Baltimore shoppers have a long love affair with Lexington Market, and for good reason. This culinary institution is now reinventing itself but always has been a noisy and rambunctious destination, and is about as Baltimore as it gets.
Lexington Market was — and is — a genuine gathering spot. It was mobbed with buyers when Baltimore’s population peaked, in the 900,000 range.
This is not a place for the shoppers who like the predictability of chain stores and the uniformity of fast food outlets.
For decades, there was always some evidence of sawdust scattered on the polished terrazzo floor. This was not a sanitized supermarket. Its butchers’ and seafood dealers’ counters offered in-your-face displays of animal anatomy and just plain weird stuff.
“The place was about foods, and it was not squeamish about those who liked meat, or seafood oddities, on the table,” said a 2002 Sun story. “It was the place to observe the actual pig’s head, nostrils and ears used to decorate a display of scrapple, sausage, pork loin and chops. There were jars of pickled pigs’ feet and other treats that only tempted the culinary adventurous.”
The market had its fans. Food expert Andrew Zimmern, in his “Bizarre Foods” television show, visited Baltimore and located pans of prepared Korean-style tripe, the chewy stomach lining from a cow, in the Lexington Market’s west building, between Paca and Greene streets.
Lexington Market was a destination venue for shoppers’ highly specific needs. In the days when Rheb’s candy counter was a must-stop, people formed lines with typed lists of specific bonbon varietals to be hand-packed. This could translate into a long wait for a single candied pineapple and a dark chocolate sponge. Then, at the last minute, customers might ask for almond paste and slices of almond bark.
“The bakery sold varieties of Berger’s cookies far beyond the famous chocolate-coated variety,” the Sun story said. “There were also Berger layer cakes. When food tastes and recipes were growing more exotic (beyond the scope of the trustworthy Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. cookbook), the Lexington Market carried such a rarity as Gorgonzola cheese, which is not quite so difficult to find today.”
Some market experiences were unforgettable. There was the vender, usually a small man, who sat behind a counter grating fresh horseradish before your eyes. Because horseradish was so pungent and so effective at causing eyes to water, he kept an electric fan nearby to blow the fumes away from his eyes and nostrils.
This fellow also grated the fresh coconut that became the icing on homemade birthday cakes.
Konstant Candies and Peanuts had its stall near Eutaw Street at the market’s entrance.
After Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, it became something of a good luck tradition to buy a bag of freshly roasted peanuts at the Konstant outdoor stall.
Its hot dog, coffee, candy and nut counter inside had customers standing two- and three-deep. Shoppers were unaware that the delicious peanut brittle and taffies offered in the glass cases were made on the premises, a flight down, in copper kettles in the market’s sprawling basement.
Old-time Baltimore had its precise favorites. The Panzer pickle counter offered a yellow chow-chow relish unlike others. Its pickle relish was distinct from that sold in a chain supermarket. A sandwich at one of the deli counters would not taste the same as one from a competitor.
Those with a sweet tooth often bought 50 cents’ worth of molasses taffy from Ortmuller’s stall. The taffy was brittle, and clerks behind the counter broke it to size with a hammer. They also scored a public relations victory by offering small shards for free.
Then there was winter muskrat-trapping season. The skinned critters were often sold outdoors, while skinned pig’s heads, fresh fish stacked atop mountains of ice and buckets of oysters could be found inside. Nothing was prepackaged.
Some shoppers preferred Konrad Thiebes’ sauerkraut. Others said they could tell the difference from meat from Foell’s or Soistman’s.
Some swore by a quart of buttermilk and fresh butter that were surely from Castle Farms, whose cows roamed near Emmitsburg. The Castle Farms vanilla ice cream, when topped with fresh-sliced peaches, was a powerful dessert.
The new market makes its debut in time for November. Pigs fattened over the summer are now ready for slaughter. It’s a time for scrapple and looking forward to Thanksgiving.