A Trip to Philly’s Reading Terminal Market

Gourmet Girl - November 13, 2014

Disney World for foodies...

Back in my hometown of Princeton, N.J. for a high school reunion last week, I finally got the chance to visit Philadelphia's famous Reading Terminal Market, one of the country's oldest and biggest public food markets.

Opened in 1892 in the Reading Terminal's former train shed, the market is now part of the Philadelphia Convention Center in the heart of Center City at 12th and Arch streets, and it's long been a utopia for food-lovers. More than 100 merchants offer farm fresh produce, meat and poultry, fresh seafood, baked goods, artisan cheese, breads and coffee, Amish-style pickles, salads, donuts, smoked and cured meats, fudge,flowers, Philadelphia cheese steaks and hoagies , a beer garden and so much more.

A Disneyworld for foodies, the Reading Terminal Market is crammed with regional foods as well as ethnic eateries galore. Scrapple, a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty of pork scraps and cornmeal served fried with ketchup, maple syrup or just plain—is a childhood favorite of mine, and there it was, in bulk, alongside apple dumplings and Shoo Fly Pie, an Amish specialty of molasses, sugar and butter.

But that was just the beginning. As we roamed the crowded aisles of colorful vegetables and fruits, display cases of sausage, steaks and other meats, soft twisted pretzels fresh from the oven, baked goods, jams, jellies and honeys and more, it became clear that this food emporium may have been the inspiration for the modern-day food courts found in malls across America. But there was nary a chain to be found.

Instead, the Down Home Diner offers country recipes like pancakes and omelets as well as scrapple and barbecue, with a vintage jukebox in the middle of it all. Over at Carmen's Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks, folks don't seem to mind waiting in a very long line for some of the city's best Philly cheese steaks. Hershel's East Side Deli serves classic Jewish deli favorites, from reubens made with hand-carved pastrami  to knishes, kugels, latkes and more. Bassett's Ice Cream, America's oldest ice cream business, scoops out different flavors daily. You can also find  Cajun, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Thai and Chinese foods as well as Indian, Pakistani, Szechuan and Soul foods, crepes, weinerschnitzel, spaetzle and Wilbur chocolates from one of the country's oldest chocolate companies, based in Lititz, Pa.

Reading Terminal Market also offers a visual feast, with its colorful throwback neon and hand-painted merchant signs for such eateries as Pearl's Oyster Bar and Sang Kee Peking Duck.  And even though the Amish and Mennonite stands are closed Sunday through Tuesday, the signs for their stalls remain up, inviting you to return on the days they are open.

The Reading Terminal Market opened in 1892 below the tracks of a mammoth new train shed. Occupying a sprawling 78,000 square feet, this was considered the greatest food market in the world and its products reached 60 towns as well as seaside resorts along the Jersey shore via refrigerated railroad cars. A basement held state-of-the-art refrigerated storage area where merchants could stock seasonal items year-round.

The market weathered all kinds of turbulence, from the Great Depression and the rise of competing supermarkets to World War II, when food shortages increased the need for market goods. The market recorded its biggest day ever on May 9, 1946, when more than 12,000 people showed up to shop for meat, pork, poultry and other locally grown foods that couldn't be found anywhere else.

But when the Reading Railroad went bankrupt in 1971, the market nearly collapsed. By the end of that decade, the building was in bad condition, with a leaky roof and only 23 merchant stands.The trains stopped running to the Reading Terminal above the market, and the commuter rail system bypassed the terminal when it was re-routed. In 1990, the new Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority bought the building and re-built the market, following strict historic preservation standards.

Now, more than a 100 merchants purvey their goods to more than 100,000 people who visit the market each week. Three descendants of original market merchants sell their goods there today.  It's a popular venue for weddings, Bar and Bot Mitzvahs, corporate and social events, holiday parties and more. There's even a demo kitchen for private parties and other events, and tours of the market reveal the fascinating history behind the foods of Philly and Pennsylvania, from cheese steaks and hoagies to twisted pretzels and chocolate.

The Reading Terminal Market truly is an iconic place to shop and eat, encapsulating more than a century of American history, and it's virtually impossible to experience it all in a single visit. And while I had no room in my luggage to bring home many of the items I so longed to purchase,  I can order mosst of them online, continuing the market's history of shipping telephone orders to 38 states as well as Mexico and Canada during the 1930s. And, of course, the next time I'm in Philly....I'll be back!

Photos by Lynn Cline