Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Distraction....then sadness.

I am easily distracted. It is a character flaw that I have trouble controlling. Out to dinner with my husband, I can be having a conversation with him and also tell you that the couple at the next table is having “bedroom” issues. She has closed the heater vents and wants the room kept cold to control her hot flashes. He is freezing in bed and not sleeping well. Their check came so I am not sure how it was resolved. Sometimes a distraction can bite me. I currently have a half-gallon of grapefruit juice in the fridge because I apparently lost aim reaching for orange juice when a mother and her teenage daughter got into a debate on whether pomegranate juice was actually good for you or just a hyped new concoction. The mother felt strongly that there wasn’t any benefit to pomegranate juice that you couldn’t get in orange juice. And now, I have grapefruit juice.

Sometimes, a distraction can actually sting me. The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia is the oldest indoor farmer's market in the nation. Well over 100 years old, it is a unique conglomerate of vendors with a complete diversity in ethnicity. Italian, African American, Latino, German, Asian, Irish and Amish vendors join forces daily to hawk their meat, fish, produce, bread, coffee and many, many other products. There are butchers and bakers and everything in between.  In the center of the market is an absolutely amazing food court. (No standard franchise fast food places allowed.) And a visit is not complete without a roast pork and provolone sandwich from Tommy Di Nics or an Italian hoagie or cheesesteak from Spataro’s. It is estimated that over 100,000 people visit the market each week. And, as a regular who goes almost every other month, knowing the amount of foot traffic is key to my surprise when visiting there this week.

Nestled in the heart of the food court, as it has been for the last 40 years, is a small, usually crowded shop, known as The Spice Terminal. It is where cooks go to shop. It is where chefs go to shop. Famous chefs, TV star chefs, cookbook authors and anyone with a penchant to create culinary masterpieces could find what they are looking for at the Spice shop. And nothing fancy here, no small pre-packaged boxes or jars of crushed basil or oregano. No, everything hangs from steel shelving in small, measured bags, from saffron to orange -flavored peppercorns. It had small sacks of meat rubs before they became common and exquisite bottles of olive oils.  It is where I first found eggnog extract. (As someone who is allergic to egg yolks, I found I can make almost anything with Egg Beaters- except eggnog. Now each Christmas I mix a little softened vanilla ice cream, nutmeg, milk and eggnog extract in a blender, and I am in heaven!)

I was in the market at the end of December to visit my favorite butcher shop. I was headed to the spice shop for some hickory smoked-flavored sea salt (a must have for great steaks and chicken), when I was distracted by an older couple that were first time visitors and seemed lost. They asked me if I knew where a particular produce stand was. I knew it well, and rather than trying to explain how to negotiate the crowd to get there, I walked with them to the other side of the terminal, carrying one of their bags. When we got there, I bought tangerines, went out the side door and across the street to the parking garage. I was on the bridge to Jersey when I remembered the sea salt. So easily distracted.

Three weeks later, I was in the city with my sisters for other reasons when we decided to eat at the terminal. “Sea salt” I remembered as I put my hoagie down and told them to watch it while I ran into the store. No distractions allowed today! I walked straight over not looking at or listening to anyone…only to be blindsided by the sign on the entrance to the store “good bye and thank you”. This can’t be. The once bulging shelves were almost empty. Glass containers of various teas and a few bags of other items were about all that was left. I went in and looked upon the empty shelves that just a few weeks ago would have filled my head with the wonder of “wow, what can I do with that?”  The large steel bars that held the most intense selection of herbs and spices, now looked like the sad skeletal remains of a once vibrant culinary master.

“What happened?” I asked the young clerk behind the counter, a counter that I could barely see over just before Christmas because of the tall stacks of candied fruits containers. “The owner is retiring and his children don't want it”. DON’T WANT IT! This is prime real estate! This is where you are almost guaranteed that 100,000 people are walking by each week!

In my early reporter days, I would have tracked the owner down to have a better understanding of what was happening. But now, it seems the “why’s” and “how’s” don’t matter. It simply is. How many small, independent retail shops are slipping away while we are distracted by other things in life? I will miss the scent and allure of the Spice Terminal. I will miss waiting in line just to get in to where you could inhale the aroma of coffee beans that filled huge wooden barrels. Oh, how I wish that three weeks ago I had bought sea salt instead of tangerines. Good bye, old friend....and thank you.

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