In Philadelphia, a Market with Heart, Soul and Scrapple Under the Old Reading Railroad Station
“It’s the closest I can get to a Parisian cafe in Philly,” Ron Cooley says of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia. A thirtyish resident of the city, Cooley frequents the market to sit with pen, paper and coffee. “You see the city’s entire socioeconomic spectrum here.”
Although Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market might not conjure visions of Paris for everyone, the colorful stalls of the historic indoor market--which covers two center-city acres in a revitalizing business district--invite plentiful foot traffic. Office workers stop in for lunch. Construction workers load up on coffee and sandwiches. Area residents browse for fresh produce and meats brought from local farms. Food lovers shop for golden raspberries, pigs’ snouts, licorice twigs or uncut 12-pound loaves of Steinofen Brot (rye bread) among the market’s 70 stalls. Patrons can get their shoes shined, browse through used books or buy hand-spun yarn. Those with time to spend can sit with a cup of coffee or a strawberry lemonade and watch the goings-on.
Unlike shiny modern food emporiums, the market looks like a ragged veteran of consumerism. Three produce stalls, five bakeries, seven meat and poultry purveyors, four seafood stands, 22 restaurants, six specialty groceries, 11 Pennsylvania Dutch merchants and several craft carts fill 12 aisles. Long, linoleum-covered lunch counters throughout the market stay generally filled with patrons slumping over bowls of oyster stew and melting ice cream, or staring purposefully at hefty sandwiches. A towering wall of fresh-cut flowers at the market’s south end contrasts brightly with the terminal’s faded concrete depths. At the seafood counters, hundreds of fish eyes stare up from beds of crushed ice. Wafts of chocolate aromas tug the nose toward baking cookies at the Famous 4th St. Cookie Co.
Like their stalls, Reading Terminal Market vendors are an unusual mix: young entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, local farmers and family businesses. Some have been operating since the market’s earliest years. For example, meat purveyor Harry G. Ochs & Son opened in 1906. Now, the fourth generation of Harrys owns the prime meats stall. His son helps run the store.
At Eugene Moyer & Son, Bob Moyer represents the fifth generation in the family butchering business and third generation in the market. A large man with smiling blue eyes, Moyer mentions one key to his business’ longevity: scrapple. The Pennsylvania specialty has been described as the queen of mystery meats. The grayish pork loaf is made from scraps left from butchering, stewed for hours, then bound with buckwheat and corn meal. Moyer’s recipe dates to 1856.
“Most people eat scrapple for breakfast,” Moyer said. To serve it, he recommends frying a half-inch slice for 12 to 15 minutes, then turning the slice over for another 4 to 5 minutes. “It should be crusty outside and soft inside.” Traditional toppings include apple butter, syrup or poached eggs. Despite its dubious reputation, Moyer calls scrapple a healthy food. “It’s got grain, protein, and we skim the fat off during the cooking process.”
The market’s Pennsylvania Dutch section adds a country touch to this inner-city destination. The Amish and Mennonite merchants make the 1 1/2-hour drive from the Pennsylvania countryside each Wednesday through Saturday to bring their baked goods and produce to market. Along the northwesterly isles, Amish women wearing long skirts and white pinafores sell hand-molded breads, towering fruit pies, apple fritters and gooey brown Shoofly pies at Beiler’s Bakery. In another stand decorated with pictures of chickens and geese, a black-vested Amish man sells rows of white and brown eggs. At Fisher’s Dutch Treats, a small production line of bonneted women roll and twist pretzel dough. The hot, buttered soft pretzels that emerge attract a line of customers eager to pay 75 cents apiece.
Busy all day, the market bustles at lunchtime. From 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the drone of exhaust fans is drowned by the conversation of center-city office workers. Towering sandwiches, steaming soups, fresh salads, sushi, falafel and gyros appear on the market’s abundant white cafe tables. On a recent day, three security workers straddling white metal chairs busily unwrapped foil from their barbecued chicken and hoisted jugs of fresh pressed apple cider. Two businessmen nearby grappled with two-fisted roast turkey sandwiches dripping cranberry dressing.
At Olivieri, “Prince of Steaks,” construction workers and designer-clad women line up to buy Philadelphia cheesesteaks. The sandwiches--five ounces of thinly sliced grilled steak and cheese served in an Italian roll--may be the city’s best-known culinary innovation. “We offer American, Cheez Whiz and provolone, but most customers ask for Cheez Whiz,” said owner Rick Olivieri.
The young man stops long enough from unloading Italian rolls to recount the sandwich’s history. “It was my grandfather who made the first cheesesteak,” said Olivieri. “His name was Pat.” In 1932, Pat Olivieri ran a hot dog stand in South Philadelphia. Wanting something different for lunch one day, he sent his brother to buy steak. Olivieri thinly sliced the steak and placed the grilled meat in a hot dog roll. According to the legend, a taxi driver cajoled Olivieri into giving up the sandwich and soon became a regular steak sandwich customer. The original Pat’s Steak still sells cheesesteaks in South Philadelphia ($4.30 each).
