Every now and then the conversation of “what we are most looking forward to returning to after the pandemic” pops up and I tend to struggle with an answer because I’ve already had so much to be grateful for in the last 8 months. But I might have actually put my finger on something. Let me explain.
Over the past 5 or so years, my mental health and overall search for purpose in my life had been on an upward and positive trajectory. I knew things were heading in the right direction but had no idea where that direction would take me. And then the 1-2 punch of bedrest and lockdown hit. Combined, they’ve ensured I’ve been more or less stuck indoors since Christmas 2019. It is now April 2021. 16 months with only the fluctuation of lockdown rules and ever-changing guidelines providing just a handful of opportunities to “step” out my front door.
Ironic then to think the clarity of mind and courage to discover and embrace my current purpose in life would come from being stuck at home during a global pandemic: From the motivation to expand the blog into a youtube channel to joining an amazing co-production team at Social Work England and giving my first ever keynote speech. I’ve definitely been fortunate to make some lemonade from the basket of lemons that was 2020.
But some of the leg work had been done much earlier. As I said, before the obstacles and opportunities in 2020, there had been a lot of progress in my journey of self-discovery. I had begun rekindling my social life, finally letting my loved ones in on some of the more difficult aspects of life with disability and even got on a plane for the first time since I stepped off one in 2008. I began to let myself fall in love with new things I had previously been too afraid or close-minded to try out. One of those new things was farmers markets. Periodic days set out for different local food providers to sell their wares to the public in an outdoor space with rows of stalls laden with all sorts of culinary goodness. Everything from farmers selling free-range eggs and vegetables so fresh they’re still partly covered in soil, to connoisseurs selling homemade wines, cheeses and jams in flavours I didn’t even know existed. There would be baked goods only taken out of the oven that morning, butchers and fishmongers with types and cuts of meat and fish I hadn’t seen since leaving Nigeria. In fact, the farmer’s markets here in the UK remind me very much of the open markets back home in Nigeria. As a kid, I’d tag along with my mom to these markets as she went from stall to stall comparing the quality of produce from different sellers, haggling for cheaper prices, all while maintaining a firm grip on my hand so I didn’t run off and get lost in the maze of what seemed to me like infinite rows of stalls heaped with so many different types of food I didn’t know if they were all real. Maybe it was this familiarity that drew me to farmers markets in my late 20s, halfway across the world. To me, they were the same thing on a fundamental level, with some obvious differences of course. For starters, the food on sale was obviously drastically different. I would never find palm oil and ground crayfish in a farmers market in northeast England and no one in their right mind would sell solid blocks of cheese at an open market in the sweltering heat of Lagos, Nigeria. These, among many other subtle differences, would be too many to mention here but one difference stood out to me more than anything else: the atmosphere. As beautiful as it is to be able to buy good food sold by the good people who make them, farmers markets always feel a bit too straight to the point. It’s a market, you’d buy what you like and leave. I always find myself trying to start up a conversation at every stall and then doing at least 2 laps of the market pretending to struggle to choose where my money is spent while maximising social interaction.
And then a friend told me about the Orange Pip Market. I wasn’t ready.
“Orange Pip Market is an artisan food and beverage market based on Baker & Bedford Street and Albert Road in the heart of Middlesbrough.” Or at least, that’s what their official Facebook page says. To me, the Orange Pip Market was a combination of all the best parts I loved in farmers markets (unique food items not readily available elsewhere) and an amped-up version of the atmosphere from Nigerian open markets (in this case, live music, activities and workshops). This format essentially made it a food festival. It took place on the last Saturday of every month during the summer and also once in December for a Christmas Orange Pip market.
The food available was what I would call “stylised street food”. Everything from taco and burrito stands to Korean barbecue and speciality pizzas. It was the first place I tried out sushi and one time even came across a West African/Caribbean stall where I bought some portions of homemade jollof rice and curry goat. There were stalls that sold nothing but cheese dishes and some that sold just burgers, so many different variations of beefburgers. All of the above, and so much more, would all be available in their standard variations alongside variations with a twist. That sushi I had: grilled turkey instead of raw fish. The burrito stand had an “English breakfast” burrito. There’s even a now famous Gourmet Scotch egg stand that sells all sorts of weird and wonderful variations on the basic recipe we all know. I always picked up a couple of those every time I went. And of course, it’s the British summer. There’s always an abundance of alcohol and even they don’t escape the Orange Pip treatment. From homemade gin in some very odd flavours to craft beer and alcohol-free cocktails. I’ve never fully explored the drinks on offer as I don’t tend to enjoy alcohol, but it definitely changes the atmosphere.
Unlike with farmers markets or the open markets at home, this ends up being more of a social event in the local summer calendar. Some people dress to the nines, others bring their kids for a family day out. I’m just there for the food.
Part of my love for this event comes from my love for food and discovering new types of food to enjoy the new ways. I’m a regular at some of the recurrent stalls like the Gourmet Scotch Eggs I mentioned above. But there are always one-off foods that I may never see again. If you ever browsed through my Instagram grid, you might have spotted a couple of posts with Mama Lolly’s hot pepper sauces. That’s where I discovered them and the wonderful entrepreneur that makes them from scratch. They make a lot of dishes taste like my mums cooking and that’s an impressive feat. The fact that I’ve only ever seen that stall once keeps me excited at what hidden gems I might discover each time I went. What more, it’s far more wheelchair friendly than most outdoor events I’ve been to. If anything, the crowds were always the biggest hindrance to accessibility, not the venue.
As you may have notice I’ve been writing in past tense about all this. Well as you can imagine, the pandemic ensured that kind of public gathering did not take place in 2020 and far as I knew, might have never taken place again.
And then came the music to my ears. It was announced that a smaller, socially distanced version of the event has been planned for this July, and I can’t wait. I doubt I’d be going to that first one as I anticipate there might be far too when people as eager as I am to get back to the market. In its most recent incarnation, the event occupied 3 small streets. This smaller version will be primarily in a square with the same capacity as one of those small streets. In my head, that either means long queues or difficulty social distancing in public, neither of which I’m a fan of. I’m hoping this return to the Orange Pip goes well, and then maybe I’ll have the green light to go to the next one. So if anyone asks what I’m currently mostly looking forward to when the pandemic blows over. As it stands, it’s buying more food than I can eat at farmers markets and Orange Pip.