January 23rd, 2013

The Sacred Food Court

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Seats of imperial power are often regarded with a certain reverence — they provoke admiration, astonishment, even fear. That’s certainly the case in New Delhi, where British colonialists built a series of massive, belittling monuments to their rule, or in Washington, DC, where the Mall is increasingly seen by its National Park Service administrators not as a civic gathering place but as a kind of “semi-sacred site of national, secular religion.”

Ancient Rome wasn’t like that. One of the points underlined in Mary Beard’s review of Clare Holleran’s new book Shopping in Ancient Rome is “the ubiquity of buying and selling in Roman towns and cities beyond designated shops or markets, or in areas where you might not quite expect it.” That includes the Forum, which was “buzzing with trade as much as with law and politics,” but also “some of the very grandest buildings in Rome,” which “were built specially to accommodate retail alongside their ceremonial function.”

The Temple of Castor included a series of bars and shops built right into its podium, which evidence suggests included, at some point, a shoemaker’s shop and a barber-cum-dentist’s shop (“as we can tell from the large number of extracted teeth found in its drain”). “The religious and ceremonial life of the temple obviously went on against a backdrop of ravens squawking, cobblers hammering and the screams of those having their teeth pulled,” writes Beard.

There’s a similar (though much tamer) scene on the edge of the Wufenpu clothing market in the east end of Taipei, where a row of hawker stalls is integrated into a Chinese temple. A number of stalls serve food and they use the interior courtyard of the temple as a dining area. As I munched on minced-pork noodles beneath red lanterns and a list of temple donors pasted on the wall, a couple of old men set off a string of firecrackers behind me. None of the other diners paid much heed. A man walked his dog through the courtyard.

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It was a funny experience compared to Hong Kong, where temples are sites for worship and little else. Maybe it’s a cultural thing — architecturally, Cantonese temples are much more austere than their Hokkien-influenced Taiwanese counterparts, which have flamboyant colours and rooflines with dramatically flared edges, festooned with dancing dragons. They seem designed to be lively.

As I finished off my noodles and helped myself to a bowl of cold tofu with chili sauce, I realized I probably wouldn’t have even stopped inside the temple if it hadn’t offered food. My pilgrimages to the Polish church on St. Viateur Street in Montreal and the Jamia Mosque in Hong Kong were similarly inspired — by bigos and kielbasa and lamb biryani, respectively. Some might see this as an unholy meeting of the sacred and profane — some upper-crust Romans certainly did, complaining about the ubiquity of hawkers — but for me, it’s a reason to step foot somewhere I never normally would.

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