To Market, To Market – In Search Of Delights At The Reading Terminal Market

By Wendy Plump

Photography by Christine Hutkin

What exactly is a burdock root? For that matter, what do you do with an emu egg, or yellow carrots? And since we are on the topic, how do you “French” a London broil, can you put beef jerky in a blender, and what sort of meal would you make out of stinging nettles? There are many ways to answer these pressing questions. But it is more fun posing them. The very best place to do both of these things, and many others besides, is the historic, rollicking, inspiring, 122-year-old, variegated, festive, processing-difficultyinducing Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. I had not visited in years, which seems almost shameful for a Bucks County girl. So in early May I decided to see why the Market is Philadelphia’s most popular tourist destination, with 6.4 million visitors last year alone. Not even the National Constitution Center just down the street can lay claim to such numbers, and it’s got the Liberty Bell. Depending on how you define markets, Reading Terminal is the oldest continuously-operating food market in the country. Its antecedents go all the way back to the late 17th century. It is generally understood that there are only two worthy rivals on the continent – Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver. Apart from these, the Reading Terminal Market stands alone.

Since I am not a foodie and would be ill-advised to make anything in the kitchen except ice cubes, I called on my childhood friend Christine Giles Hutkin, and invited her along one morning to investigate with me. Hutkin is a food blogger and a cook in Bucks County, and years ago operated Jacqualin et Cie cooking wares shop in Lahaska, Pa. with her mother Jackie Giles. She knows her way around the Market. “I am in frigging heaven,” Hutkin said not three minutes after we arrived.

There is only one way to do the Reading Terminal Market, she explained, and that is the simplest: Plunge right in. Pick a door and walk through it. It hardly matters how you get inside, as you will be rewarded with an onslaught of delights at every turn. One corner will present a dazzling array of pickles in standing barrels of brine. Another, a raw bar groaning with oysters, shrimp and mussels. Still another, the most astonishing assortment of produce you will see this year, at a stall bursting with mangoes and peppers and greens enough to make a goat swoon.

Go early, and plan to stay awhile. There is enough at the Market to occupy several hours’ worth of drooling and craving, and no end of meals to dream up with the seduction of all that food.

APPROACH WITHOUT CAUTION

“The Market is best approached as a personal experience of discovery no matter which door you enter,” said Paul Steinke, the general manager since 2001. “I think there is something to the element of surprise and delight as you round a corner and see something you haven’t seen before. This is one of the core appeals of the Market.”

Laid out like a grid of streets and avenues (look up to see the street signs dangling above for orientation), the Market has 77 full-time vendors and a handful of part-timers. They offer everything from tripe to cheesesteaks to cookbooks to fish heads to chicken & waffles (that’s one entree) to chocolate to flowers to lavender-scented whoopee pies. (I tried them. They are righteous.) And they do it in a national landmark building that has been a venue for city laborers and residents since 1892. That is when the Market was established at its current site.

Philadelphia’s original public market sprouted up on Front and High (now Market) Street in the 1680s, when farmers and fishermen from southern New Jersey gathered there to sell their wares. By the 1790s, the gathering had evolved into a string of food sheds, or “shambles,” that ran down the center of High Street. It was not until 1860 that the Butchers’ and Farmers’ Market officially opened indoors in the 1100 block of Market Street. When the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company bought the block in 1890 to consolidate its four terminals, the farmers pushed back. They refused to vacate the spot. So the railroad agreed to build the Market beneath its train shed and tracks. It has occupied the block ever since.

The non-profit Reading Terminal Market Corporation was established in 1994 to manage the site. It has an operating budget of just $4.5 million, with annual gross sales of between $45 and $50 million.

“The Corporation was created to preserve the site as an urban farmer’s market, where country meets city. We are mission-driven, not financially driven. In leasing, our first priority is given to local and regional foods,” explained Steinke. “We are popular with tourists. But we think that’s because we cater to the local market and local tastes, and therefore draw local shoppers. Tourists find that fascinating because they see it as a genuine experience.”

PLAY WITH YOUR FOOD

Trotting along behind Hutkin that morning at the Market, I had the sensation of learning a new language, or at least a new way of seeing food. Produce as possibility. Food as creative expression. It was the kind of experience you can only have when there is so much bounty and diversity spread out before you that the most inventive impulses come into play.

We lingered, for instance, in front of the glass cases at the Golden Fish Market (B11). My eyes took in the assortment of boneless shad, smelts, cooked crawfish the color of a bayou sunset, Chesapeake oysters, and fish heads for bouillabaisse.

“I would recommend that anyone do a walkthrough before buying anything,” said Hutkin. “That’s how I approach any market I don’t know, and I’ve been to a lot of markets here and in Europe. I talk to the vendors because they always want to talk about their food. The cheese, the fish, the breads. They say, ‘What are you looking for?’ and they’ll make suggestions.”

“Sometimes I’ll have a purpose in mind when I come here. But I really like to just go and see what is freshest, like these prawns. Look at them! You only get eight in a pound. Look how big they are! You can’t get these in grocery stores. How much are the prawns?” she said, leaning boldly into the counter. Hutkin has learned to make herself heard. That is not a necessity at the Market so much as a good excuse to be loud.

