RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: A country as good as its dish towels

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

FISHTRAP HOLLOW – Today it is raining dogs; the cats have drowned. So, to bring a little sunshine into the kitchen, across my ancient red-and-white enamel table where my late mother-in-law used to serve sumptuous meals, I throw a bright aqua towel bought in a little French town called Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
My journal shows I bought the pretty cloth on a Thursday, market day in that town, which means the beautiful place devoted its entire center – the central square and twisting streets and alleys shooting off like modifiers from a conjugated sentence – to colorful, if temporary, commerce.
Now you see it, now you don’t.
The huge umbrellas and elaborate displays are up by 9 a.m. and gone shortly after noon. It seems magical that such a storybook scene can be created so fast and then disappear just as quickly. Centuries of practice explain the magic.
The outdoor weekly markets in every burg and city and Paris neighborhoods, too, is the Frenchy-est thing about France for my money. And my money always helps keep the tradition alive when I’m in France.
I have no trouble resisting the glamorous department stores and the high style along the sparkling Champs-Elysees. I find it much harder to save a euro in the outdoor markets.
The produce alone is worth the trip. The pumpkins fascinate me, varieties I never see in this country. I’ve admired big pumpkins next to Christmas trees in Paris, which indicates that a Frenchman gets his money’s worth. Pumpkins don’t get the boot right after Halloween.
Entire booths are devoted to cooking spices, or eggs, or fresh yogurt sold in glass jars, not greasy plastic cartons. Local honey and homemade sweets are everywhere. The cheese vendors insist that you try their offerings before buying, and I always offer up a greedy hand on a twisted arm.
Almost every food item is extremely local. In Normandy you get Normandy cheese. In Provence you get Provencal honey.
As delightful as is the market’s food section, I usually find myself unconsciously hurrying till I reach the tablecloths and dish towels. They are my weakness. French fabric can be washed a thousand times and still look good.
And though more and more, you have to check and make sure the fabric is French and not marked “Made in China,” the native stuff is quality. Even the French oilcloth is superior – the kind your grandmother used to use – and available in a thousand patterns. I once packed enough oilcloth to cover the top half of Mississippi all over Europe. Trust me, it’s heavy.
This may be a silly way to judge a nation’s productivity, but I think maybe a country is only as good as its dish towels. When a nation takes pride in its products, even the lowliest and most utilitarian items, it says something.
I once took a working container ship across the Atlantic and back. On the trip over, the containers were 80 percent empty. On the return trip, the container cars were full. That said a lot.
Maybe you’ll tell me where you can buy fine dish towels made in America. I’d love to be told. Our textile mills seem to have been relocated. And along with them our jobs.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.