Rick Nichols: At Reading Terminal, Amish change, and are changed

Posted: October 07, 2010

No one is going to argue that it wasn't sketchy around 12th and Arch back 30 years ago when the first Amish were recruited to bolster the sagging fortunes of the old Reading Terminal Market.

The market itself was grim, the roof leaking, entire aisles gone dark and scary. A block away, peep shows and girlie magazines were for sale. The first wave of Amish merchants (recruited from a market called Booth's Corner near the Delaware line) were loath to bring their children.

So if the market's anniversary festivities (free slices of shoofly pie!) marking their arrival were low-key last week - as befits the plainness of the people - there was a subtext; they'd lived to see a brighter day.

At least that was one subtext. And the market was, indeed, bustling again. The porn shop down the block was gone. The roof didn't leak.

But the old order of the original Amish had rearranged itself a bit, too. Where you could once choose from a jewel box of farm-fresh Esh eggs - goose and chicken, quail and duck - there's a stand now offering garishly colored Amish salads and an array of pickles: "No money anymore in eggs," a vendor nearby explained.

In fact, these days little fresh produce is being sold at all by the "Amish," which has become the catchall tag for the dozen merchant families of Amish and Mennonite background, and the more-secular strains of Pennsylvania Dutch who trek in from Lancaster County farm country.

So the special 30th-anniversary discounts tended to be for thick banana pudding ($3 a pound) and wet-bottom shoofly pie, chicken sandwiches and giant blueberry pancakes, turkey scrapple and chunks of fudge.

Aside from at Benuel Kauffman's, the stand beyond "the Amish corner" that was stacked high with peppers and bins of beets and snowy moons of cauliflower, there was precious little farm bounty to be seen.

And at Dienner's Bar-B-Q Chicken - which still has arguably the best, buttery, flame-broiled wings in town - there's no longer raw poultry for retail sale.

Nowadays, fresh and local meats and produce tend to congregate a few aisles over at the Fair Food Farmstand, where all manner of pricey, new-season apples and roly-poly cabbages, White Hamon sweet potatoes, and eggplant (many from Lancaster County farmers) were on sale last week.

So the roles haven't so much reversed as transformed in the Amish Quarter: The bottled milk and full-fat yogurt still come from Jersey cows on an Amish farm near Gap. The beef tongue loaf, liverwurst, and ring pudding are made in deep Pennsylvania Dutch country.

The sticky buns at Beiler's Bakery are put together before your eyes - the long ribbons of dough painted with soft butter, and sprinkled with brown sugar, dusted with cinnamon, rolled up, and cut.

And 30 years out, the straw-hatted (and prayer-capped) Amish - and often their children - have come to define the character of the market itself, transfusing it every Wednesday through Saturday.

In the corner, sales are robust; the stands thriving. But you will notice here and there generic signage more in keeping with a mall franchise or, say, a custard shop down the Shore.

And at A.J. Pickle Patch, a bored teenage counter girl shrugged when asked why a fluffy pistachio-colored dessert was named "Watergate Salad."

In the Reading market's Amish corner last week, some things were beginning to look disconcertingly like everything else.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|