Central Market on a busy day bustles, a word we don’t use much anymore but which seems to describe an ideal city scene, crowds smoothly mingling in purposeful activity, not frenetic or restless but businesslike in a friendly way. That feeling is what I love about the market, and what I always notice first: the city of my childhood imagination, busy and purposeful and bustling. I have that feeling even when it is not particularly crowded, late on Tuesday mornings and mid-afternoons, times when no conventionally employed person should be out shopping. Even then it feels to me as if, perhaps, it is only waiting to bustle.
A great many people have written descriptions of Central Market, some local, most not, going back to the 1920s. The goods for sale change over time, but the descriptions themselves stay pretty much the same. They all comment on the quaint Amish vendors and their fresh produce and the down-home country goodness of the entire scene. I suppose this is what you notice if you are used to New York or Philadelphia, but to me it sounds more like a farmstand than a market, a clapboard shack on a country lane with a cardboard box to collect the cash, cows lolling contentedly in the meadow yonder and a dog sleeping in the sun. Down-home country goodness is fine, but I can find it better somewhere else; and in any case down-home country goodness doesn’t bustle.
Down-home country goodness wouldn’t explain the other thing I love about the market, which is its diversity. There is a kind of diversity here that good liberal city folk often miss, a diversity of city and country together, of deeply local and broadly international. Having lived several years outside the region I am struck by the local flavor of much of the produce, the occasional oysterplant and, especially, the stand that sells only celery. It is incredible to me that, even in Lancaster with its culinary traditions steeped in celery, someone could still get by selling nothing else. Someone, too, must buy all that cup cheese, still made more or less, I assume, as it was a century ago. But I am equally struck by the bakery selling organic bread, an artisan of a newer variety, and by the woman from Greece who sells pastries and stuffed grape leaves and baklava. And in the back, a few stands apart, a German deli and a Pennsylvania German butcher, divided only by three hundred years and an ocean. I come to this last stand every time I am in town on market day, mostly for the ring bologna, which I believe is the best around.
But today I am after something different: souse. I have decided that, if I am going to continue to call myself Pennsylvania Dutch, I should eat the stuff once. Occasionally when I was much younger my father brought it home, but if he expected me to try it (I don’t think he did) he made the mistake of telling me what was in it. Without proper preparation and encouragement every child passes through a phase of culinary squeamishness, losing our early curiosity and willingness to taste absolutely any found object, food or not, it makes no difference. Some of us pass through that phase and regain a more sensible version of our toddler gusto; some of us remain picky adolescents forever, though with adult-sized rationalizations about why we don’t eat what we won’t eat. Having not been continuously exposed to jellied pig’s head (despite my father’s heritage) after the age of two, I let that particular delicacy fall on my “ew gross” list for most of my life, and now I have decided to put the matter right.
So here I am at Central Market, taking another step toward culinary manhood and getting in touch with my cultural roots. There are several people waiting ahead of me, buying chickens and chipped beef and sweet bologna, brisk business even for a Friday morning. I am still debating with myself whether to try the souse or stick with my usual ring bologna. As I am making up my mind a woman pushes through to the counter and begins talking very quickly to the owner of the stand. She is from a local television station, she says, and she wants to film a series of pieces on standholders and their specialties, what they’re known for and how they make it. Despite her pace she is not excited but only businesslike, clipped and (she wants us to think) perpetually hurried.
The owner, trying to be helpful despite the pressing business, explains that although the sausage, scrapple, and bolognas are all their own recipes, they no longer make them but now contract with a larger processor for the labor.
Well, she asks, is there anything you still make yourselves?
He thinks on this a moment, surveying the crowd for signs of impatience, lost business. “We get the cheeses shipped to us and age them ourselves, but —”
“Great!” she plows ahead, “we can do something with that, what do you, what’s involved with that?“
He pauses, framing his response, opens his mouth to speak and notices me for the first time, standing behind this fasttalking TV lady. He rolls an eye my way, mouth still half-open: are you with her?
I return what I hope is a wry smile: Hell no. He continues: “There’s not really much to aging cheese, you know, you pretty much just…well, let it age.” There is no good way to put this; it is as if she had suggested filming paint dry. But the woman is undeterred; she shifts tracks with speed enough to lose a lesser intellect, asks now about the sausage, instead.
The other person behind the counter, an older woman with a hairnet who is not nearly so amused by this conversation as I am, notices me waiting and voices her partner’s question, politely but pointedly. “Are you with her?”
“No,” I say, trying again to smile wryly, and ask for just a little piece of the souse. She slices it for me, looking slightly relieved that there are not after all two of us.
I pay for my parcel and move on, to collect the rest of my lunch: loaf of organic whole-grain bread from an artisan bakery; a pair of baklava from the Greek woman; a fine-looking late-season cucumber, dark and smooth, from an Amish girl. I have no idea what this meal now says about me, but it is all good, including the souse, which I cut into hunks with my pocketknife, sitting on a park bench near Penn Square. As I eat I watch the bankers and lawyers rushing back and forth from their lunch breaks, heads down. I wish they would slow down and try bustling instead, and maybe while they’re at it they could stop by my park bench for a bit of souse. I’d gladly share.