At 7:30 am inside the Reading Terminal Market on the day before Thanksgiving there is a mad dash of activity. The green grocers are frantically stacking mounds of collard greens, yams, and onions. Butchers are icing down freshly killed turkeys and the Pennsylvania Dutch bakers are wondering if they’ve made too few or too many pumpkin pies this year. For many of the 80 merchants inside this over 100 year old public market in downtown Philadelphia today is the busiest day of the year.
Outside customers sip coffee provided by Market management as they wait for the Market to open. To pass the time, they map out their strategies for getting their shopping done as quickly as possible. Traditional wisdom holds that you save the heaviest purchases, like turkeys and potatoes, for last, for in this bustling 2-acre public market, jammed full with all manner of fresh and prepared foods, there are no shopping carts or centralized checkout. If, however, you save your turkey purchase until the end of your shopping list, thus avoiding carrying a 20lb bird around for an hour, you may find your favorite butcher surrounded by an impenetrable wall of customers.
At 8:00, as the doors open, the planning stops and the shopping frenzy begins. Couples split up to divide and conquer the shopping list with a promised rendezvous for blueberry pancakes or croissants. As the line at Termini’s Bakery slows to a crawl, good natured patrons start folding the bakery boxes to help speed the process. As the customers move like hordes of locusts through mounds of produce, workers hustle to restock and replenish the ravaged displays. The ticket machine at Godshall’s Poultry completes the first circuit of 001 to 100 and back again. The game is definitely afoot.
In the midst of all this, of harried buying and selling, there is a sense of collegiality. Customers share and debate cooking tips and shopping secrets. “Do you brine your turkey?” “Of course.” “Where do I buy lemon zest?” “You don’t buy it; you get it from peeling or zesting a lemon a lemon.” “Oh thanks.” And despite the pressure to finish waiting on one customer to get to the ones that are waiting, merchants make the time to quickly trade milestones with customers: birthdays, funerals, weddings, etcetera. For customers and shopkeepers alike, today is part business and part family reunion.
At Godshall’s Poultry, the staff works feverishly to keep up with the demand for locally raised, freshly killed turkeys, sage sausage for stuffing, and bacon for the weekend. In between calling out the next number in line or asking “can I get you anything else today?” they pause to advise a nervous first-time Thanksgiving hostess on the ins and outs of cooking the perfect turkey. “Cook it at 350 degrees, 14-15 minutes a pound. If it’s stuffed, you want an internal temperature of 165 degrees. You’ll want to use a meat thermometer. You can buy one down the aisle at the kitchen store. You’re welcome. Good luck. Number 88.” The next day, if all goes according to plan, a beaming young woman will take a bow for serving a Thanksgiving masterpiece and a lifelong customer will be born. It is in these moments that they keys to the Reading Terminal Market’s longevity can be found. For in this exchange of money for merchandise, there is also something more personal and less transactional going on. What happens here day in and day out is not complicated; in fact it is simple, simple and very, very hard to do.
Many of today’s customers first discovered the Market as children brought here by parents or grandparents. No doubt overwhelmed by the crazy quilt of sights, sounds, and smells of the place, they quickly learned the value of patience. For after being dragged from stall to stall seeking the freshest meat or ripest tomatoes, there was always the hope of a dish of Bassetts Ice Cream. Today they return as prodigal sons and daughters of the Market, having moved out to the suburbs away from the row homes where they or their parents were raised. They find themselves drawn back to the city, foregoing supermarkets offering free turkeys to shop in this place where food is not so much a commodity but a central part of someone’s life work. It’s not a sign of unoriginality that leads the shopkeepers to name their stores for themselves, Giunta’s Prime Shop, Bassetts Ice Cream, Beiler’s Bakery, etcetera, but rather a sense of pride in the foods they grow, prepare, and sell.
For those travelling some distance, perhaps the trip to the Reading Terminal Market is not a necessary evil to find what they need to prepare Thanksgiving dinner. The trip itself is an essential part of the Thanksgiving experience; it is the quest that reminds them that preparing and sharing food with the ones they love is a sacred experience. Perhaps today includes the initiation of a young family member into the hurly burly of the Reading Terminal Market, making them part of a tradition that stretches back to 1892, when the Reading Terminal Market first opened its doors to the public, a tradition that hopefully includes a dish of Bassetts Ice Cream.
Michael Holahan, who with his wife Julie, opened the Pennsylvania General Store in 1987, and during his tenure at the Market served three terms as president of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants’ Association. Michael wrote this piece in 2011, and we have been posting it on our website annually ever since. Tragically, Michael passed away suddenly in 2016, but we continue our tradition of posting it as a tribute to his memory.