Jacques Kelly: Remembering a festive Cross Street Christmas

The idea of imparting a “retro” look for the planned renovation of the Cross Street Market on Light Street, announced this week by developer Caves Valley Partners, makes me smile.

I witnessed the 1950s, when the “new” market — the current structure — opened after a fire claimed the older, wooden facility.

In those days my tour guide on trips to the market was my grandmother, Mary Louise Bosse Kelly, who was born and lived at 17 Poultney St., half a block from the market.

She seemed to know everybody and was a beloved neighborhood figure. That she handed out tin after tin of her paper-thin Christmas cookies no doubt cemented those warm feelings.

The market, like so much of South Baltimore before the emergence of the Federal Hill neighborhood, was not fancy, but made up for any pretensions with good prices and by offering things that families really needed.

The principal fish dealer, Johnny Nichols, ran a stall he inherited from his mother, with his products piled high on crushed ice. We, as Roman Catholics, served fish on Fridays and on Christmas Eve.

Johnny had us covered. Every Thursday afternoon he dispatched two brown paper sacks of seafood to our home. One of his employees, a man we knew only as Mr. DiBlasi, rang the doorbell and left the bounty of the Chesapeake in the vestibule. There was always shrimp as well. On Friday mornings, I awakened to the scent of steaming vinegar, and maybe a little Old Bay.

My grandmother had a preference for meat from Nunnally Brothers, who supplied the main ingredient for the sour beef she made every fall. Her sister, Agnes Bosse, who lived on nearby Folsom Street, made the same dish. The two sisters also had their own ideas about which market merchants had the better offerings. The two siblings competed for family favor — it was a merry war, and there was never a winner to the competition.

I considered myself a victor, though, because I got to sample the Christmas labors of both of them — especially the fruits of their cookie wars. Agnes made a fancy soft sandwich cookie, flavored with almond extract and layered with currant jelly. She placed the cookies on neatly trimmed circles of wax paper and layered them like jewels in embossed tins with tight-fitting lids. She also dusted them with powdered sugar resembling a light snow in an Aubrey Bodine photograph. She presented them with lace paper doilies.

Her sister took an opposite tack. Her sugar cookies, which somehow contained lard, were thin and came in the shapes of stars and santas. You could see through them they were so thin. She made vast quantities and stored them in large orange-and-blue marked tins from the Esskay Meat Co.

During Christmas season visits to my grandmother’s kitchen, we sat around a table and enjoyed those cookies and a glass of Royal Crown cola.

From that Poulney Street kitchen window we could look to the back door of a small neighborhood chicken slaughter house, known as the Chicken Man’s. This has been torn down and replaced by a beer garden favored by its millennial audience.

My grandmother was a widow and lived on a tight budget. She waited until the last possible minute on Dec. 24 to buy a Christmas tree. She was an accomplished bargainer. Trees for sale were stacked at the intersection of Cross and Patapsco streets. The sellers kept warm with alcoholic spirits and an oil can containing a blazing fire. She budgeted a few dollars for a tree and complained about the price — which of course included home delivery to her door about 12 rowhouses away.

One merry year, my mother (her daughter-in-law) claimed a bargain balsam as well. The tree would have to go from the Cross Street Market side entrance to Guilford Avenue in Charles Village by car, tied to the roof. Normally we bought a tree from the Butcher family and their grocery store on Greenmount Avenue and hand-carried it home.

But this year, about 1962 if I recall, was a different story. The tree my mother bought went on the roof of my father’s Rambler station wagon, then off we went through the narrow confines of Poultney, Patapsco and Wheeling streets until we hit the Light Street speedway, opposite the old McCormick plant facing the harbor.

The tree, lightly attached by its imbibing seller, flew off the roof and took a couple hits from passing cars. My mother ordered it reattached. Once home she had its banged-up side turned toward the wall. Good as new.

Within our family, this story is recalled each year.

I suppose every family has such stories that are handed down over generations. The holidays, it seems, bring out our “retro” memories.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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