Sunday, November 15, 2009

Forgotten Foods Remembered

Yesterday's Forgotten Foods Festival at the Reading Terminal Market opened my eyes, and tastebuds, to some old-time flavors of Philadelphia and envir0ns. By the time I left the market shortly after 11 a.m. (the festival began an hour earlier), center court was crowded with regular shoppers, the normal passel of tourists, foodies drawn by the festival, and early Christmas shoppers attracted by the Philadelphia Museum of Art's annual crafts show across the street at the Convention Center.

A particular revelation to me was the Cape May Salts, an oyster brought back from oblivion a few years ago by Atlantic Cape Fisheries, a Cape May-based company. Once upon a time the Delaware Bay was teeming with oysters, hence the proliferation in the late 19th and early 20th centurys of oyster houses in Philadelphia, once as common as today's pizza parlors, according to Atlantic Cape. In the 1950s, disease wiped out the commercial oyster industry in Delaware Bay. It took the development of disease-resistant oysters by Rutgers University and Atlantic Capes to reestablish the commercial oyster in Delaware Bay. (The Cape Mays were dispensed by the Fair Food Farmstand's Forgotten Foods stall.)

Oysters from New England, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic are traditionally briny, but the Cape May Salts deserve their adjectival moniker more than most. The salt flavor is pronounced and delicious; these would be perfectly accompanied by a local lager, say Yuenglings or Yards.

Oysters also appeared in one of the offerings from Pearl's Oyster Bar. I've haven't eaten at Pearl's recently because previous times I'd eaten there I was disappointed: the snapper soup was way too gloppy, and the breading on the fried seafood way too doughy. That wasn't the case with what I sampled yesterday. The large, Chesapeake-style oysters in the Oyster and Chicken Salad sample was more modestly breaded and perfectly fried, the chopped chicken bound with as little mayonnaise as possible. Put them together and you've got a ying-yang food with much appeal. The little sample of Snapper Soup also was unlike what I tried previously. It might have had some corn starch to give it body, but not much. Based on these two items I'm going to give Pearl's lunch counter another try.

Old style oyster crackers -- Old Trenton Crackers -- were the media used for conveying the freshly grated horseradish offered by Hershel's East Side Deli. The pungency of the fresh grated variety is head and shoulders over the jarred imitators. Because Hershel's used an electrically-powered mechanical grater, it lacked the frisson provided by the knuckle skin that found its way into the condiment that accompanied our gefilte fish during the Pesachs of my youth.

Another revelation could be found in the black walnut cupcakes sold by Fair Food. The cupcakes, made by Flying Monkey Patisserie, used black walnuts from Green Meadow Farm, one of Fair Food's suppliers. Topped with a cream cheese-buttercream frosting, these are among the best tasting "adult" cupcake I've ever sampled.

Another dessert offered was teaberry ice cream from Bassetts. While the small cup I tasted was as creamy and rich as any produced by Bassetts, the teaberry flavor (one I always enjoyed in gum) failed to impress as an ice cream. The flavor, much like wintergreen mint, was too bubble-gummy for me, especially with its neon pink color.

The only other item I tried as the festival was the corn pudding offered by Pennsylvania General Store, made with Copes corn, a dried, toasted Pennsylvania Dutch staple. Cooked to a bread-pudding like consistency and accented with what I took to be little bits of dried fruit, this was a wonderful combination of savory and sweet. It would make a fine addition to anyone's Thanksgiving table.

Among the items I missed was the liverwurst from S&B Meats and Down Home Diner's catfish on waffles, served by Jack McDavid. If anyone can report on those items, or any other I've missed, please do!

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