Every other Saturday morning I go to the celebrated Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia.
Fresh produce is the attraction, of course, and I like the personal contact with the merchants, pointing out what I want at the fish and meat stalls instead of picking up prepackaged items myself out of refrigerator bins. But my pleasure goes beyond the practical needs and personal preference. It is nostalgia that draws me to this kind of market, a covered open market.
It bring back to me my childhood memories of the market, a few blocks from the house, in the Aoyama section of Tokyo. It was at the time one of the largest such market in the city although it was probably not even a half the size of the Reading Terminal Market, which has something like 80 stalls under one roof. I used to go there with Mother but more frequently with our maid, Mitchan, who, when sent there on an errand, was also instructed to take us, my little sister, two years younger, and myself, as a way of babysitting us.
We went there several times a week. But for me it was each time a pleasure trip. There were a few stalls that faced the street and spilled onto it; but the thrill of the experience was walking inside and being overwhelmed by a cornucopia of all imaginable things. They presented a kaleidoscope of colors and forms that never failed to dazzle, and they made no less than an encyclopedia of names that were ever inexhaustible. Only in retrospect do I realize that this was my first training in art history.
What I remember most vividly, however, is the aroma and odor from different stalls, that wafted and wavered as we walked along, now isolated and now mingled but always palpable. Fruits and vegetables, fish, meat, tea and coffee, dry goods, flowers, rice and grains, soap, hardware, sizzling oil from an eatery, cold cuts, miso and soy sauce, pickles, baked goods, and even celluloid toys -- they all had distinct and unforgettable odor. Then, there was the din -- the general noise of the throng of people and over it the shouting voices of the vendors hawking, as is still done in Italian markets, most of all fishmongers whose crisp calls were supposed to make the fish appear especially appealing in freshness. I recall, too, how the cement floor around the fish stalls was always wet from constant hosing.
Going to the market was a magical experience, and coming out of the dimly lit grand shed to the daylight street was like waking up from a dream to the drab everyday reality. The magic was in the open market being an enclosed place. Open markets outdoors, which are the norm in Italy, are not quite the same.
In the Reading Terminal Market lively noise is missing because vendors nowadays don't hawk solicitations any more as they surely used to generations ago. But the olfactory atmosphere is still there, if not as ravishing as in the old days. Supermarkets eliminated this luxury by packaging produce. It is interesting that plastic packaging is meant to keep food fresh longer and clean of contamination. In open markets produce is exposed to air and handled by bare hands (at least until recently). Poor hygiene, so it may seem. But doesn't plastic packaging also keep spoilage packed under cover?
T. Kaori Kitao, 28 June 1998