Lunch Counter At Belair Market Offered Great Food And A Big Serving Of History

April 05, 2008|By JACQUES KELLY

I stood in my grandmother's room that April 1968 night. Its window looked directly east and southeast. It was two days after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and Baltimore's riot spread out before our eyes. She and some of my brothers and sisters watched in horror as the distant buildings burned. My grandmother could identify the landmarks and called out when the old Stieff piano factory near Aiken Street erupted in violently shooting flames.

My family regularly patronized the Belair Market on Saturdays on Gay Street. We often heard street accounts - never officially confirmed - that the rioting began at the Read's drugstore adjacent to the market. There was so much action that night, the precise address where the riot began seemed a detail lost in a far bigger story.

I recently heard from Jennie Cocoros Kegel, whose grandfather Nicholas and uncle James Cocoros emigrated from Greece in the 1920s and opened a lunch counter at Belair Market. They passed on the business to their sons and many hooked customers said their hot dogs, onions and chili sauce were among Baltimore's best. And they were a great bargain, too.

That chili sauce, a secret Cocoros family recipe was so hot "it would kill a fly upon contact," Jennie wrote. "We had the best of locations, right as soon as you came into the market.

"I will never forget that we were at the Belair Market when we received word that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Many people came to my father and told him to send the children home because there was going to be trouble.

"As a teenager, all of the children were expected to work at the market. I worked mostly the soda fountain area, and my father claims I ate more than I sold.

"We heard a gunshot outside the market, and my Dad put us on the No. 19 bus and sent us home. It was a very frightening ride home and we did not see my Dad for quite a while. He finally came home but he was determined to stay at the market to make sure that our stalls were not damaged during the Baltimore riots.

"The police instructed him to close up and they promised nothing would happen to our business and when we returned, the Market was untouched.

"The market was my father, Steve Cocoros', life. He developed lung cancer in 1995 and our cousin Archie took over the major operations of the business, although Dad would still insist upon coming to the market even when he was very weak from receiving chemo and radiation.

"My father passed away in September 1996 and the Market was demolished later. The Market was an institution and we made many friends throughout the years," she wrote.

My family stuck by the market, too, and delighted that the Cocoros family never gave up and continued to serve those delicious Coney Island-style lunches. Their counter was the kind of institution that was worthy of a televised segment on the Food Network. But back then, it was a much respected part of Baltimore that was just one more part of the city.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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