To Market, To Market
How shopping at the Reading Terminal Market shaped the life of a food lover
It’s a few minutes after eight o’clock on a summer Friday morning when my dad and I walk into the Reading Terminal. The market is still stretching its arms, crawling out of that foggy wake-up haze. A few stalls are quiet, waiting for their owners to arrive.
Behind the counter at Metropolitan Bakery, two women are selling oversized pieces of blueberry cake drizzled with a lemon glaze for breakfast (we buy a slice) and loaves of bread for dinner; the fishmongers under the neon sign that reads “John Yi Fish Market: Eat Fish Live Longer” are setting up for the day; and at Kauffman’s, Ben, the keeper of my family’s favorite tomatoes, is tweaking his display. We make our regular rounds, greeting longtime market friends. As we pass Philbert, the bronze pig who sits proudly at the center, I can’t resist giving his head a quick pat for good luck—a habit I started in my childhood, after he first arrived.
Old City Coffee
Philbert the pig at the center of RTM
I grew up here: in Philly and at “the Terminal,” as we call it in my family. Even though I moved away 14 years ago, I still feel like a regular. The Terminal is an extension of our family home and the vendors a part of our family tree. It’s where I first fell for food, where I learned that all great meals start with shopping from vendors you know and trust and where I became conversant in the unspoken language used by those who love to shop for food and cook.
In my earliest Terminal memory, I’m around four years old, standing on my tiptoes atop floors still covered in sawdust, at a now long-shuttered shop owned by an elderly man with a white beard. My mom’s ordering homemade lekvar, or prune jam, to be tucked into hamantaschen for the Jewish holiday of Purim. In my memory the man is Jewish; in my father’s, he’s Amish. Either way, walking away with the plastic containers of sticky filling felt like holding a secret.
A few years later, my parents thought I was old enough to run through the lanes of the market on my own. I was tasked with buying a loaf of bread from Le Bus and meeting back in the center of the market. Somewhere in the 50 feet or so between the two, I lost my way and entered a child-sized state of panic. I looked up at the neon and painted signs, arriving at the marble counter at Bassett’s Ice Cream. Having gained my bearings, I walked back to John Yi’s, determined to convince my parents that we should take a pint of Bassett’s mint-chocolate-chip ice cream home for dessert that evening.
I’m always happiest at the Terminal when I’m standing in front of John Yi’s. No one in the Terminal feels more a part of our family dinner table than our fishmonger, Tang—like a culinary godfather overseeing the meals. My dad often asks Tang: “What do you like?” Other times, when Tang spots my dad he’ll simply say, without prompting, “Have the swordfish, you’ll love it.” It’s his polite way of steering my dad toward what he knows our family likes. Naturally, we take his recommendations.
I grew up here: in Philly and at “the Terminal,”
as we call it in my family.
Iovine’s produce market
Metro Bakery stall
Johnny Yi Fish Market
Johnny Yi Fish Market
A Terminal “block” away, on a recent visit, Ben at Kauffman’s shared his thoughts on the season’s tomatoes. “Here, try the green ones,” he said as his son cut into one, the juices curling around my fingers before I was able to eat it. We took a paper bag full as a gift for my brother.
I live 95 miles from the Terminal, so my visits these days are more a culinary touchstone than a place to shop for dinner, but I’ve taken what my Terminal family taught me on trips to markets where, at times, I couldn’t even converse comfortably with the shop owners.
When I got lost in the labyrinth of Cairo’s souk, I found my way to a plate of foul, or fava bean dip, and a glass of tea with fresh mint. After the meal, in a mix of broken Arabic (me) and English (him), the proprietor pointed me in the right direction. The market code stands.
At home in Brooklyn, I’ve built my own market family in my neighborhood of Cobble Hill, making rounds the same way my father does, finding shop owners who love cooks—like the elderly Italian butcher who insisted on coming out from behind the counter to share his technique for osso bucco when he heard I was ordering veal shanks. Nearby, there’s the cheesemonger in the back of a Middle Eastern grocery who saves parmesan rinds for my winter soups. And, after 14 years of searching, I have resigned myself to the fact that no fishmonger will ever look after me as well as Tang does—but the guys at my local shop will do the trick.
Sadly, there’s no Philbert to say hello to in Brooklyn. For that, I’ll gladly catch a bus to Philly.
READING TERMINAL MARKET
12th and Arch Streets