Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Venture Beyond My Borders: Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, PA

Exiting the SEPTA train station, my skin prickled from the shock of the cold December air, while I was shuffled along the sidewalk amongst the beeline of business people making their way to the nearest eatery for their lunch break. City crosswalks worked much like mechanical cogs of a clock: intricate, effective and functional. Each piece was waiting to be triggered, to proceed to a specific place all within a set time. Cars rumbled and roared as they stalled at stoplights, like horses behind cages at the Kentucky Derby, ready to spring into action when the moment called. But this could be the description of quite a few major cities. What made Philadelphia so incredible during this trip was Reading Terminal Market.

Slipping underneath an old overpass, we walked down the dark concrete slabs of sidewalk into shadow. Entering through an unassuming doorway alongside the package boys, who filed in with an assortment of brown boxes, we came upon Philadelphia’s festival of food. Warm scents, brilliant colors, glowing fluorescent light and bodies danced franticly around us as we stepped foot into the market.

Like a sponge, I tried to absorb it all at once, but this overloaded my normal level of sensory absorption. Though my approach to life is often one of constant awe and intrigue, I was in this instance the proverbial “kid in the candy store”. But this time I had lucked out on the candy store. Reading Terminal Market had it all, from the hundreds of hanging dried spices, canned key lime jelly and pumpkin butter, and eccentric seafood [where squid live in Philly, I do not know] to the burlap sacks of toasted coffee beans and red, raw slabs of meat. There were so many displays. I wanted to touch, to taste, to eat! But like any museum, I was separated from further exploration by only a pane of glass and the ca-ching of a cash register.

This was the type of chaos that enveloped you. All your senses taken captive. Eyes bombarded by splashes of color from mounds of fresh fruit, still looking succulent and crisp without the glossy sheen of wax. Your nose begins to lust for the buttery, hot cross rolls that awaited you at the bakery. The air was so thick with smells of ethnic foods wafting from around the globe, you could almost taste the individual dishes as we passed. Mmm, some spicy Pad Thai. Oh yum! Tasty sliced salami and creamy havarti on rye sandwiches.

When you are there, you feel like you are on a culinary carousel, movement swirling around you. It’s near impossible decide which aisle to meander down, and if you blinked you would surely miss something. Many warm bodies cram into this colossal warehouse-like market, and most seemed purposeful. Although I am no native and had absolutely no idea where I was going, I was right at home surrounded by the sights and sounds of hundreds of people chatting while chomping down on good eats like freshly ground Italian sausages, warm soft pretzels, and lots of macaroni salads. I crave this type of madness, the sort of food and atmosphere that creates this fantastic feeding frenzy. Once you dissolve into the sea of people wavering in and out of kiosks and outlets, tasting food and purchasing items, you can completely enjoy yourself.

Tantalized. Enraptured. I wanted to walk away pockets filled to the brim and overcoat bulging with cheeses, sweet pickles, cinnamon rolls, and truffles but a thin holiday wallet would keep me from doing that. Ah well, we all want what we cannot have, right? C’est la vie. Even with all the mouthwatering food found at any given outlet, we settle in for a “Down Home Burger”, just to decide if they could do even this classic American staple better than the rest. With my first bite I expel the anxiety that it will be some rubber-stamped, cookie-cutter restaurant patty. No, they did this one right. It’s more like those hand-molded burgers you grill up over charcoal during the summer, with friends surrounding. It was a juicy burger with a cheddar cheese personality melting down the sides. Essential to the sandwich is the bun, oh and it was hot from the oven in all its buttery glory [we had an inkling that perhaps the burger place had set-up a secret co-op with the bakery down the way]. Salty, crispy fries scattered the rest of the plate; a cheeseburger’s eternal escort. The chow down that ensued was messy bliss, and many napkins were necessary. All said and done, I left the booth fully satisfied, a welcome change from months spent eating college cafeteria food. A mid-afternoon feast, bulging in my belly, was the only appropriate way to end the excursion a la Reading Terminal Market.

In the end, this trip to Reading was all about the eye candy. I didn’t eat as much as I wanted to, but I devoured the atmosphere as much as the food. And it definitely has me coming back for seconds!

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