Wednesday, June 15, 2005
Pick up old-style value
By Kevin Hopper
For the Journal
TO MARKET, TO MARKET: In the last half century, grocery shopping has changed dramatically. Though I've been around to see only part of it, I do remember a time when scanners had yet to be invented, the largest bottle of ketchup you could buy was 16 ounces (not 64) and you could actually smell the produce in the produce section.
However, I don't remember there not being a supermarket. I don't remember a time when a large grocery store was only 1,000 square feet, or a time when products were behind a counter lined with stools for patrons. And I certainly don't remember a time when grocery stores delivered. However, I recently spoke to someone who did remember such things, because she had been working in such a place since she was practically old enough to walk.
Clara Martinez, whose maiden name was Sanchez, still runs the store her father, Manuel Sanchez, opened in 1926. Located on Edith between Lomas and Central just east of Downtown, Manuel's Food Market, like the grocery industry itself, has seen many changes over the past few decades. A few things that haven't changed however are the size of the store, the lack of bulk items and the fact that the most exotic food there is probably bananas. But the most impressive mainstay is delivery service.
Martinez and her husband, Richard, probably have the most humble grocery store in the city. There's absolutely nothing fancy about the place, unless you consider Richard's wood carvings, which he does in front of the soda pop refrigerator. There are, curiously enough, three kinds of linoleum on the floor and, as Manuel was the Democratic Party chairman of his ward for many years, political campaign posters on the walls, including an ominously large portrait of Franklin Roosevelt.
If you're expecting edamame, organic vegetables, German mustard or Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, you've most certainly come to the wrong place. The products in Manuel's are your every day, run of the mill foodstuffs, the same stuff that lined my mother's cabinets when I was a kid. Canned goods such as beets, corn, green beans and the like take up a good amount of the shelf space. There's also an unusually large selection of canned fish, which Clara told me the store used to sell at 12 cans for a dollar. I paid 85 cents for one can of "bite-size herring in Louisiana hot sauce." Placed atop a Saltine cracker, it tasted pretty much like you'd expect it to taste.
The bread variety at Manuel's is simple white or wheat. There are no 5-, 12- or 24-grain breads, no panini and certainly no French bread. You want corn meal? No problem. You want wheat germ? Sorry.
As expected, there's frozen green chile, dried red chile, hominy, lard, beans, rice and anything else you would need to mix up a traditional New Mexican feast. Though Clara says the store used to also be a deli she also claims she was a pretty good butcher there are only a few cuts available in the freezer section, including ground beef and stew meat. Basic stuff.
Which to me is the most beautiful thing about Manuel's. Clara began writing down a few spellings and such for this story on an old pad of paper with the name of the store, phone number and address. The phone number read "CH. 2-5977." Which means she hadn't bought pads of paper since probably the '50s or '60s. No need, really. Those old pads of paper still work. That's the feeling you get when you're in Manuel's. You feel like a part of history.
Clara brought out a few pictures for me to look at. One of Manuel with his fishing buddy, former Albuquerque Mayor Clyde Tingley, another with a famous actress I was too young to recognize and one of Clara herself, at age 10, looking bright-eyed from behind the counter. Canned food lined the walls behind her, and her father, dressed in a deli apron, didn't look a day over 25.
Though the counter has disappeared, the deli is no longer there and Manuel passed on in 2000, Clara and her charming smile remain. She has worked in this grocery store her entire life, surviving the onslaught of the supermarket and now the mega marts with 64-ounce ketchup, tents, clothes and big screen televisions. It's a place like Manuel's that really brings you down to Earth. And be reminded, they still deliver.
Manuel's Food Market
LOCATION: 601 Edith NE
HOURS: Monday-Sunday 7 a.m-7 p.m.