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One of my aha moments in Philly was when I found out that the creamy Philadelphia cheese is not actually from Philadelphia. “It’s just the name,” said a local acquaintance, who urged me to visit the ‘soul’ of the city for an authentic food experience. It turned out to be the Reading Terminal Market, a bustling indoor market, touted to be the USA’s largest and oldest public market.
Stepping into the market in Centre City is a warm experience. Not the stuffy kind of warm but the fuzzy feeling that comes with being amidst delicious aromas and conversation wafting over soft pretzels and sizzling grills.
I was told to do “first things first, and head straight to the Dutch Eating Place for breakfast”. Of course, the rows of stalls – over 75 of them selling fresh produce, free range meat, eggs, poultry, baked goods, savories, spices, ethnic food, chocolates, cheese, handmade crafts, jewellery, perfumes, and clothing – made “going straight to a stall” harder.
But there it was, with high chairs at a counter for a sit-down breakfast. It seemed like a popular breakfast place, for the counter was packed elbow-to-elbow!
From freshly-squeezed orange juice, apple cinnamon French toast to blackberry pancakes, there is a lot of Pennsylvania Dutch fare on the menu.
“We serve burgers, deli sandwiches, chicken and waffles, pork soup, shoo fly pie (made with molasses) and chicken pot pie,” said the lady at the cash counter.
She smiled knowingly when I asked for a warm apple dumpling. The iconic eatery is famous for this sinful treat of whole cored apple wrapped in pastry and baked till it slumps in the centre into a gooey cinnamon-scented sweet core and then served hot with cool heavy cream.
Strolling around the market is serendipity on a loop. Every stall has something special and unique. For instance, there are soft butter-dipped Amish-style pretzels at Miller’s Twist, cheesesteaks at Spataro’s Cheesesteaks which incidentally has been around since 1947, cookies at Famous 4th Street Cookie Company – the list simply goes on and on.
miller's pretzels in Philadelphia US
A little trivia: there are quite a few stalls which sell cheesesteak which is essentially grilled beef and onions in a toasted roll or hoagie, and was originally invented by two Philly brothers. Today, the famous Philly dish is casually referred to as tourist traps.
However, most of the above-mentioned businesses are family-owned, with a few that are from the time Reading Terminal Market started operations in 1893.
The Reading Railroad company built the marketplace to accommodate all the grocers, fishmongers, bakers, butchers who were peddling their wares outdoors in a new terminal below its train shed.
The market survived the Great Depression, the plague, struggled through the lean years of the ’70s and got a shot in the arm with a lavish revival in the ’90s. When COVID struck, the businesses were almost gutted. One of the owners at a butcher stall said the market literally grounded to a halt.
“There was no one in here except for a few of us,” he said. “Those long months of uncertainty resulted in merchants struggling to stay afloat even though rent and merchant fees were deferred. This place was sad.”
There were GoFundme campaigns for the merchants and many loyal customers kept ordering from their vendors to help them survive. A regular to the market spoke of the rising prices, calling it understandable but customers like herself do feel the pinch. “I used to buy food from an affordable buffet place but that’s closed now,” she said. “Most of the food costs higher than what I would pay before COVID.”
Looking at the crowds in the market now, the struggle seems to be easing out. The eateries, tucked at the back, too have customers. Post COVID, a Filipino restaurant and the market’s first Black-owned bakery have opened. Tourists are coming back but the merchants know that their loyal customers have helped prop up the market through the pandemic.
“We survived because of people’s kindness,” said the butcher. “We survived because of the good people in the city.”
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Copyright © e-Eighteen.com Ltd All rights resderved. Reproduction of news articles, photos, videos or any other content in whole or in part in any form or medium without express writtern permission of moneycontrol.com is prohibited.

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