmother Ulrich used to bring out big enamel bowls of them and they always seemed to be available at the local grocery stores. Suddenly a few years back they became almost a gourmet item that had been replaced by those little mandarin oranges known as Cuties. I insisted on having my traditional tangerines and luckily I never failed to find them at Canino’s.

There was a time when Canino’s even sold fresh eggs. They had every size and color imaginable along with great prices. At Easter time I would purchase dozens and dozens for the Easter Bunny egg coloring and to use in preparing the feast for my extended family on Easter Sunday. The jumbo eggs at Canino’s were larger than any that I found elsewhere and looked so beautiful after I applied brilliant colors to their shells.

For a time we owned a piece of property that had a grove of native pecan trees. In the fall we traveled there with bags and boxes which we filled with the precious nuts. Shelling them was a tedious job because they tended to be very small. My fingers would become raw from the process and sometimes even bleed. I did not worry, however, because Canino’s had a row of nut crackers that broke off just enough of the shell to make the process incredibly easy. For just a few cents per pound the machines would whir away and do a job that would have otherwise taken hours of hand numbing labor. Even after we sold the land and no longer had need of the nut cracking machines the sound of them at work always enchanted us when we went to visit the market on cool fall days. They were a constant like the rising of the sun and the changing of the seasons.

What I loved most about Canino’s is that it did not resemble the typical produce department of a grocery store. Everything was offered in bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable. The items were as fresh as if they had been picked on minutes before. Most of the fun was in selecting just the right pieces that I wanted. I would leave with actual brown paper bags filled with wondrous and healthy produce. Going there was a joyful event, a happy adventure.

Sadly the Canino family vendors closed their business at the end of December when the brothers decided to retire. Thirty long time employees lost their jobs and the market itself changed names. An effort to enhance and modernize the concept has left it resembling an ordinary grocery store produce department save for the stalls in the back. The nut crackers are gone. The huge bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable are no more. There are bulk bags of beans but the yellow split peas are not to be found. The new employees seem not to understand how much regular customers like me liked the old ways. At least for now most of the magic is gone.

There are plans by developers to turn the area into a destination for Houstonians and travelers to the city much like the markets in New Orleans and Seattle. Sadly their first efforts are leaving me wanting. The charm of Canino’s is gone and with a nearby Sprouts and a huge HEB market within less than five minutes of my house I now have little incentive to drive thirty to forty minutes to the newly styled market. If I’m going to travel that far I would prefer Central Market with its admittedly higher prices, but much better variety.

The new market on Airline is in transition. Perhaps they will yet find their way to my heart. I want to give them a chance to make me as happy and excited as Canino’s always did. I’d like to think that one day in the future I’ll again feel that warm sense of being at a very special place that the old market always gave me. I suggest that the new vendors consider setting up some nut cracking machines, adding yellow split peas to their bulk bean section, and making sure that when fall comes around there will be plenty of tangerines. Some things should never change.

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