A realistic view from the kitchen involves a lot more than a stack of plates, polished silverware, and folded napkins, and behind that the experience can’t be summed up by the bloody cambro of strip steaks, the gnarled sunchokes caked with dirt, or a freshly fired dishwasher. To see the view from the kitchen, sometimes you have to leave the kitchen. So on my day off this week I went over to The West Side Market. I have very fond memories of the market. I’ve been going there for well over 20 years, and I think it is the absolutely most special culinary destination in the city of Cleveland, Ohio.
When I was little, ok, when I was younger, my mother took my sister and I to the market, usually on the bus with a collapsible metal pushcart. Seeing as how I wasn’t little, just young, I carried as many heavy bags as I could to make my mom proud, while my little sister got to push the cart around inevitably running into something and hopefully not somebody. Then there is the one time when we didn’t take the bus, and my little sister broke the key off in the ignition of the car. Those are some great memories, and we haven’t even discussed the market itself.
There is the ‘stinky’ fish purveyor who’s fish are so stinky it’s like they built him his own addition to the market. In the old days the fresh produce stalls where rather exposed to the elements with only a solid roof and some heavy plastic sheeting separated them and their customers from the brutality of the weather. You had the steaming hot summer days or the frigid winter gusts. Either way you look at it, it’s been revamped now, with solid walls, and swinging doors.
We always had our favorite stalls to visit. The ‘nut guy’ had a small stand in the corner, only one person could fit behind it. There he would toast your nuts to order then pass you a warm bag of goodies, that and the stories he shared with my mother about my grandmother, and great-grandmother, both of whom he had known for a long time. We really enjoyed this weird seed pod sold out of a giant glass jar called Johnny Bread. It was very inexpensive. You chewed on it, discarding the large seeds and the tough skin as you went along. It tasted unexpendedly sweet, a bit like chocolate. Johnny Bread for whatever reason disappeared from out lives for a couple of years until we recognized it as Carob, the healthy, dairy free chocolate substitute. Thinking about chocolate, my sister and I would spend what seemed like hours in front of the old school candy counter, clutching a single dollar in our hands, mulling over which candy we wanted as if we had a life and death discussion on our hands. I can fondly remember the flying saucers. Two colored wafers forming a hollow collapsed sphere that contained a few grains of rather tasty sugary bits, and when you ate it, the wafer part quickly dissolved away, the same way a flying saucer quickly slips away into the nights sky.
Currently, I go to the market less for essentials, and more for entertainment. There are more options there than I remember in the past. There are some specialty stalls for instance, the chocolate/popcorn stall, or the juice lady stall, or the cookie stand. There was always bread available, but there is competition between about 5 different bakers. Also new to the scene is prepared food, you can buy perogies, pad thai, enchiladas, or shepard’s pie, all ready to eat. There are some wonderful pastries available as well.
The truth of the matter is we live in a meat and potatoes city, and the market still strongly reflects this. There are whole pigs, and lambs heads, smoked pork, ham hocks, rabbit and duck. The market is still the only place where you can find people using a whole animal, just today there was hearts, tongues, kidneys, livers, hooves, snouts, sweetbreads, brains, and some really great and really rare cuts of meat like a veal breast or goat shoulder. Even if you are the kind of person who is absolutely turned off my the thought of eating an animals brains, I can accept that, but I think it is respectful to the animal that it not be killed only for the tenderloin, and the spare ribs inevitably ending up on an absorbent towel in a Styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. That is exactly what is at the heart of the West Side Market.
The building itself is stunning. The ceiling is unbelievably detailed for such a massive hall. Each archway is garnished with a sculpture of still life food. There is a balcony where a lot of the photos are taken which let you overlook the whole market. The exterior is finished with a clock tower on the corner of West 25 Street and Lorain Avenue.
If you haven’t been to the West Side Market lately, you should go there as soon as you can. If you can’t get there anytime soon, I took some great photos that show the market off from a customers point of view. I would love to hear about anyones experience at the West Side Market.