I spent three days in Philadelphia and on each day I found myself in Reading Terminal Market. On my first morning, I woke up hungry and in need of a plan. Googling ‘places to eat in Philadelphia’ Reading Terminal Market perched proudly up top and with reader reviews punctuated with exclamation marks and excitable acronyms I ceased the search. I told my brother, (Raymond, who was meeting me that morning), I’d see him there. Convenient from Franklin Station and with over 80 stalls, I hoped my indecisive diet and Ray’s hefty appetite would be fed. ‘Sounds good. I just need to eat’ he replied.
I arrived early to luxuriate in procrastination. I was on holiday and would not be rushed. The UberPool rocked up to a large neon retro sign over the threshold declaring my arrival. Already it looked legit. I praised the gods of Google. The market spread like a hug around the entire block. I opened the bottle green doors, my attention winking fondly at the sign noting ‘no grumpy people’ alongside a short list of other reasonable rules. I entered the throng, breathed in the smells, melted at the sights. My stomach blushed at the pleasures it was about to receive.
The grid of eateries sprawls into a blurry horizon of hungry diners and enthusiastic vendors. The world’s cuisine is on this immersive menu and indulges its visitors galaxies beyond the native fodder of American pancakes and burgers, and the more specific to the state, Philadelphian cheesesteaks and hoagies. Side by side live Amish rib BBQs and New Orleans Gumbo. Moist cookies next to freshly-whizzed juice or swollen prawns. Shucked oysters from Pearl’s Bar diner next to billowing scoops of excitingly-flavoured ice-cream from Bassets (America’s oldest Ice Cream company). Middle Eastern baklava sodden in syrup from Kamal Albarouki’s are neighbours to Greek ‘spanikopita from scratch’ at Olympia Gyro.
I needled through the crowd, peered over shoulders and peeked into sizzling pots and pans. I wanted to taste it all and rued the day god decided one stomach was enough.
First, coffee. A circuit told me Old City Coffee ruled this roost and joined the line. This market is full of queues of rare patience. The calm despite the crowds perhaps provide a place to meditate on eventual gratification. The stand was well-employed and the line swiftly shrunk to my turn. Sights and smells intensified as the caffeine surged my empty engine and I plodded around in the gear of a museum stroll registering each cuisine to ensure my choice was wise.
Few things are more mesmerising than watching food be lovingly-prepared. The rolfing care given to slabs of meat as pepper and spice is kneaded into thick flesh; I’ve had less tender care from expensive massages. Witnessing the construction of a doughnut, from gummy dough plunged in hot oil to be yanked out, flicked with glaze, powdered with frost, or pumped of jam, apple or custard, is as delicious to the eyes as it is for the gut.
To add ceremony to our visit I thought a sit-down brunch for Ray’s arrival would be nice. Besides I could tell he was ‘hangry’* thanks to being lost in the city on an empty belly. To tame annoyance on both our parts I illuminated the strain of decision, plus I had found a mecca and didn’t want to ruin my celestial experience with his primitive need to just eat ‘anything’. I stuck our name on a waitlist for Molly’s Malloy (after spying someone’s seductive grilled cheese sandwich).
Ray and I ordered a Mushroom Philly Cheesesteak and a ‘Not Your Mamma’s’ Grilled Cheese Sandwich which I sexed-up with a sunnyside egg much to the delight of the waitress who said ‘my, you know what you’re doing!’ My fingers were soon lightly greased with fried bread which bookended the tangy feta, wilted spinach and sweet onion. Ray’s blank stare was soon replaced by wide eyes of awe now his hunger was less distracting. ‘This tastes so much like steak’ he remarked through a mouthful of tender mushrooms substituting the traditional beef fill. Full and happy we sloped off indulging on $2 warm chewy oatmeal cookies from the Famous Fourth Street Cookie Company.
I woke up the next day fantasising about the ‘iconic’ Dutch Eating Place with the longest queues. At the nib of the line diners with eyes bigger than their belly perched on stools, grazing elbows and negotiating jaws around girthy pancakes as wide as cowpats.
It was a no-brainer to return knowing no eatery in Philadelphia could beat the Market which is conveniently open every day. I Ubered down, this time solo. Ravishing a city on your own can be daunting, but being a Londoner and raised by a market stall holder, I found comfort beyond the culinary of embracing the cocktail of fragrances, the snappy but chummy esteem of the vendors and the diversity of the goods crafted with bare hands at twilight hours. It felt like walking into a childhood bedroom.
Being Sunday, some stalls were shut, and the Dutch Eating Place was closed. I happily settled for a calorific feast from Pearl’s Oyster Bar to procrastinate over a peanut butter and banana stuffed french toast or a Belgian waffle. The waffle won and I was soon forking a toasty breakfast akin to a soft syrup-drizzled frisbee.
I went about my day. Came back for lunch with every intention to get something green to pay redemption to the smut of my breakfast. The lush Iovine Brothers greengrocer which sprawls across a whole corner pops with colours of ravishing red peppers and strawberries and the dragon greens of cucumbers and kales. The bowls of ready-made salad only come as oversized basins of leaves and imaginatively sliced veg. It ended up being too much of a faff to enjoy a garden’s worth of leaves so opted for a treat from Hershel’s (aka “the best Jewish deli outside New York.”) which sported long Saturday afternoon queues but this Sunday morning had alluringly empty stools.
For an off the wagon vegetarian I fell hard. Pickle juice escaping down my fingers soggying napkin after napkin, I devoured shavings of greasy beef jammed into a rye sandwich a fork-drop away from limbs of meat being unwrapped from blood-wet plastic. Like many of the 80-odd vendors at the market which has been here since 1893, there’s a story to tell and a legacy to serve. Hershel was a Polish native and chef at New York City’s legendary Katz’s Deli (famed by When Harry Met Sally) for over 40 years.
The veins of Franklin Roosevelt and William Penn surge throughout Philadelphia reminding us that understanding cultural harmony is in the marinade of the State. Here in Reading Terminal Market that embrace of unity and appreciation of difference is paraded better than any museum. Immigrants from each corner of the culinary universe pull out a seat and welcome you to their table.
Here lies one of the largest, oldest, picnics in the world with everyone happily snacking on a buffet of individuality and with reasonable prices throughout, everything feels accessible. Few things are more explicitly sensory to the discovery of a culture than learning how they prepare, enjoy and share their food. It’s the most nourishing way the world shakes hands.
*Hangry – a hunger-induced anger and/or irritability.