We stopped in next at Kauffman’s Lancaster County Produce (B9). Most of the Market’s northwest corner is devoted to the Amish, with bakeries, farm-raised poultry and pork, milk and cream, hot pretzels, and smoked and cured meats. Hutkin picked up a jar of fig jam. I was mystified. She had already decided how to use it, it was going on crostini, with a dab of goat cheese, “and maybe a basil leaf on top.”

The Hatville Deli is close by, too (A9). Hutkin’s eagle gaze was drawn immediately to the array of meats, the scrapple, and the homemade jerky, and the sousse. Again, I drew a blank.

“This is a real Philly staple,” Hutkin said, miffed at my ignorance. “Where do you get sousse except in Lancaster County? It’s the ham meat and the fat and the gelatin all pressed into a loaf. Here, try a piece.” She loved the taste of it. I recoiled in horror, and instead took my vegetarian sensibilities over to the Four Seasons Juice Bar (A6) for a restorative shot of wheatgrass.

But that is the joy of the Reading Terminal Market. There truly is something for everyone. Venturesome tastebuds are rewarded at Keven Parker’s Soul Food Café (A5), Nanee’s Indian-Pakistani Kitchen (C4), or Olympia Gyro (A8). The more conventional, not to say loyal, customers go straight to market stalwarts like Dinic’s hot roast beef and pork (B5), the Famous 4th Street Cookie Company (A2), or Old City Coffee (A3 and C12).

There are nearly 25 takeout stalls and restaurants at the Market along with the produce, meat, seafood and poultry, and grocery vendors. The morning we visited, it looked like an entire bleacher of Eagles fans had emptied out in front of Spataro’s Cheesesteaks (C7). The Mezze Mediterranean Foods (B6) offered sandwiches as big as my laptop. And the Fair Farm Foodstand (A9) had a run on ramps, those oniony-garlicky greens that appear only in the early spring. One 50-ish gentleman gently shouldered us out of the way to get at them.

“I got an email that the ramps were in!” he offered by way of apology. I asked him what he was going to do with his allotment, a bursting bag of green stems and tiny white bulbs. He said he would cook them up with some fried brussel sprout leaves. I invited myself to dinner.

FOOD AS PHILOSOPHY

“I think for the last few decades since the TV dinner was invented, the family meal has not been as important. Look at all the processed food sold in this country,” said Hutkin, waxing philosophic as we sat together over thick falafel sandwich from Kamal’s Middle Eastern Specialties (A7). “I don’t buy anything in a box. I make everything from scratch because I think that’s how you should eat.

“If I’m buying vegetables, I want to talk to the farmer who grew them. If I’m going to eat beef, then I want to eat beef that’s breathing the same air I’m breathing. If I’m going to roast a chicken, I don’t let any of it waste. None of it. That’s how our grandparents ate, and they didn’t have the same health issues.”

This is more than just artisanal food as trend. This is food as health, food as medicine, food as familial tradition. All told, it is this philosophy and the rituals that surround it that make the Reading Terminal Market as singular as it is.

“This is a fun place. And the reason why is that the days are never the same. I walk in the door and I never know what I’m going to find. In that respect, it keeps things interesting. You’re very stimulated, all the time,” said Charles Giunta, who has run Giunta’s Prime Shop (C2) since 1995. All told, Giunta has been a butcher for 45 years, running another shop at the market prior to Giunta’s and working in the trade since he was 10 years old.

“I think people should come down here with the idea of spending some time in the market,” Giunta added. “We have our regulars. They come in on Saturday morning, and, boom, boom, boom! They’re done. But for the rest, come in with the idea that you want to shop and leave time for that. Because you could have conversations with 20 different vendors in one morning. If you do it that way, you’re going to have a good feeling, and you’re going to appreciate the way we do things here.”

So after getting Hutkin’s London Broil “frenched”– cut wafer thin–at Giunta’s, we sauntered past more stalls. I fired off questions at Hutkin. Picking up red beets, I asked what she would do with them. Roast them and throw them in a salad with goat cheese, was the answer. Pork Roast? Butterfly it and cover it with provolone and proscuitto; then sauté swiss chard and garlic, and roll it all up. Jicama? Slice it thin on a mandoline and roast the chips with a little salt and olive oil. That emu egg? Make a huge omelette with it. A simple lemon? Use the zest to make lemonade so that you do not need as much sugar.

It may be hyperbole, but the Reading Terminal Market can be transforming. There are nearly 80 vendors ready to explain why in terms both homey and authentic. The proof is on offer to all. Before I left the Market that morning, I bought a bag of stinging nettles and an emu egg. It seemed like the beginning of something.

THE READING TERMINAL MARKET IS LOCATED AT 12TH AND ARCH STREETS IN PHILADELPHIA, PA. IT IS OPEN FROM 8 A.M. TO 6 P.M. MONDAY THROUGH SATURDAY; 9 A.M. TO 5 P.M. SUNDAY. SPECIAL, TWO-HOUR PARKING FOR $4 IS AVAILABLE TO MARKET PATRONS. THE MARKET WEBSITE INCLUDES LISTINGS FOR MARKET EVENTS, COOKING CLASSES, TOURS, AND VENDOR INFORMATION. MAPS OF THE MARKET ARE AVAILABLE AT ANY OF THE ENTRANCES, AND THROUGHOUT THE FLOOR.

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