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Central Market Revisited: Back in Lancaster, PA

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Fitting words to describe Central Market in Lancaster, PA. I’ve written about the market a few times, and that’s because I have such a soft spot for the place. I lived in Lancaster from 2002-2004 — during those two years, the market was a regular fixture of my weekend routine. I loved roaming there, and I’ve missed it terribly since I’ve been gone.

So you can imagine how quickly I bounded out of bed on Saturday morning to drive up to Lancaster. I was excited to attend my friend Denise’s wedding (I’d post a pic of the beautiful bride on her wedding day, but I think she’d kill me), and I was pumped to get to Central Market before changing into suit and tie. Ultra pumped.

Rolling into the city is a mixture of nostalgia, comfort and familiarity. All the street names come back to me. I know where to go without using the GPS. Even with the arrival of new stores and the disappearance of others, the area looks and feels the same.

Here’s the outside of the market.

And inside, the view from one of the new additions, a second floor eating area.

Ground level view.

First stop was a no-brainer: The S. Clyde Weaver stand for a bag of Lancaster beef jerky.

Shoo-fly pie, a Pennsylvania Dutch favorite.

I loaded up on so much produce that I barely had a free hand to take out my wallet.

One of my favorites, the spice stand.

It’s the same guy working there, and the spices are in big jars, like an herbal apothecary. Everything is so cheap compared to the ridiculous prices at the supermarket; a big bag of bay leaves cost me a mere $.50.

Saif’s Middle Eastern Foods where I used to buy spinach pies and samosas.

Picked up one of the wildly spicy samosas and damn near burned my mouth off. It was too hot actually — I think they went a little nuts with the spice.

The Amish Family Recipes stand — couldn’t resist picking up a Blubarb Jam (blueberries and rhubarb) and a bottle of hot sauce.

There are a few new additions to the market, like the salad and African foods stands, but the chicken, seafood, meats, cheese, fudge, bread and crafts stands that I knew — all still there.

Grabbed a fat burrito from Senorita Burrito and lumbered out with my bags.

The next morning, it was back to downtown Lancaster again, this time to Rachel’s Cafe & Creperie.

They do some nice savory crepes for breakfast, like this Western omelette crepe with a side of chive hash browns.

Then, before heading home, one last stop on Franklin St. to the Vietnamese grocery store, Viet My.

Where there’s a woman inside preparing banh mi at a small counter. Am I passing up a banh mi? Uh, no.

With bags of Central Market produce in tow, I headed home.

On the drive back, I thought about why I love the market so much. The obvious answer is the variety, quality and price of the products. More than that though, is the sense of community and continuity. You run into people you know there. Vendors address you by name; some of them have been there for decades. The market’s a special place to many people, and it’s remained that way for over 275 years. That’s unique. It’s nice to know that in our disposable society, some things keep on ticking.

Central Market
23 N. Market St.
Lancaster, PA

Rachel’s Cafe & Creperie
309 N. Queen St.
Lancaster, PA
717-399-3515

Viet My
550 N. Franklin St.
Lancaster, PA
717-393-0338

Farmers’ Market Nostalgia

At the end of each month, I eagerly anticipate the new issue of Saveur; when it arrives in the mailbox, I do a little jig. This month’s issue on food markets of the world (not the A&P kind) is a particular standout. I took the magazine outside, sat down in the grass and plowed through it in one shot while listening to tunes on Pandora.

Loved the issue, but it also made me wistfully nostalgic for Central Market in Lancaster, PA, from which I lived a stone’s throw away (literally, 25 yards) for two years.  If you’re familiar with Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, think of Central Market as its kid brother.  My interest in food had already reached healthy levels before I’d moved to PA; living so close to the market exploded that interest into a full-blown passion.

Saturday mornings were a blissful ritual: get up, make the 30-second walk and leisurely roam up and down the aisles of the 20,000 square foot historic building. I’d pick up everything I needed for the week, and inevitably return home with a few extraneous items that were impossible to resist, like samosas, spanakopitas, a piece of Lancaster fudge, a meatball parm, or a bag of beef jerky from the S. Clyde Weaver stand. No matter how many times I went to market, there was always something new to discover.  Never did try scrapple, though.

The names are beginning to fade, but I still remember all the faces: There was Roger the poultry dude, who greeted me with a hearty “Hey Doug!” and always knew what I wanted; the meat vendor was a sweet guy too, picking out the best flank steaks or other cuts; the portly produce vendor at the front would throw a few freebie vegetables in my bag, and if it was near closing time, he’d give me a great deal on whatever he had left.

There was the little lady whose tiny produce stand was dwarfed by the surrounding stands; she only seemed to sell a few heads of celery, but somehow she got by. Near the back of the market, the Amish boy, who looked all of 12 years old, manning the glistening rotisserie chickens. And in a middle aisle, the spice guy with ponytail and glasses; he weighed the spices and poured them into little pouches, and it always made me feel like I was purchasing a dime bag of something illicit.

I was buying local before I knew what buying local was.  The meats were special — they tasted ten times better than anything from a supermarket.  Fruits and veggies were excellent too, but not in a uniform, cookie-cutter, supermarket way.  There were occasional blemishes, misshapes and gnarls, and you picked through to find what you wanted.  It was real food being sold by real people.

When I moved to New York, I knew I would never have the same kind of experience again. The low point that first week was the profound sense of dislocation I felt upon entering the sterile A&P in Port Chester and glumly realizing the market days of Lancaster were over.  No one at the A&P knew my name, and frankly, no one cared. Where were Roger, celery lady and the spice guy??

The Westchester farmers’ markets have helped dull the ache, but I will always miss Central Market. It was a community unto itself. Shopping there was an event. Those were two fun years.

What are your market rituals?  What’s your favorite market?  And why do you love it so much?