Tasty Day in Philly


I spent the day in Philadelphia yesterday, mostly inside the Reading Terminal Market, the old train depot turned food hall that has been a destination for eating and shopping for over 100 years. I was back in my hometown to be interviewed on Jim Coleman’s radio show, “A Chef’s Table,” and to teach a class at “La Cucina at the Market,” a small cooking school inside the Reading Terminal.


The Terminal has been one of my favorite places in Philly for as long as I can remember. I had been telling James with excitement on the bus ride down that we would get lunch there from one of the many vendors. When we arrived at midday, we were engulfed by a mix of bright color, sound, and various food smells, as people bought lunch, took in the scene, and a fiddle and guitar player turned out folk and country favorites. We ditched our bags and dove in.


Any sense that we hadn’t really left New York was blown away when we entered the Amish section of the market, where a large open diner called the Dutch Eating Place and several food stalls are run by men in overalls and women in diaphanous bonnets. James, who grew up in Boston, asked me if these people were in costume, and lost the subtly cynical edge in his voice when he found out that they were not. We passed scrapple and creamed chipped beef, soft pretzels made from scratch, rotisserie chicken, and walls of pickles and preserves, all specialties of the Amish. We ambled past a soul food vendor, tarried at a Mexican joint, were tempted by Italian sandwiches, and finally settled on deli food, as in matzoh ball soup, potato latkes, white fish salad, and a pastrami sandwich.


Hershel’s East Side did not disappoint. They were the best latkes I’ve had in a long time, not simply re-heated but made before my eyes. The soup warmed us all the way to our toes, and James was in ecstasy over the pastrami. For our cold walk through the city, I headed to Old City Coffee for some gourmet fuel, and we got lovely cafe au lait’s, minus the “froth art” that is the norm in Williamsburg.

We walked through Chinatown and past the Liberty Bell to the WHYY radio and TV station for the interview. I worked at WHYY for 3 years after college doing news reporting, research, and various other tasks, and it was a key part of my education. It’s been revamped since then, but many of the same faces are still there, and it was a thrill running into people I hadn’t seen in years. Jim Coleman, the show’s host, is hilarious, welcoming, and thorough all at the same time. I was in and out of the studio in 30 minutes, but he honed in on what’s most important about my book, and made me wish I were from Texas like him.


Heading back to the Terminal, I wanted to be sure James saw some of the beauty of the city, not just the gritty parts. We detoured to Washington Square, one of the five public parks drawn up by William Penn in his 1682 blueprint for the city, his vision for a “greene country towne.” The park is surrounded by stately townhouses, and is the home of the haunting Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Nearby, we entered the old Curtis Publishing Building to admire the Maxfield Parrish Tiffany Glass mosaic, “Dream Garden.” Free and open to the public, the mosaic is a quiet hidden treasure unknown to most visitors and many city natives.


Back up at the Terminal, I taught a cooking class to a lovely bunch of women who were full of questions, including Sandra and Jessica who had never tasted a pomegranate, and had never liked cilantro until they tasted the Cucumber Pomegranate Salad from the cookbook. It was a treat to turn people on to new ingredients and new ways to prepare them. We also made Chickpea Cakes, and Fesenjan (Persian Chicken Stew with Pomegranate Syrup and Walnuts).

We headed up to beautiful old 30th Street Station to catch the train back to New York, and flopped into our seats with relief after making it through the doors with a minute to spare. We’d traveled less than 2 hours away, run around in the cold, and worked hard, but somehow our Philadelphia day seemed like an enchanted vacation. Back at Penn Station, making our way through the forlorn midnight stragglers, all our tiredness caught up with us, and we splurged for a cab back to Brooklyn, suddenly eager to be back in the warmth and comfort of our home.

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