City markets remain charming treasures

February 16, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

MORE THAN 20 years ago I heard developer James Rouse give a speech about his plans for Harborplace, about how he wanted to take the charm of the city's public markets and replicate it by the harbor. Being a skeptical Baltimorean, I thought he'll never carry it off.

In fact, he did, sort of, for a few years. The original 1980 Harborplace had butchers, baskets of potatoes and onions and stands of flowers - the things that Jim Rouse knew and loved in the Baltimore markets of his youth.

With many small merchants lined up displaying their wares, the 1980 festival marketplace was not a bad imitation.

But, over the last two decades, this has changed. The Light Street Pavilion has been reconfigured, and much of that original recipe has been altered. The small shopkeepers were often replaced by chain restaurants. So much for the charm of city markets.

Despite many pressures - including the flight of thousands of people out of Baltimore - I still find our public markets - the ones Mr. Rouse copied - a delightful place to spend a lunchtime.

In the past few weeks I've been renewing my acquaintances with the Broadway, Cross Street and Lexington markets. I've gobbled up every moment at these local treasures.

Baltimore remains a town of quirky revelations. Despite the blossoming of so many upscale coffee shops, I still say the best cup of takeout coffee in Baltimore is sold at the Lexington Market, at the time-tested Konstant stall, by the Eutaw Street front door.

You can tell it's great coffee - there are two lines of customers wrapped around the place. Please do not ask for a latte. The people who work the counter might not know what you are talking about. They sell coffee by the cup, at 61 cents. There are hot dogs too, if you need one.

One of my acid tests of a city that is fearless and confident about its image concerns the sale of tripe - the honeycombed lining of an ox's intestines.

This is not stuff for the culinary fainthearted. And, I am delighted to say, there are signs at Lexington Market that proclaim the availability of this substance - of, shall we say, limited appeal.

And while I don't go through much fresh-grated coconut and horseradish, Lexington Market sells it. So too great rows of fish, on ice. I personally cannot deal with shad and its roe, but I walk past the row of it, lined up, so perfectly arranged.

I also get caught up in the sheer energy of the city markets, the way people shop here with great enthusiasm and gusto. They also congregate in numbers that make you feel like you are in the middle of a city large enough to make it on the map.

These are real eaters who liketheir wares full of flavor, large portions please. I must confess I often just drop by a market to see real Baltimoreans and the foods condemned by food faddists and certain cardiologists, who then secretly enjoy them on the sly.

I guess I also like dealing with certain butchers, asking for the leftover bones so I can make soups and stews. I like going from stall to stall and seeing which one gives you five oranges for a dollar instead of four. I like seeing pyramids of apples and pears - shelves of cakes and bins of loose candy.

I also like the fact that our markets remain a bastion of unreformed foods. I am sure that it galls some people who wish our markets would behave in a more dignified, perfumed manner.

I'll take them just as they are.

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