Saturday, February 10, 2007

We're still five weeks away from the vernal equinox, but another sure sign of spring (besides shad) showed up at the RTM this week: pokeweed. Earl Livengood has it. The poke comes courtesy of Earl's friend and neighbor Sam Conslyman who gathers the poke in the fall then buries them in sand and waits for them to pop. Otherwise this week, Earl's offerings were limited to root vegetables, winter squashes and chestnuts.

Hershel's East Side Deli had hoped to be open this weekend but wasn't. Last time I spoke with the proprietor he said he was waiting for final city permits.

After Mark Bittman published his article about mackerel, which he called the "Rodney Dangerfield of the fish world" because it doesn't get any respect, it seems there might have been a run on the species. None was to be found at the RTM today, though last week it was plentiful at $2.49-$2.99/pound. However, Spanish mackerel, a closely related variety and which can be treated the same way, was available at $2.99 at John Yi's and Golden.

Iovine Brothers has some smallish California navel oranges priced at four for a buck, a relative bargain considering the West Coast freeze. In case you haven't noticed, Iovine's now sells milk; it's organic and located in the refrigerated case next to the Filbert Street checkout.

Last month Jim Iovine told me he and his brothers were considering moving their production into the RTM's basement and converting existing "back office" space to additional selling footage. That won't happen anytime soon: Jim says the costs and complexity of installing pumps to dispose of wastewater from the produce washing process make it part of "long term plans" rather than anything in the immediate future. Jim, by the way, is hobbled after tearing his Achilles' tendon while challenging his children in basketball, which required surgery two weeks ago; means he has to give up his winter golf trips to sunnier climes.

Not all the meat at the Fair Food Farmstand comes frozen. Check the refrigerator case and you may find Countrytime pork chops or Meadow Run lamb cubes like I did today. What's available fresh varies each week, depending on stock needs and supplier deliveries.

Here's my shopping list from today:

Black seedless grapes ($1.99/pound)
Fruit salad (one-quart container)
String beans ($1.99/pound)

Pork sausage links

Fingerling potatoes

Brioche bread (one-half loaf)

(Mocha-French Roast blend)

Pork chops (2)
Foster's is leaving the Reading Terminal Market. Proprietor Ken Foster intends to devote all his entrepreneurial energies to expanding his successful presence in Old City. No timing announced other than "later this year" according to the newsletter distributed to merchants.

Foster left bookselling to open the RTM kitchenware store. It soon outgrew its old location (now Blue Mountain Vineyards) and expanded to today's store.

The history of Foster's current space is interesting. When I first started shopping at the RTM in the early 1980s it was the home of the Market Diner, a stainless-steel sided structure within the RTM that, if placed on a roadside, would have been the pluperfect diner. In the mid-1980s the Market Diner was taken over by Jack McDavid and renamed the Down Home Diner. (The illuminated clock from the Market Diner still hangs in today's Down Home Diner on the opposite side of the market; some of the booths and other furnishings, including stainless steel, were transferred there from the original.)

When the Down Home Diner moved the market turned the space into a seating area. Later (about 10 or 12 years ago, iirc) under then RTM Manager Marcy Rogovin a show kitchen was built. Frequent cooking demonstrations and special events centered around the kitchen drew hundreds of spectators at a time, including a series of all-day cook-a-thons in which chefs from local restaurants would rotate throughout the day preparing a wide range of dishes.

Since Foster's expansion into the space the kitchen has been significantly under-utilized. Today it is used only for a modest schedule of cooking classes. As part of a store the kitchen is totally unsuitable for attention-getting events. Now when a demonstration needs to be held with room for more than a half dozen spectators (like the recent Bobby Flay-Delilah Winder mac 'n cheese cookoff), a temporary kitchen must be set up in center court.

Foster's impending move out of the market presents an opportunity to revitalize the kitchen and redevelop it as a traffic-generating facility, which would be good for all merchants at the RTM. Certainly a kitchenware vendor needs to be found to replace Foster's, a project Market Manager Paul Steinke plans to pursue, but there's no need for that vendor to locate in the same space as Foster's.

Instead, the existing kitchen should be returned to its original importance, with a seating area reintroduced. To compensate for the loss of rentable space, the RTM could take the existing seating adjacent to the Fair Food Farmstand and return it to vendor space (which it was until about three or four years ago).

With a restored seating area, the kitchen can once again become the center of culinary celebration and education it was meant to be and serve as traffic-building tool for all the RTM's merchants.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Not too many people noticed (and that's the problem), but the Reading Terminal Market skipped its monthly "Third Thursday / Meet The Producer" event last month.

In fact, the merchants and RTM managers decided to "suspend" the program and instead focus on adding couple of additional special events to the market's calendar, according to Kelly Novak, RTM's Marketing Coordinator.

At this point in time, the RTM is considering a revival of "Maple Daze" for March when Pennsylvania gets sappy, and a "Meet the Producer / Taste the Harvest" event for September. These would be in addition to established special events, like this month's Roots Festival, the Pennsylvania Dutch Festival, and the Sidewalk Sizzle.