Loving Lexington Market

On a stormy April evening seven years ago, an unexpected email inextricably linked me to a cornerstone of Baltimore's past. The message was this: "Can you do Lexington Market?" And it came from Arcadia Publishing, a firm specializing in pictorial local histories. I read it in a last-minute email check before leaving with my husband for the Maryland Historical Society, which was awarding him its prestigious Brewington Prize for his article on Maryland maritime history.

Between the rain, the snarled, rush-hour traffic, and the fact that the evening's focus was on my husband, I corked up Arcadia's message until, arriving at the society, I blurted "I've been asked to write a book about Lexington Market!" to a woman I scarcely knew. She responded by clutching my upper arm with both her hands and declaring, "Wonderful! That's so wonderful! I just love Lexington Market."

And so it began: Over the course of five months and through dozens of interviews and dogged days of delving into the market's past, I never once encountered anything less than enthusiasm for the book I eventually wrote and love for the market. The affection Baltimoreans hold for the market, I came to realize, is akin to their embrace of the city's other signal institutions: the Orioles, the Ravens, the Pratt Library, the city's splendid museums, numerous parks and quirky festivals. From Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, whose family once had a stall at the market, to my next door-neighbor, who recalls all too vividly her unfortunate gastronomic reaction resulting from unrestrained enthusiasm for the jellybeans her grandfather bought her, almost everyone had a Lexington Market story to share. No matter where in the area they had grown up, nor where their lives had taken them, the memories people shared with me came seeded with a common theme: Going to the market was a bedrock Baltimore experience.

I had suggested the market as a topic to Arcadia after having lived for four months in a California town that didn't know a crab cake from a frozen fish stick. Sebastopol, on the northern coast, had coffee shops where the baristas dispensed lattes from windows opening onto shaded sidewalks, hiking paths stretching toward the Pacific, and improbable French restaurants serving limitless fine wines. But the one market I visited was a pitiful affair where the merchants looked as defeated and wilted as the vegetables they were trying to sell, and the few shoppers zigzagged from one stall to another like silver balls whacked in a pinball machine, with neither purpose nor direction.

Here, in Baltimore, we know there is a natural directional churn to doing a market. You go with the flow. You trade a little badinage with the fellow selling cheese, a little commiseration with the woman selling rhubarb. And no matter what you've bought, you leave with more than you paid for.

Nowadays, the vitality that once characterized Lexington Market seems to have shifted to Saturday's Waverly Market and Sunday's Farmer Market and Bazaar. The young families I see there remind me of my own, back when Al Wasky himself delivered my meat order to my home from his stall in Lexington Market. And that market, despite its rich history and the place it holds in the hearts of Baltimoreans, has degenerated into a place serving lunchtime stir-fry shoveled into Styrofoam clams.

I recently asked a Lexington merchant if she had any Maryland strawberries. She wrinkled her nose in disgust and told me, "Too small. Too small." But what I wanted her to tell me was, "Come back in two weeks, Hon. We'll have berries up from the Eastern Shore." I wanted someone who understood that the particular sweet-tart taste of Maryland strawberries is the taste of my past. Someone who wasn't as intent on doing business as much as she was on understanding that I was "doing" the market.

So, I read with great interest how the Baltimore Public Market Corp. plans a major renovation of the venerable old place. I hope it does; an upgrade is long overdue. Lexington Market is behind the curve when it comes to the locavore revolution, but farm-to-table is exactly what the market was intended for. I know — I wrote the book.

When John Eager Howard donated the land for a market, Baltimore's scarce population draped around the waterfront like a thin shawl, and the hilltop where the market is located was considered the outer reaches. But Howard realized the land to the west of the city was enormously fertile, and he intended that only local produce be sold. And sold it was. From as far away as Carroll and even Montgomery counties, week after week, farmers heaped their horse-drawn wagons to sell at the market.

Think of it! The harvesting, the loading, the trekking ... why would they do it if it wasn't profitable? And, indeed, it was. Even fairly recent merchants made handsome livings — I met one whose family's stall had sold pork products. "You all thought we were poor butchers," he laughed. "We had to close every summer because we didn't want to risk selling pork in the heat. But know where we spent those months? Lounging on the beach at Cape May, that's where."

That sort of hard-bitten jocularity can't be taught, but we Baltimoreans recognize it as the common tongue of our markets. It bespeaks an entrepreneurial vigor and sustains us almost as well as the food we buy. I hope that whatever plans the Public Market Corp. develops don't result in a cartoon food palace catering with faux politeness to tourists, but in a genuine renewal using the market's vibrant past as a foundation for its dynamic future. I hope they create a place Baltimoreans will visit week after week. Maybe have a little fun and make a few memories. And always, always, get something great to eat.

Patricia Schultheis, a Baltimore resident, is the author of the book "Baltimore's Lexington Market." Her email is bpschult@yahoo.com.

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