The occasion was the unveiling of a documentary called The Reading Terminal Market . . . A Family Portrait. (Actually, it was more an extended, 12-minute trailer, the financing, as producer Don Mitchell noted, still a little short to finish the job.)
If there was a poignant touch of swan song about it, the Merchants' Association's Michael Holahan acknowledged the necessity of getting the old-timers on tape: We hope to have them around a lot longer, he announced, "but we may not have them forever."
A crowd of 300 was on hand for the festivities. In the spirit of seizing the day, they were interrupted by a surprise cameo by Marion "Tootsie" D'Ambrosio (of Tootsie's Salad Express) in blonde-wigged, full-skirted Marilyn Monroe regalia, pulling Harry Ochs to the dance floor for a hug and an 80th-birthday spin.
As befits a hoss of a public market with a century-long reputation to uphold, no food group was spared: The hors d'oeuvres - for goodness' sake - were led off by platter after heaping platter of lamb chops; not lollipop lamb chops, but supremely tender, six-inch, honest-to-goodness, juicy, mustard-and-rosemary-crusted lamb chops prepared by caterer Tim Bellew from chops provided by market butcher Charles Giunta.
Poultry man Ernie Godshall didn't make it to the show. But he was up on the screen, and it was his stand's chicken in the exquisite chicken marsala. There were trays of pork dumplings the size of small birds, and DiNic's sliced roast pork and gravy. The rendition of Delilah's peppery macaroni and cheese was the best some could remember. And for old times' sake, you could find a version of Spataro's vintage cottage cheese and orange marmalade sandwiches, though not on the original black-walnut bread that the Morehead family once baked at home and brought to the market twice a week.
After twilight, soft jazz drifting in the aisles, an anticipatory Night-at-the-Museum quality settled on the space. The film visited scenes from the archives, turkeys hanging upended, their feet crossed and tied, massive beef carcasses on hooks, accounts of rabbits skinned to order - whole foods that looked startlingly like where they came from.
Once again, fuzzy, black-and-white cups of ice cream sailed down the marble counter at Bassetts. Boxes of fruit were piled high. The original floor plan was recalled: It was laid out on a grid, now forgotten, of numbered avenues (12th Avenue, for instance, from Filbert to Arch) and lettered aisles.
There were accounts of bullets dodged (the fight to keep the doors open while the adjoining Convention Center was built). Of the cold-storage units in the basement that kept the place cooler in the summer, freezing in the winter. Of invigorating newcomers (the enterprising Amish farmers, the Korean fishmongers).
The voices of the old-timers were thinned by the years. But they had achieved a certain patina, a patient, abiding affection for their hallowed place of work.
Longtime customers described the venue as "stately" and "secure," and referred to its "diversity," its "warm glow."
But for Common Pleas Court Judge Shelley Robins New, a daily visitor, the charm was that the market allowed her to live in the moment, "like a European."
Every day, she said, she could simply call her husband (Buddy) and ask him what he'd like her to run over and pick up for dinner.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.