by David Cecelski
On my way to the farm early this morning, I found a wondrous array of street foods, backyard cookery, and fresh produce at the Brightleaf Flea Market in Smithfield. Located in and around an old tobacco warehouse on US 301—once famous as “Tobacco Road”—the flea market attracts hundreds of vendors, most (but hardly all) of them new immigrants from Mexico andCentral America.
There was something for everyone. Next to the Neuse River, on the flea market’s south side, I found volunteers from the BibleBelieving Baptist Church serving fried fish, greens, and cornbread. A few stalls away, a young guy named Mike proudly opened his cast-iron cooker and showed me his barbecued ribs and chicken.
Nearby, the ladies at a food truck called Tacos Deliciosos prepared tlayudas, a very traditional dish in Oaxaca, in southernMexico. I had never seen them before in North Carolina. Made almost like a pizza with a flat, crispy tortilla, the tlayudas had a base of refried beans and probably a little grease, then layers of lettuce, meat, avocado, tomatoes, and radishes.
At a taqueria called Los Comadres, the cooks stirred a big pot of menudo. At Taco Jasmin, Mexican girls and their mothers cut up watermelon slices in a tent outside their food truck. They were cooking barbecue beef ribs and chickens inside—I could smell the salsa verde. Next door, another taqueria advertised two specials for the day: coctels camarones (shrimp cocktails) and mojarros fritos (fried fish).
At a little place near the river, I tried a mouthwatering bowl of posole, a very traditional Mexican soup made out of whole hominy, meat, and chiles. I didn’t see a name on this taqueria, but if you go, look for the rubber chicken dangling from their tent’s rafters. The cooks said that they were from Guanajuato, a city in Mexico’s central highlands famous for its mummies, for being the birthplace of the great muralist Diego Rivera, and for its food.
Other vendors sold popcorn, candy, seafood, cold drinks, and fruit and vegetables. And at Ruby’s Produce, you could get fresh tortillas. An old woman sat next to a cooler filled with the tortillas wrapped in dish towels to keep them warm. There was also a fellow selling some handsome live chickens, turkeys, ducks, and rabbits.
As I sat at the Guanajuatan café, the crowd grew even larger. Many of the shoppers came straight out of Johnston County’s tobacco fields. Some arrived in church vans and others in buses provided by the farmers who employed them. The atmosphere was lively and festive.
There were lots of happy children, too. The vendors’ older kids seemed proud to translate for their parents and grandparents when they had English-speaking customers, while the younger set played games and enjoyed the flea market’s pony rides and video arcade. I kid you not about the pony rides—this fabulous flea market has everything, including a Sunday school. You can’t visit without feeling excited about what’s happening on Tobacco Road.
The Brightleaf Flea Market is located a 2320 S. Brightleaf Blvd. (US 301) just south of Smithfield. It’s open 8 AM to 5 PM on Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.