Nearby, the Down Home Diner offers patrons a more refined and enclosed dining experience. Chef Jack McDavid has won the hearts of Philadelphia foodies by using market goods in his Southern-inspired menu. Lunch entrees include pan-fried chicken, North Carolina crab cakes and cornbread-crust pizza. The Diner also serves an imaginative breakfast menu featuring such items as tomato-basil juice, venison sausage, flaky buttermilk biscuits with homemade plum jam and a bottomless cup of 200-mile coffee. Lunch prices range from $4 to $10, breakfast from $2 to $8.
The glass counters of Pizza & Pasta by George attract a crowd three deep. The market newcomer opened Nov. 5, 1990, offering golf-ball-size hot peppers stuffed with pink prosciutto or creamy basil fettuccine, among many gourmet salads. Owner George Mickel, Jr. installed an Italian wood-burning stove for his specialty pizza.
At Delilah’s Southern Soulfood Cafe, customers can sit and savor pan-fried fish, fried chicken or egusi, a Nigerian chicken stew. The icy, tart lemonade blushes with strawberry flavor. Delilah stands beneath her hot-pink neon sign. After seven years in the market, her small restaurant is doing fine. “It’s hard work and we never stop,” she said, smiling.
After lunch, a bountiful choice of desserts beckon. Braverman’s Bakery glows with the pinks and blues of ornately frosted cakes. Three revolving display cases house several varieties of Italian cannoli, a crisp pastry shell filled with a sweetened ricotta cheese mixture. Braverman’s offers other Philadelphia food favorites, among them chocolate-covered pretzels, a salty hard pretzel dipped in semisweet, milk or white chocolate. Because Braverman’s bakers make their own confections, they innovate. They’ve added caramel and peanut butter to the pretzel selection.
Annually, more than 75,000 people wander through the Reading Terminal Market’s 12th Street doors to shop and explore the wares of food purveyors and lunch counters, craft carts and flower stands. According to the market’s general manager, William Gardiner, these shoppers are following in the footsteps of 17th-Century Philadelphians. At that time, an open-air market thrived on the spot. When the Reading Railroad chose the market site for a train terminal, it built the indoor facility to replace the open-air one. The trains arrived and departed on tracks above the market, which occupied the terminal’s ground level. But by 1985, the new Market East Station had opened and trains no longer rolled in and out of the Reading Terminal.
In 1990, the market changed ownership, and the new owners, the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority, planned to turn the abandoned Reading train shed into a new city convention center. With that came the fear that the market would be closed or dramatically altered. Concerned patrons and merchants successfully rallied on the market’s behalf, and the convention authority agreed to “keep the character of the market,” Gardiner said.
So while the convention authority currently is turning the large domed terminal into a modern convention center, commerce continues virtually uninterrupted in the market below. Some necessary renovations to update plumbing, electrical and kitchen exhaust systems, install floor drainage and rebuild the restrooms will begin in March. The market will remain open during renovation, but some merchants will be temporarily displaced.
As general manager, Gardiner knows the market’s rhythm. Fridays and Saturdays are its busiest days; Wednesdays and Fridays are stocking days. “Thursday is my favorite day,” he said. “All of the merchants are here but without the weekend crowds.” On the second Friday of every month, a jazz quartet sets up near the used book stall. Aptly named, The Reading Terminals jam from noon until 2. When not playing, the band’s members hold unusual day jobs: city housing director, surgeon, architect and judge.
For those who can’t visit the Reading Terminal Market, the Pennsylvania General Store sends gift baskets of Philadelphia treats across the country. Owners Michael and Julie Holahan have gathered the best of Philadelphia and surrounding areas. A Reading Terminal Market gift box offers Olde City Coffee, hard Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels, Down Home Diner preserves and Famous 4th St. cookies for $32.50 plus shipping.
The Holahans will even air express Moyer’s scrapple to the curious, the adventurous or those missing a taste of home.
Reading Terminal Market
Market facts: The Reading Terminal Market, 12th and Arch streets, Philadelphia. Open Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Telephone (215) 922-2317.
The market is within walking distance of most city-center locations. It also is easily accessible by bus and subway surface trolley. The nearest Regional Rail Line stop is the Market East Station. Garage parking for the market is available at 12th and Filbert Street or 11th and Arch Street.
To mail-order foods, contact the Pennsylvania General Store at (800) 545-4891.
For more information: Contact the Reading Terminal Market office at (215) 922-2317. Or the Pennsylvania Bureau of Travel Marketing, 453 Forum Building, Dept. PR 901, Harrisburg, Pa. 17120, (800) 847-4872.