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As Lexington Market rebuilds, memories of the old market flood back

A downtown Baltimore merchants group has issued a call for stories about the historic Lexington Market as this institution gets another rebuild. The Maryland Historical Society is leading a coalition of sponsors “to showcase the history of Baltimore’s premier public market by asking people to share stories and personal remembrances.”

“So many Baltimoreans have fond memories of Lexington Market, whether they recall weekly shopping trips with their grandmother or working at a stall for decades,” said Johns Hopkins, the director of Baltimore Heritage, another group working on this effort. “These everyday stories are an important part of Lexington Market’s history, and the storytellers themselves make Lexington Market special.”

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Baltimoreans regard the market as our proud culinary oasis, a showcase for Chesapeake Bay seafood and the produce of Maryland’s counties. It was also a noisy, rambunctious people place, about as Baltimore as it gets.

The place was crowded on the high market days when Baltimore’s population peaked in the 900,000 range. The counters sat high off the floor, and, true to old market traditions, there was always some sawdust on the polished terrazzo floor. To a child in the 1950s, the Lexington Market offered vivid examples of animal anatomy and just plain weird stuff.

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The place was about foods, and it was not squeamish about those who liked meat, or seafood oddities, on the table. 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 old market was a stronghold of tripe, a stomach part of a cow or pig. Chewy tripe can be something of a delicacy in a restaurant in Paris or Florence, but in Baltimore, it’s just what the Lexington Market offered — and don’t get too excited about it.

Several years ago television food expert Andrew Zimmern, in his “Bizarre Foods” show, visited Baltimore and located pans of prepared Korean-style tripe in the Lexington Market’s west building, between Paca and Greene streets.

The new market that is going up this year — ground was broken several months ago — promises to showcase the foods that a new generation of Lexington Market merchants can offer. The market rebuilders are recruiting vendors now.

The thing about Lexington Market was it was the place for shoppers’ last hopes and highly specific needs. Around the holidays, people would form lines by the Rheb’s candy counter with their typed lists of bonbons to be hand-packed. It was an slow and exacting process as customers requested a single candied pineapple and a dark chocolate sponge. Then, at the last minute, they would ask for a Brazil nut “not too large.”

The bakery sold varieties of Berger’s cookies far beyond the famous chocolate-coated variety. 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 visitors went to the market just to observe its traditions. The man who made fresh horseradish shaved the root before your eyes. Because horseradish is so pungent, he kept an electric fan nearby to blow the fumes away from his eyes and nostrils. He also hand-grated fresh coconut.

The old Konstant family hot dog, coffee, and candy and nut counter had customers standing two and three deep. It was not generally known that the delicious peanut brittle and taffies sold here were actually made one flight down, in copper kettles, in the market’s enormous basement.

The offerings here were specific. The Panzer pickle counter had a condiment, a yellow chow-chow unlike others. A sandwich at one of the deli counters would not taste the same as one from a competitor.

Even the mustard tasted different.

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